By Gustavo Cardoso
January and February were busy months for São Paulo basketball programs as the clubs tried to fill their U12 through U17 rosters before the Paulista Junior Leagues start. Kids did what they could to attend as many “peneiras” as possible, but at the end there were not that many opportunities, and as usual, some talented kids might not be playing this season.
It’s a Tuesday afternoon in late January when I arrive at Sociedade Esportiva Palmeiras’ clubhouse to talk to Coach Vinicius Cappucci. The traditional São Paulo club, founded by the local Italian community back in the days, breathes football, while other sports keep a symbiotic relationship with it. As Fernando Galuppo, historian, and Palmeiras public relation says “if football goes well, the club goes well, if football is in crisis…”
Basketball had its glorious days at Palmeiras back in the 70’s, but in the 90’s its Junior squads still brought up athletes such as Phoenix Suns’ guard, Leandrinho Barbosa. Leandrinho started at Continental (a junior league power house in the Osasco region currently shut down), but Palmeiras was his first club as a “federado” (an athlete registered by the local federation).
Back then the club had an adult squad (it doesn’t have one any longer), which kept its junior ranks strong; however, the “Peneiras” still attract many kids. Coach Cappucci, in charge of the U12, and U13 rosters this season, is aware of that as he points to two kids, “See those kids? Their mom drove them from Peruíbe (80 km away from SP) just for the try-out. She is considering moving to the city in case they are in.”
A few days later at São Paulo FC, another “Peneira” has kids coming from all around the city. Coach Tácito Filho looks at the kids run up and down the court in silence. His many years of experience have never given him the strength to dismiss young athletes with a peace of mind. “It is always hard to dismiss a kid, and tell them not to stop dreaming”, says a visually moved Tácito. That same afternoon he had to dismiss almost 10 kids keeping just two of them.
One of the kids, Augusto, hailed all the way from Itapevi, after taking the train and two buses to arrive at São Paulo FC’s clubhouse in Morumbi. Alexandre, the second kid to make the team, never played in a club, and also had a long ride from Diadema that afternoon.
“I started playing on the street. One of my neighbors nailed a backboard to a wall on my street, and I was into it”, says Alexandre. “Every night, when I go to bed I think of myself playing in the National Team”, he concludes, happy to have made it.
That is the reality of Brazilian youth leagues. The kids who make the effort of crossing town on their own are the ones that will get a chance to play. Some of them have never played an official game, and in Alexandre’s case, if it wasn’t for his neighbor, would he be at São Paulo FC that afternoon?
While there are several clubs still working to maintain a few junior rosters, the majority of the kids in metropolitan areas like São Paulo have no contact with the sport. Brazilian hoops are “hostages” of the private club’s structures, and if clubs don’t invest in the sport, our future gets even more uncertain.
Nelson Cortez, a coach at Clube Espéria and CA Ypiranga, is clear when he states that the public school system should be the main source of development for the sport. “It’s in the under privileged suburbs that we have a greater number of kids, and where our greatest potential rests”, affirms Cortez. He has two kids coming from Poá, a city in the outskirts of São Paulo, in his U14 Ypiranga roster. “These kids are coming from Poá because there is no place for them to play over there. We are lucky there is a Physical Education teacher that works with the sport at the local school, and he told us about them,” concludes Cortez.
Coach André Germano, from Círculo Militar, shares the same opinion with Cortez, and believes that basketball has to push its limits to suburban areas. Germano, along with a few other coaches, intends to create a social project that will develop the game in under privileged areas, but as we Brazilians know very well, projects of this magnitude need sponsorship, and might not become sustainable in case neither public nor private investment is made in the long run.
And this is it. Our basketball has great private facilities, hard working professionals, potential athletes, but we can’t leave the full responsibility to the clubs. As institutions clubs have their own objectives, and must comply with their member’s needs and requirements.
Our sport must excel in the public areas, and launch sustainable “branch projects” in areas such as Capão Redondo, Campo Limpo, Cariacica, Cidade de Deus, Peixinhos, Jaboatão dos Guararapes, Morro da Cruz, Sarandi, Restinga, and all areas with large population and lack of public services. When that happens the game will gain more visibility, and more clubs will engage in sustainable projects.