Pay it forward
They call it The Big Easy, but in New Orleans, life can be tough.
In August 2005, the city of life, joy and activity was desolated by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A storm featuring winds up to 175mph battered New Orleans, tearing up everything in its path. Homes were left ruined, lives taken and families devastated. No matter how tough it got, positivity prevailed among the people of the city. Through adversity came a sense of community. Those with little still found something to give.
“I lost nothing, a roof and a fence,” said one local. “My friends and family weren't so lucky. Some people stayed in their homes and two weeks later they were being identified by their dental records. I had 25-30 people sleeping in my three-bedroom home for weeks after Katrina. If you have it in you, it's your duty to help.”
This is a story of giving it all up, and paying it forward.
A humble start
Sky Hyacinthe came from meagre beginnings. He grew up between The Bronx in New York and Stamford in Connecticut, and for a time his family lived in two rooms in a drugs house. Three brothers, a mother and a father squeezed into one bedroom and a kitchen. “My mother and father worked three or four odd-end jobs just to be able to put food on the table”, he says. “It showed me a lot of grit, hard work and gave me a no-excuses mentality.”
This mentality took him in the direction of the basketball court.
“Basketball was part of life,” says Sky. His older cousins played, and despite “not being very good”, Sky tried his best to match them on the court. With effort came enjoyment and he was soon hooked on the sport.
During summer months, Sky would train for up to eight hours each day. Aged 13, he would run two miles to the YMCA, get on the court and work on specific skills such as shooting or ball handling, before playing against kids who were older, bigger and stronger than he was. After running home for dinner, Sky would head to the park to play against grown men more than twice his age. “That’s when it hit home to me that I could probably do this. I just never looked back from there,” he recalls.
Sky had the focus and determination to fulfil his potential in the sport, but he lacked the support of his family. They had no belief that the effort he put in on a daily basis was really worth it. “My family weren’t so supportive of what I was doing,” he says. “They’re hardworking people and they were focused on getting good grades and getting a good job. They didn’t understand how sport could make a difference in your life.”
Sky focused on his sport and education and his hard work and determination resulted in achieving a scholarship to the University of Connecticut, one of the leading basketball universities in the United States. Working hard on the court, he pushed himself academically and graduated with a degree in Marketing
Stop the car
During a visit to his good friend and college teammate Emeka Okafor, who was playing for the New Orleans Hornets at the time, Sky decided to drive to the Ninth Ward, an area heavily impacted by Hurricane Katrina. “I didn’t go to help,” he says. “I went to see how the rebuilding process was going.”
He saw derelict homes, debris and barren streets. Stopping the car, the only noise he heard was the bouncing of basketballs. “Being who I am, I immediately headed towards the basketball court,” says Sky. There he met talented youngsters working on their passing and shooting skills, with smiles on their faces. Sky recognised that they needed support, off the court as well as on it. He returned the next day, the day after that and every other day for the next two weeks to offer coaching and assistance, becoming a beacon of hope for the kids on the court.
“A few days into my visits to the Ninth Ward, one child looked me in the eye and said: ‘no one cares about me and no one loves me.’” At that moment, Sky decided to drop everything and pay it forward. Despite the offer of an exciting career opportunity with the NBA in Atlanta, he cancelled all plans, focused on the next generation and concentrated on what mattered most in his mind. From his own pocket, he started a small-scale project, using basketball to teach young people about life, to help them in school and to assist them on the court.
“In a city like New Orleans, harm is only a corner away,” says Sky. “You make the wrong turn at the wrong time on the wrong day, and it could cost you your life. I try not to think of those negatives and focus on knowing that us being here is a vital part of their [the young people’s] lives.”
Duty to help
Sky saw potential in the young people he worked with. In the early days, he taught them passing skills and put them through dribbling and shooting drills. At the same time, he instilled lessons for life in the youngsters - time management, respect, manners.
Today, three of those youngsters he met are now in college, one recently graduating with a degree in Marketing. “To me, that means I made the right choice to stop the car,” says Sky. “Now I can say that at least one life was ultimately changed. When he graduated, I was the first person that he and his mum reached out to and I couldn’t be happier for him.”
For two years, Sky worked with the youngsters in the Ninth Ward, before relocating to the programme’s current base in St Stephen’s Elementary School. ELEVATE New Orleans has grown and now offers young people the chance to develop their academic skills through tutors from a local university, as well as honing their basketball skills with the help of Sky and his dedicated team of coaches. As long as the youngsters are working towards a 3.0 Grade Point Average (GPA), they can take to the court and work on their basketball skills.
More than a sports hall
On first inspection, the sports hall at St Stephen’s Elementary School looks similar to many high school sports halls across the United States. Young players arrive in their blue training kit and start to work on their drills. One girl is shooting free throws, one after another, scoring every time.
“We have talent here,” says Sky, “but the focus really is on the bigger picture; basketball, academics and life.” As the session goes on, players aged between 12 and 17 are put through their paces, hanging on every word of their coaches. You get a sense from the focus and concentration of the young players that this is more than just a sports hall.
On day one with the programme, before a ball is thrown, the young people are given a sheet of paper to document their goals for the year, both academic and athletic. Before every session, players remind themselves of their goals and focus on what they are working towards.
The young players arrive straight from school. A hot meal is provided, after which the players have the chance to work on their academics, completing homework or prepare for upcoming tests. Expert tutoring is available, giving the players the best possible chance of advancing their academics.
So far, ELEVATE has sent 16 out of 16 student athletes to college on scholarships. Despite having basketball on his brain for most hours of each day, sport isn’t mentioned when Sky is questioned on the success of the programme.
“Success for me on the basketball court can be fleeting because basketball isn’t promised,” he says. “What is promised is an opportunity to do well for yourself and your family and if you’re willing to take care of what you need to do on the academic side and also as an individual, you can ultimately fulfil that promise. As you can see on the back of our shirts, our focus is developing winners for life. We’re working to develop these kids into productive members of society.”
Support from an NBA star
Emeka Okafor, Sky’s teammate at the University of Connecticut, went on to big things after his college career. In 2004, he was selected second in the overall NBA draft and joined the Charlotte Bobcats. In 2005, he was named NBA Rookie of the Year, an accolade picked up by LeBron James the previous year.
During his time with the New Orleans Pelicans, Emeka helped fund the start-up of Elevate and continues to donate to the programme today. Currently a free agent looking to make a comeback in the NBA, Emeka has played among some of the greatest basketball players of all time, but he believes people like Sky should receive the highest praise in sport.
“I definitely think people like Sky are the heroes of sport. He’s having a positive impact on young people, you can’t get much better than that,” said Emeka. “He’s selfless; he will literally give the shirt off his back. He is passionate about helping and he operates on goodwill. He likes having a positive influence and if he can help someone get somewhere, that’s the only thing he needs.”
ELEVATE is encouraging youngsters from the most challenging neighbourhoods of New Orleans to be the best they can be. Sky and his team dedicate their time for the betterment of the youth and when questioned on his main message to youngsters who join the programme, Sky draws upon his own personal experience.
“Where you start in life doesn’t always signify where you’re going to end in life. So just work hard, persevere and everything will be alright.”