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Court Crusade

By BROOKE J. WOOD

brooke@www.southwesttimes.com

Five years after Dr. Dick Gehrz started a basketball program in a Pulaski church gymnasium, a competitive team is winning tournaments and receiving recognition from a U.S. senator.

In a Jan. 23 letter, Sen. Mark Warner congratulated Gehrz and the Crusaders for 2016 wins in both the Cougar Classic and Spectrum Classic tournaments.

Warner wrote: “These victories are indicative of your tenacity and never-ending will to succeed, no matter the circumstances. Throughout 2016, you displayed authentic athletic abilities and a dedication to improving your skills. As athletes, you may work longer and harder than others around you, but those are traits you will use for the rest of your life.”

“It’s really special that a senator would take the time to acknowledge this program,” Gehrz says.

Gehrz was professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota until 23 years ago when he opened a private practice in Pulaski County.

“Almost all of these guys have been my patients since they were newborns. I’ve known them their whole lives, but I really got to know them when we started this basketball program five years ago,” he explains during a recent Wednesday practice, as he points his hand around the gym where loud, boisterous young men dribble a ball up and down the court.

Warner’s letter gives a lot of credit to their coach, too: “I commend Gehrz for his work to encourage you and give you the confidence you need to succeed on the court and in life.”

The program began with half a dozen kids using a portable basketball goal in the parking lot outside Memorial Baptist Church on Peppers Ferry Road in Pulaski.

“Within 10 or 15 minutes of play, the neighborhood kids would join us,” Gehrz explains.

Gehrz and his wife, Elaine, who are both members of the church, asked if they could install backboards in the church’s gymnasium. “We put up the glass backboards, stenciled in the court and started a neighborhood youth basketball program that is open to anyone in the neighborhood or anyone in the Pulaski area.”

Gehrz saw it as an outreach ministry from the beginning.

“It’s a tough neighborhood. A lot of them come from difficult family backgrounds. It’s a Christ-centered program. So, we emphasize the principals of sportsmanship, friendship, relationship. That’s kind of the first, most important thing.”

Manny Cook, an 18-year-old senior at Pulaski County High School, claims the program “kept me out of trouble.”

It’s clear the program has changed the lives of many of the participants, including 15-year-old Zach Long, one of those who started out playing in the church parking lot when he was 10 years old.

He says the program taught him to not give up, to follow his dreams wherever they might lead. “It was always a dream of mine to become a big basketball player in the NBA. If that doesn’t work out, I want to become a chef.”

From the program’s beginning, Gehrz has coached the young basketball players at the church gym Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings. Today, they average 30 to 40 participants for two hours of play on Saturday and 25 on Wednesday.

He says a total of 316 kids have gone through the program.

“It’s extended to kids from way across the railroad track. Some kids walk for miles to be here. A lot of kids on the high school team have played together since they were little, when they played basketball in their driveways. Then they came here where we coach them as they play hour after hour of full-court basketball,” Gehrz says.

Program participants are currently comprised of sophomores and seniors from Pulaski County High School and young adults who kept meeting at the gym to play even after graduation. The high school players make up the team that competed for the first time last year, and won in both tournaments they entered.

“They’re all good basketball players,” Gehrz explains. “They know how to play and they’ve played together for five years. They know how to pass, they know how to shoot. They just know how to play as a team. They’re all good ballplayers, but as a team they’re great.”

“The last two tournaments we played, we just played spectacularly. We improved over the years,” Long says.

Gehrz says Long “is a really hard worker and plays to the best of his ability, always. He’s not necessarily the best basketball player, but he’s the best team player in the entire program.”

“About five years ago, I didn’t know anyone up here, but I really got to know them by playing here. It’s a lot of fun going to the tournaments,” says Carley Higgins, a 16-year-old junior at PCHS.

Two of the high school players also play basketball at PCHS. Logan Robertson, 16, plays on the high school varsity team, but cut his teeth on the program, where he’s played since its inception. He says it gave him something to do on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

A team made up of the program’s young adult players is forming to play competitively in their first tournament this April, during a memorial event for victims of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting.

Dr. Ben Davidson, director of the emergency room at LewisGale Hospital Pulaski, joined the program as co-coach after he heard about it through his wife, a delivery nurse who once worked in Gehrz’s office.

“They’re all playing extremely competitively and at a really high level,” Davidson says of the team.

He adds, “You know, the recognition [Gehrz] deserves transcends basketball.”

Certainly, the players seem to affectionately gravitate to Gehrz to ask questions, cajole, tease and, sometimes, to give a bro hug.

“I’m on a first-name basis with everyone of these kids, and they’re on a first-name basis with me,” Gehrz says. “The conversations you have when you’re one on one are really pretty incredible. It’s hard to express how fortunate I feel to have the opportunity to get to really know all of these kids. They’re friends.”

Davidson agrees and adds, “These kids have a lot of fun, and it’s really good to be working with them. Many of them have faced a lot of adversities and challenges, and it really means a lot to see them grow.”

For both men, the program is about much more than basketball. It’s turned into a crusade. Gehrz says that one of their main goals is to prepare them for the next stage of their lives.

Gehrz and the church’s pastor, Mike Jones, formed a group (Memorial Baptist Church Young Adult Skills Task Force) with community leaders to provide various opportunities for additional vocational and technical education, and technical training. It has also focused on teaching them how to be good parents and spouses.

Gehrz adds, “The members of the church, Ben and I, have encouraged these students to stay in school, get their diploma. Every one of these kids has ultimately graduated and got their diploma. Of the ones who were already out of high school, we’ve gotten them to go back and get their GED.”

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