Kamal Yard, Philly Pride, and a basketball cult in Philly

Kamal Yard talking with one of his AAU players, Martin Luther King senior Will McNair, before a recent game.

The gym was hot. That gym at South Philadelphia High School, Kamal Yard knew, always was that way. Yard pointed to a side door, said if you need to cool off, go through that one over there.

Yard texted one of his old players for his Philly Pride AAU program, former Temple star Ramone Moore, now a pro in Australia: Your gym is still hot.

There aren’t too many Philly gyms where Yard doesn’t know which door to get through, or a player who once set the place ablaze. This man was born into what he calls a basketball cult. He has seen the sport lift entire families, or not live up to the promise. He knows exactly how to move product, putting sneakers on the feet of top basketball players around Philadelphia. He can make a phone call to get a ballplayer who might not be a star on the radar of a college coach in need. He remembers exactly who did that for him, one call, got him to a junior college in California, before he came home to Lincoln University.

“This is all I know,’’ Yard said. “I was a good student but I wasn’t an engineering major, none of that. I’m a basketball guy, through and through.”

That basketball cult? Yard could look out his back window at the Raymond Rosen projects in North Philadelphia, see the sport come alive. Out the back, there was the Gathers home across the way. As a little kid, Kamal got out to the corner early, to follow Hank Gathers and other older guys to school. Status, Yard said, came from that game they played over at The Big Field or at the rec center at 25th and Diamond, now named for Hank Gathers. Dawn Staley came home the other day? Yard remembers when Staley and Gathers came back from college, how it was like a holiday in the neighborhood. Gathers brought so much gear home it seemed as if the whole projects was walking around in Loyola Marymount shirts.

Yard also saw his own first cousin Cat go from being a late bloomer in the sport, cut in junior high, a tag-along guy to the rec center, suddenly putting his talent together late in high school, “like a magic wand was waved over him.’’ When Cuttino “Cat” Mobley made the NBA, Yard moved for a time to Houston to help him. He’d seen the talent before Mobley saw it himself.

Happy endings just aren’t always built into the sport, Yard knows. He’s a social worker by training, working now with family and youths transitioning out of foster care, reintegrating back into the family. He also talks regularly to one of the great players North Philly has produced, his guy now in jail awaiting trial on serious felony charges. Yes, there’s pain even thinking about Rysheed Jordan, whose hoop skills made him the Prince of North Philly. Yard also has experienced the murders of three players in his Philly Pride travel-team program over the years.

“Two-parent families were few and far between; usually, you’ve got a kid, Mom has gone somewhere, Dad is nowhere to be found, a 70-year-old grandmother is raising a 15-year-old,’’ Yard said of the archetypal player over the years for Philly Pride, the player the group never shied away from, the ones it actively sought out. “That’s usually our story, or something like that.”

Camera icon CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
The 57th annual Donofrio Classic, where top high school boys have played for decades, in a tiny gym, in a one-and-done tournament. Amauro Austin Sr. and Jr., 1, watching a game through a gym window on April 11.

As Yard stood in a corner of South Philadelphia High’s hot gym, two of his Philly Pride stars were on the court for Imhotep Charter. His own 8-year-old son had found some kindred spirits — as much as the security guards would let them, the little guys were shooting at a basket next to the bleachers.

A steady stream of college coaches stopped to talk to Yard. The college coaches would linger in that corner, and maybe circle back again. Temple coach Fran Dunphy and Villanova assistant Ashley Howard were there that night. La Salle assistant Donnie Carr walked in straight from a game. Most had known Yard for years. If a coach is newer around here, maybe he lingered a little longer.

“He’s a good coach,’’ Yard said of Drexel’s Zach Spiker, who had stopped by, then stopped back. “He just needs players.”

Connecticut assistant Dwayne Killings, who used to be on Temple’s staff, stopped for small talk, asked how Yard was doing.

“Trying to get ahead, stay ahead,’’ Yard told him.

‘A lot of time and energy’

A former low-major Division I head coach with long ties to Philadelphia asked about Yard, said he was always trying to get his lower-tier players into scholarship programs: “He put a lot of time and energy into that, and obviously there is nothing coming in return.”

For Yard himself, the call was made by Littel Vaughn to a juco in California. Yard was one of dozens sent on their way through phone calls by Vaughn, who is still making them while putting out his Philly hoops magazine, Checkball. Vaughn was in that gym just off South Broad, too.

“We all come from underneath Littel’s kind of spell,’’ Yard said. “There’s nobody like him, I’m telling you.”

Amauro Austin, standing next to Yard in that corner of the gym, is another director of Philly Pride. If there was a club of Philly hoop savants, Austin would be in the meeting, and not standing over in a corner. He believes that at a really young age he picked up a keen eye for what he was watching, all sports. (He means ALL sports. Austin used to watch John McEnroe face Ivan Lendl at Wimbledon when he was a kid. He watched Jack Nicklaus win golf tournaments.) Austin played basketball but by high school, he was into being a scout. From Hampton University, he interned at the Daily News, became one of Ted Silary’s chief proteges, keeping stats, and eventually, at Silary’s suggestion, starting his own scouting service.

Austin got to know Yard when Yard ran an AAU team funded by Mobley, who had proven himself in the NBA. That program was sponsored by Nike, Mobley’s sponsor. When a heart ailment caused Mobley to retire, the travel team took a break for a year. When Yard got it going again under the Under Armour umbrella, Austin said, “I was questioning the situation a little bit. They’re into football. I told Kamal, ‘I trust you, brother. But I’ve got to see how this goes.’ ”

Under Armour gets involved

After a successful run at the local apparel company And1, Chris Hightower took a job as a financial adviser. Yard said he had him over one time to pitch his products to a little group. “He just never forgot the gesture,’’ Yard said. Hightower soon returned to the apparel business, joining Under Armour, becoming a marketing manager in charge of grassroots basketball, helping the product take off. Hightower was from Philly, so there was little question Under Armour was going to make a move into the city.

“He called me in — would I be interested in kind of helping consult with Under Armour in terms of building the basketball part in Philly, putting the stakes in the ground,’’ said Yard, who signed on immediately.

“One of the first things I did was make sure we tied up all the high schools in the area,’’ Yard said, mentioning the deals he struck with Roman Catholic, Imhotep Charter and Chester to wear Under Armour sneakers. “Then we started promoting it in the inner city, going to gyms. I started hitting all the neighborhoods. You’ve got to make sure the product is on the best players. What I did was, wherever I knew the best players were, whether they had on Nikes in school, it didn’t matter. I just made sure they had Under Armour gear. Younger kids, too. We were trying to introduce the sneaker brand to young kids. I would give it out to everybody. ‘How many pair of sneaks you want — two, three, four? Try ’em out.’ ”

In the beginning, when Under Armour was still working on its product, Yard tried to use that to his advantage.

“The heel would pop out of ’em,’’ he said. “You know how you give a guy one pair of sneaks? I would give five or six. Because I know something is going to happen, a heel is going to come out, a toe is going to pop out. And then my whole thing was just keeping it on his feet — all of the kids, just keep it on. Throw that one to the side, put another one on.”

The product kept improving, he said, but the real turning point for the sneakers probably came from design innovations.

“Under Armour started playing around with the colors and the color scheme. The kids started really, really liking that,’’ Yard said. “It was really basic at first, but then they started playing with the schemes, like the neon red and hot pink and neon green. The kids loved it. Bright is in. That’s when I knew. And obviously Steph — Steph comes in.”

Carving out a niche

Steph Curry signed with Under Armour. In Philadelphia, Temple and La Salle signed on. Rysheed Jordan was wearing Under Armour in high school. Austin signed on years ago, and other Philly hoop veterans got involved. Maybe nobody was catching Nike in this business, but Under Armour was most certainly in the game.

There are different ways to look at Philadelphia’s youth basketball scene. Once dominated by the Sonny Hill League, it now flows in all sorts of directions, with strong travel programs in all three nationwide summer circuits sponsored by Nike, Adidas and Under Armour. Philly Pride, which has its roots in the Mobley-sponsored program that included players such as Kyle Lowry and Shane Clark, has had some of the city’s best. This year’s team is led by Seth Lundy from Roman Catholic and Imhotep’s Donta Scott and Jamil Riggins. Other local programs have had an equal amount of talent. Around here, there’s usually enough to go around.

Camera icon CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Kamal Yard (right), director of the AAU basketball club Philly Pride, greets Math, Civics and Sciences assistant coach Feliciano Coggins before a high school game at Martin Luther King.

What nobody knows for sure is how the business could change. Will the summer scene be business as usual? The FBI investigation that brought indictments of college coaches and the firing of Louisville coach Rick Pitino was a stunner. Still a stunner, Yard said.

“We all kind of had different reactions,’’ Austin said. “Kamal is like a worry wart at times. What’s going to happen? I’m like a wait-and-see guy. Let everything take shape, then move from there. … I didn’t get where the FBI would really be involved in something like this. That part is baffling to me. We’re blessed and happy that we’re not involved in any of this stuff. It’s interesting to see what’s next.”

They’ve been told by Under Armour honchos, Austin said, that the NCAA has said, “Proceed as usual.” A directors’ meeting in January will obviously include a bigger update, with next year’s travel season coming up. “Me, personally, I try not to jump to conclusions until I have all the facts,’’ Austin said.

Yard pretty much said the same thing. It’s not as if the FBI sees all the things he’s doing day-to-day.

“The easy part for me would have been to go get kids from the Main Line,’’ Yard said. “But go into the lion’s den and grab one of these kids, snatch it out of the lion’s mouth, dust ’em off, make it work. Have them spread their wings and develop as men.”

‘I just wish I could have made this work’

He wishes Rysheed Jordan had stayed at St. John’s for six more months. He thinks that story might have played out differently.

“We fixed so many, and it worked,’’ Yard said. “When I see what happened with Rysheed, I just wish I could have made this work. I put a lot of that pressure on myself.”

Jordan is scheduled to go on trial in March on charges related to his arrest in a 2016 robbery and shooting in North Philadelphia. Yard said he hasn’t seen the evidence, so he has jumped to no conclusions.

“It’s like having a son and it goes left,’’ Yard said. “It’s something that I think about every day. I’ll be honest with you — it’s been tough.”

His own experiences with Jordan, he said, were always great. One time, he remembers telling the 15-year-old to look him in the eye when he was talking to him. From that day, no issues.

“I don’t know the Rysheed Jordan who may or may not have committed a crime,’’ Austin said. “I don’t know that Rysheed Jordan.”

Yard also can tell you about “the euphoria” of seeing a ballplayer he helped get to college, packing his things up to go where nobody in the family had been — “They have no vision of it; they don’t have a picture of it.” The outside world that loves to roll its eyes at the AAU world, he said, doesn’t see that picture, either, or the late-night phone calls from a ballplayer with a medical issue who needs help that night,, the year-round monitoring, the calls from college players who need a pickup when they’re questioning playing time. Yes, Yard makes sure the kids all have enough sneakers. That’s not why he was in a hot gym on a cold December night.

“You’ve got to push these kids,’’ Yard said, “or die trying.”