By Christina Flores-Chan

The constant boom boom boom of check-emblazoned basketballs that are bouncing off the floor like a hundred heartbeats echoing through the gym. The thundering bass of Drake’s “Nonstop” that blasts through the speakers and ricochets off the walls, straight from the kids’ collaborative warm-up playlist. The custom kicks that squeak and skid across the court and the hollering cheers of encouragement and support from one side of the gym to the other. It’s basketball, but it’s more than basketball. It’s a culture. It’s a community.

If you ask the Lay-Up team what it is that makes their program so distinguishable, they’ll describe what it’s like to be in the gym during a session. 

If you ask the kids attending the sessions? The defining factor is the Lay-Up team.

Deidre Beaumont, the organization’s head basketball coach, keeps a neatly folded sticky note from a summer program participant stashed somewhere in her office drawer.

“Coach Deidre, you are the best coach. I love you and thank you,” is scrawled on the yellow paper square in seven-year-old kid handwriting.

“Our coaches know every single kid by name, their whole background and story,” Dan Hula, Lay-Up’s executive director, says. “They’re working beyond the sport to help them develop into better people, not just basketball players.”

Lay-Up is a cost-free youth sports program that provides basketball skill development, culture, and character-building programming to Toronto’s Neighbourhood Improvement Areas. It offers a variety of workshops, from ball handling drills to photography classes. Using government-approved systems like Positive Youth Development and Long-term Athlete Development, Lay-Up’s aim is to address the systemic imbalances within the city and provide equitable opportunities to marginalized communities. 

At the base of the organization is a diverse team of young, passionate individuals, each with their own expertise to bring to the table and one shared quality that drives them forward: a love for the sport and their community.

“There’s a saying that love never comes back void,” Chris Penrose, Lay-Up’s programming director, says, scrolling through photos and videos of Lay-Up participants. He stops at a photo of a smiling, gap-toothed child holding a crayon-on-canvas illustration of the Toronto Raptors logo. 

Then, as he clicks on a clip of a group of slightly older kids mock-interviewing one another at the program’s resume-building workshop, he adds, “Anytime you invest resources in people it’s gonna yield fruit, and we’re investing in our youth.”

“Anytime you invest resources in people it’s gonna yield fruit, and we’re investing in our youth.”

Chris Penrose, programming director at Lay-Up

The Lay-Up team is determined to ensure their investments grow to fruition, whether it be in person or online from the comfort of participants’ living rooms. 

With the past year’s COVID-19 restrictions, Lay-Up has shifted its focus from on-court basketball to at-home Zoom classes (with an optional hybrid program) in an effort to keep kids busy, happy, and healthy throughout the pandemic. 

Micaella Riche, the organization’s basketball operations manager, recalls the first Zoom meeting staff held last March. It was just after the NBA had postponed its season. Society was shutting down left and right, and Lay-Up’s future was up in the air.

“When lockdowns happened, we were trying to figure out what to do for our summer programming and Chris suggested doing a virtual basketball program,” Riche says.

“I remember everyone being like…‘Okay, let me hear him out…’” she adds, before letting out a laugh. “We all thought the idea was so far-fetched, but we began planning right away.”

Thinking back to that meeting, Penrose says most of the team was hopeful that programming would return back to “normal” pretty quickly. 

“Yeah, I didn’t have that optimism,” he says. “The funny thing though, is that I believed regardless of the situation, we could do something great.”

So they got to work to prepare for the summer. 

“We spent so many hours early on being like, is this even possible? Are we crazy? But once we started, we were like, ‘Nope, we will handle this,’” Hula says. “The demand was there for something, and we found a way to make it happen. It was such a unifying moment for our group.”

Hula remembers spending April through June sitting in a warehouse basement with his colleagues, putting together hundreds of play-at-home kits. The kits consisted of sports staples such as a mini basketball, net, and pump, as well as paint sets and other artistic materials for the new culture-of-basketball programming that the organization had in store.

By July, they had launched their first ever virtual basketball program. They had an 80 per cent retention rate with existing participants and were serving over 400 youth across the city.

Compilation of interview footage with the Lay-Up team (Christina Flores-Chan/T•)

“Lay-Up brings this idea of the culture of basketball to the kids, how the sport is connected to fashion, tech, entrepreneurship, social justice, and music. All of these things are very organically a part of the culture of basketball,” Penrose says. 

With a post-secondary education in cultural studies and experience working in creative industries, the programming director helped to incorporate a creative aspect into the athletic-based curriculum, including activities such as beatboxing sessions, sneaker design workshops, breakdance classes, and more.

Lay-Up participants and siblings Madelaine Salvador, 7, and Joshua Kalalang, 11, say they love the new program. Kalalang’s favourite activities are the basketball drills and the “word-of-the-day” lessons, while his sister enjoys the paint sessions.

Lay-Up participants Madelaine Salvador (left in both photos) and Joshua Kalalang (right in both photos) holding up their basketballs and paintings from the program sessions (Christina Flores-Chan/T•)

Landing partnerships and sponsorships with brands such as Nike, MLSE Foundation, Raptors 905 and TheScore in addition to government funding, Lay-Up continues to grow exponentially within both the community and the media. 

Still, the team acknowledges that it’s the passion and love for community and each other that continues to fuel the program. 

Sometimes, Penrose brings himself back to his first day at Lay-Up as a reminder.

Behind the noise of it all, before the loudness of the cheers echoing through the gym and the flash of media cameras up in his face, he recalls walking into the 15-storey brick complex on the corner of Carlton and Jarvis for the first time. 

He can almost hear the buzz of the elevator and the sound of his sneakers on the cold marble floor as he navigates through a maze of cubicles into the company’s headquarters. 

He knows he’s reached the office by the crooked basketball posters and photos of kids wearing matching pinnies and ear-to-ear grins sticky tacked to the walls.

Several coworkers greet him with warm welcomes and pats on the back. The team is small and the facility is modest, but the energy is present.

In the centre of the room, a single celebratory balloon floats. 

On a whiteboard clinging for dear life on the wall, in timid but tidy handwriting: “Welcome, Chris! We’re so happy to have you here.”

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