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Holly MacKenzie

Lay-Up Youth Basketball is Making Basketball More Accessible and Removing Barriers

Where others see problems, Chris Penrose sees possibilities.

In 2019, after years of pairing his journalism and communications background with youth work in the community, Penrose started a journey to executive director role at Lay-Up, a charity providing cost-free programs centered around basketball to Toronto youth.

“We believe that basketball can be the most accessible sport,” Penrose said. “There’s a mythology around the game that all you need is a ball and a rim to play, but it’s just not true. We are really driven to work on the future of access to basketball. We want the sport to be as accessible as the potential of the game is.”

Lay-Up eliminates the barriers that could prevent youth from getting involved with the sport by creating a gym for all skill levels, from the kid who has never picked up a basketball to the former player who is now working on transitioning to the coaching or officiating side of things. 

“Regardless of where you’re coming from in the game, our gym is for you,” Penrose said. “You’re going to walk in, and you’re going to find coaches that are greeting you. You’re going to find that you’re welcomed in the space, and you’re going to have the opportunity to go through a games-based approach. Through having fun, through playing, through connecting. You’re going to learn the game.”

The youth served by Lay-Up leave the gym gaining more than just basketball knowledge, though. When Penrose came aboard four years ago, the program shifted its description from serving youth 6-14 to serving youth 6-29. That increase in age allows the program to be there, assisting the passage to young adulthood by providing coaching and leadership opportunities.

“We want to develop coaches from the community,” Penrose said. “When you look at who puts themselves forward for coaching roles, it's heavily men. White men are overly represented as well in that space, so there’s a very intentional outreach saying, Okay, we want to have coaches that are reflective of the participants in the program; we want coaches that are based in the communities where the programs are happening, and we want people who might not have thought of themselves as coaching or being coaching material to have that experience.”

Lay-Up also removes barriers for those seeking coaching and officiating certifications by paying coaches to work with Lay-Up while also paying them while they’re taking part in training and certification.

“[Coaching] provides transferable skills, whether or not you go anywhere in coaching,” Penrose said. “There’s not a career path you can name that does not benefit from the transferable skills you develop as a coach.”

After a four-year playing career at the University at Buffalo, representing Canada’s national team, and playing overseas, Hamilton native Hanna Hall returned home ready to give back to the game. She soon found her way to Lay-Up, where she serves as Manager of Partnerships. Hall found the support needed to shift to her post-playing basketball career at Lay-Up.

“The intentionality behind every position at Lay-Up [makes the difference],” Hall said. “You don’t think these opportunities exist. We really are shifting that culture of who has these opportunities to work.”

“Our coaches, Prince [Dankyi], for example, you wouldn’t know his story if you just heard he was a Head Coach. He started as a volunteer at Lay-Up before Chris came and he has seen the whole progression of it. He went through his journey of playing and shifted and transitioned because he saw an opportunity at Lay-Up to be able to use his knowledge, as well as his passion for community, to be able to do that every day.” 

“Our Head Coach John [Gerongco] is from the Jane and Finch community and now is one of our key members of our leadership team,” Hall continued. “Those are the really cool stories that make Lay-Up different. Everything is really intentional and meaningful and aligns with why we do what we do.”

“Providing an avenue to remain in the game is one of the coolest parts of being in leadership at Lay-Up.”

“One of the things I actually think about a lot, whether it's Hanna or [Director of Basketball Operations] Micaella Riche, who both played the game at a high level, there isn't that infrastructure for them to always do a lot more in the game. To be able to bring what their experiences have been in the game to the community and bring it to youth while also driving some of the innovations that we’ve been able to do brings so much credibility to the work that we’re doing.”

“Prince played high school ball and then played in college. He loves the game and that’s as far as it was going to go for him onthe playing side, but he has such a big heart, and cares about kids development and is so good at passing on his knowledge and love of the game, now he gets to work as a coach and be part of the leadership team,” Penrose said. “[We are] looking at people who have such different journeys in basketball, but very special journeys in basketball, being able to find another leg of the journey in Lay-Up.”

Four years after the pandemic shut down gyms all across Canada, Lay-up continues to find ways to bring more than solely playing basketball into the gym through their Culture of Basketball Programming. As one example starting last spring, the program curated a list of over 100 basketball-related books for all ages and reading levels. Through a number of key partnerships, they were able to purchase the books so that they were able to give participants their chosen reads, Lay-Up also began providing journals and having a journaling session pre and post huddle. The journals provided an intro to goal setting and self-expression. 

As Penrose and the team at Lay-Up continue to push for more access and opportunities for youth through the game, there is an otherwise routine summer day that he often references.

“I remember one time Micaella and I were driving to pick up stuff from Canadian Tire [a few years ago],” he said. “It was a bunch of equipment for a summer program. I pulled over beside this condo that was being built and it's just a big deep hole in the ground. I was like, ‘his is like what we're doing here. We're digging a foundation,’ And it was very frustrating for us because it's like you want to move forward; it's in the analogy of building a building. You want to go up. You are like, ‘We want this high condo, okay, well let's start going up.’ But the higher you're going to build, the deeper the hole you're digging in the ground first. So, we spent a lot of time in the mud, digging that foundation, building the coach guide, building that evidence base, building all these pieces. Ironically, this past summer, Micaella was with John and they ended up at that same Canadian Tire picking up equipment. So, they came called me on FaceTimeand they're like, ‘Yo, look at the tower, it’s up, like, it's out of the hole. It was a few stories high.”

Lay-Up is currently working in 10 neighbourhoods and serving over a thousand unique participants across the city with cost-free programming on and off the court. Penrose describes the vision of the Lay-Up team as aspirational: to see a future where every child who is curious about the game has access to playing – or coaching, covering or officiating – it.

“A big part of what we’re thinking about and working towards is an impact on the broader landscape,” he said. “It’s not just about Lay-Up being able to get gym space for our programs. It’s about cost-free gyms for cost-free programs. It's not about kids who sign up for Lay-Up being able to try basketball and to learn the game. It's about every kid in Toronto who wants to play basketball having access without cost or distance being a barrier.”