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Hamm Camp: An On-court Investment Continues to Pay Off
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By: Lauren M. Davis
Staff Writer
July 7th, 2015
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On a Thursday morning in late July, loud voices echo throughout Harrisburg High School’s Kimber Gymnasium. It’s not basketball season, but over 130 teens, both male and female, are in line for warm ups. Long and short arms are stretched towards the floor. Everyone counts aloud, but some of these players lack conviction. Suddenly a 6-foot-7-inch coach stops the count, unsatisfied, and tells them all to begin again. The young athletes get louder. They stretch a little further, and their faces are a bit more serious now. It’s almost game time and teams are gearing up for this year’s final events: the varsity and junior varsity championships. These won’t be your average basketball games. Four teams will compete for an esteemed title: The 2014 Hamm Camp Champions.

Hamm Camp, a non-profit basketball and life skills camp, established in 2009, is unlike any of its kind. Each year for two weeks, it welcomes almost 300 campers: 6-12-year-olds during its first week and 13-17-year-olds during its second week. Lawrence Hamm Jr., founder and CEO of the camp, and the 6-foot-7-inch coach, began with one main thought in mind. “When I was younger, there were days when I had money. There were days when I didn’t,” he says. “I didn’t want a child’s financial situation to restrict them from participating.” Hamm Camp has always been and will remain completely free for all who attend. For Hamm, a former professional basketball player and Harrisburg High School grad, this is a wholehearted effort to offer something extraordinary to his own community. Each year Hamm not only invites qualified coaches, but also a slew of guest speakers ranging from mayors, lawyers, to professional football and basketball players.

Donald Ross, Hamm’s former Harrisburg High School coach, who now stands on the sidelines watching the games unfold, witnessed the inception of the camp. “[Hamm] understood that he had to give back and that it was more than just about basketball,” Ross says. “It was about inspiring kids, trying to teach kids discipline, trying to let them understand the importance of academics and how they could use basketball or any other endeavor… to make their lives better.” What role does the sport play? Through basketball players develop a lifelong skill set of teamwork, work ethic and unselfishness, Ross says. “And let’s not forget; it’s fun.”

To Diamond Bragg, a 14-year-old Hamm Camp veteran, this sport is extremely important. “Basketball is basically my life,” she says. “Coming to a camp like this, it really helps improve my game and hopefully it will help take me somewhere in life.” The camp has become a tradition, she says. To Diamond’s father Ben Bragg, it’s a great opportunity to get his girls out of the house. “They definitely love working out,” he says. “Every year they look forward to coming here, and meeting new friends and playing that game of basketball.” The camp is important to the kids in Harrisburg, he says. “It gives them somewhere to go and keeps them out of trouble.”

Tahkiah Burrs, a coach now ready to prep her junior varsity team for their championship game, says basketball is an outlet for many young people. “It’s just something to get them away,” she says. “A couple of kids who came up to me didn’t have any skills, had never played basketball before. They’re here. They’re meeting new people. They’re getting better.” Burrs, 20, who started as a camper 5 years ago, says Hamm Camp has become like family. “I think they feel a part of something,” she says of the kids who come each year. “I feel like they know they are a part of that family.”

Campers huddle in preparation to make their final plays in the 2014 Hamm Camp playoff games.
Lawrence Hamm Jr., founder and CEO of Hamm Camp, leads morning stretches and drills before the final games of 2014.

Hamm, who spends most of this day moving around the gymnasium talking with campers individually, says basketball is simply the bait to reel in kids from the community. “Everybody wants to make it to the NBA. Everyone wants to be a superstar. A lot of them will not ever play basketball in high school, college or anywhere pro, but it’s something that draws their interest,” he says. “We show them hey look basketball’s cool, and we took care of that. But you played basketball for 20 minutes. For the next 40 minutes, I’m going to talk to you about communication and first impressions.” In that time Hamm teaches the importance of proper attire, looking people in the eye and shaking hands appropriately. Each day there is an on- and off-court theme, he says. The campers not only master dribbling and defense, but also learn about college choices and hear from professionals in prominent career fields.

What’s perhaps the most famous life skill taught at Hamm Camp to date? “[Hamm] taught us how to tie a tie,” says 15-year-old Tahj Robinson. “When I go to church now I know how to tie a tie. I don’t have to wear a button-up.” Robinson, who has been attending the camp for 4 years now, says he’s learned other valuable life lessons like good sportsmanship and respect. His best memory to date though was winning MVP of Hamm Camp, he says. “I felt really good about that. It was only my first year.”

No camper ever goes home empty handed, says vice president of the camp, Aleta Alsop. Everyone at least receives a congratulatory certificate of completion. The award ceremony is especially dear to her, Alsop says. “Some children may never get an award for playing the sport. But this camp is more than basketball.” Beside the trophies for most valuable player and contest certificates, there is an honor specifically for the camper that’s most improved. “This award is for overall perseverance, stamina, working as a team, and accepting and mastering the skills that are taught,” Alsop says. “Each year the sparkle in the eye of a camper that receives most improved is priceless, and the enthusiasm through the applause of the other campers lets us know that we have instilled in them the true meaning of teamwork and support of each other.”

After the games are over, this year’s champions are crowned and trophies are handed out, one final award remains. Hamm now stands before his campers and tells its story. “My father really believed in education,” he tells them. “He always gave back to universities and various schools. He mentored a great many people.” The Lawrence M. Hamm Sr. Academic Achievement Award, he says, upholds education and citizenship in memory of his father who died of cancer in 2010. Hamm hopes that by talking about his father, who shared his vision for the camp and was there at its start, the campers understand the seriousness of this honor. Each recipient, he says, holds something that’s close to his heart. “It’s very personal to me,” Hamm says. “It gives me the opportunity to allow my dad’s ideas and interests to continue to live on.”

The first recipient of the Lawrence M. Hamm Sr. Award, 18-year-old Quencey Hickerson, now stands on the sidelines as a coach. Receiving such an award, she says, has kept her focused. Hickerson, who received a full academic scholarship to Howard University, says there’s often a misconception about working hard in school. “I think that by being here and being a counselor and showing that I’m good in basketball and good in school … [I’m] letting them know it’s ok to be smart. It’s good to be. It’s excellent.”

The day draws to a close and Hamm finally leaves a now quiet gym. He walks beneath a picture, hanging just above the doorway, of himself and his high school team from over 10 years ago. It reads: Pennsylvania AAAA High School State Champions. “My goal is to make a difference in the lives of each camper, but we know each one may not take all I have presented into their hearts and minds.” he says. “So I will return next year to continue to help that kid understand how they can be great and be a positive person in today’s society.” For the last time this year he echoes the mission of the camp. “Hamm Camp is a community that will not just enhance your game, but also your life.”

Campers huddle in preparation to make their final plays in the 2014 Hamm Camp playoff games.
Hamm Camp 2014 staff and campers, ages 13-17, gather outside of Harrisburg High School’s Evangelene L. Kimber Gymnasium for their annual group photo.

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