If there's a triple crown for admiration, Anthony Clary might qualify. Not only did he serve his country in the Air Force with three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and not only is he a cancer survivor, but he also serves his community as mentor and coach to inner-city fourth graders in Norfolk, Virginia.
"I grew up in Norfolk, and I was young and wild and I thought I knew it all," Clary, 32, says. "I played high school basketball and tried out for a few colleges, but I only got offered partial scholarships, which meant I didn't have enough money to pay for the rest. That's why I went into the Air Force."
Clary worked in aircraft hydraulics on C-130 Hercules cargo planes. He spent time at Andrews Air Force Base in the United States, the Kandahar region in Afghanistan and pretty much everywhere the C-130 flew.
"Wherever the air craft went, so did the crew," he says.
After a series of military-anthrax vaccine shots, he started to feel ill and noticed his health declining. Not long after, he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and left the military to battle the disease. Fortunately, he was healthy enough to pull through and he says he is blessed to be cancer free.
While recuperating in his hometown of Norfolk, he ran into some of his mentors from the community centers in the projects where he used to live. At that point, he started coaching a couple of basketball teams to help out and to fill the void left of not being in the military. After his first season, he realized how much he loved the experience and he decided that he wanted to do more with the kids.
"I saw quickly that basketball was helping them a lot," he says. "So I grabbed a few of the fourth graders and put them on an AAU team that a friend of mine was running. It turned into something like a family unit, and we started to notice that kids' attitudes were changing, and that some of the uncontrollable kids were being helped by basketball. We also noticed that some of the kids' grades were going up."
Linking the young boys' love of hoops to academics became central to Clary's vision for his team, so he and his coaches require their players to have at least a 'B' average to participate.
"We have kids who were barely in school at one point last year who are now on the honor roll this year," he says proudly. "We have kids who were getting F's who are now getting A's and B's."
Most of the kids on Clary's team don't have a fatherly influence in their lives. He says that their dads aren't around and their moms are usually working two jobs or more to make ends meet. That's where he comes in.
"I was in that situation growing up, and I learned that you can get into some bad things," he says. "These kids spend much more time with us than their own fathers, so our goal is to be mentors to them. We help kids with homework, we visit schools to talk to their teachers ... anything these kids need. We become family. Their mothers know that they can drop their kids off with us and they'll be in good hands. We're the male voices in their lives and they listen to us because we can connect on their level. We grew up in the same neighborhood."
But somewhere along the line, the mission shifted from merely taking the kids off the street to getting them to maximize their basketball ability.
"Through the process, as makeshift as it has been, we noticed that these kids were actually gelling and becoming a good team," Clary says. "At that point I picked up my camera and started filming their journey. My passion now also includes capturing their story."
Clary has been following his team of fourth graders for about six months and they have a legitimate shot of making the AAU Nationals. During this time, he has started creating a documentary called Wildcat: Hard Work, No Excuses. The project is currently seeking crowd-funding support on indiegogo.com, with the money raised going toward help with videography, editing and ultimately marketing and distribution. (See trailer below.)
Of course, the story will really catch fire if the Wildcats win Nationals.
"There are two ways to make Nationals," Clary says. “They have to qualify or we can buy-in. We have low-income kids, so we can't buy in, but qualifying is no problem. We will qualify. We have a great core of basketball players that are athletic. They’re great ball handlers too. The three guards we use in our backcourt rotation are some of the most talented fourth graders you will find."
Teamwork, however, is what sets his kids apart from the other squads they're likely to face.
"These kids play for each other,” he says. "We practice twice a week, but since it's hard to find gym time, our fourth graders end up playing with sixth and seventh graders on a regular basis. They’re learning how to help themselves and how to help each other. They know how to listen and how to handle losing. If they can go to Nationals, it will be the first time these kids will have ever left the city. We need to show them that there’s a life out there besides the life in these city walls."
If the Wildcats can string together enough victories, they'll be playing in late June at one of the AAU tournaments in Kentucky, North Carolina or Florida.
And if Anthony Clary’s dream of a nationally released Wildcat documentary comes true, you’ll be able to watch his team’s journey on a screen in a theater near you.
-- Jon Finkel is the author of The Dadvantage: Stay In Shape On No Sleep With No Time And No Equipment. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_Finkel.