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Big gift from Sixers super fan Alan Horwitz has Philadelphia Youth Basketball shooting high | Mike Jensen

PYB is aiming for a December groundbreaking for a $25 million facility on Wissahickon Avenue.

Alan Horwitz, left, and Kenny Holdsman, head of Philadelphia Youth Basketball, in front of a future hoops facility on Wissahickon Avenue.
Alan Horwitz, left, and Kenny Holdsman, head of Philadelphia Youth Basketball, in front of a future hoops facility on Wissahickon Avenue.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Alan Horwitz is putting his mouth where his money is. The money part, make no mistake, is huge: A $5 million gift from the famous 76ers super fan — yeah, he’s that guy, courtside in his Sixth Man Sixers jersey — gets a long-awaited $25 million Philadelphia Youth Basketball foundation facility fastbreaking toward a groundbreaking, now planned for late this year on Wissahickon Avenue, on the site of a former manufacturer of gaming-industry equipment.

Horwitz doesn’t intend to end his involvement with writing a check.

“It will have my heart, my passion,” Horwitz said, adding that he is already lobbying to get Sixers players and other NBA personnel involved in what is to be called the Alan Horwitz “Sixth Man” Center, powered and operated by Philadelphia Youth Basketball.

What’s going on here? The word groundbreaking has several meanings. The goal is to take a 100,000-square-foot space in an industrial area of the city just off Roosevelt Boulevard, right next to the Salvation Army Kroc Center, turning it into a kind of hoops oasis — not just with courts, but space for what Philadelphia Youth Basketball president Kenny Holdsman loves to call “holistic” development of the region’s youth, on and off the court.

So they’re not just opening a gym. They’re aiming above the rim, looking for higher ground.

“Basketball, unlike squash or tennis or distance running or ice hockey, is the iconic sport of our city,” said Holdsman, 53, who lives in the Mount Airy section of the city. Of his organization, he said, “We’re 5½ years old and we’ve always wanted to build a program around a center with a wide and diverse swath of Philadelphians, in many ways, like the game, disrespecting lines that typical divide people — lines of neighborhood and race and ethnicity and economic circumstances.”

The property costs $4.5 million, with an estimated $19 million in construction conversion costs, “then a little left over for an operating endowment.”

The location, Holdsman said, is 10 blocks from the Broad Street subway line, 400 yards from Route 1, with two bus stops right in front of the center, and about eight blocks from a SEPTA regional rail line. They plan for vans to loop around to the transit stops.

“You can literally get here within 35 minutes from any neighborhood in the city or the inner- and middle-ring suburbs,” Holdsman said. “In many ways, to build something substantial, it ought to be used by people from 150 zip codes.”

What’s going to happen in there? Hoops, of course. Most of the day, every day. (Maybe some will even rent out space for early-morning pickup runs.) A full-time staff of 20, with 75 to 100 more hourly workers, plus high school apprentices and college interns. A half-dozen courts. Two courts can be converted to a stadium court with 1,200 seats. Space for yoga and meditation and counseling and multimedia work. Coach-mentors have gone to a leadership program run by Penn’s Wharton School. There is academic space for group interaction and dialogue.

The facility plans to have strength and conditioning equipment, injury rehabilitation space staffed by professionals, a room with hoop equipment for younger children. “The court will be a little softer for little kids, but firm enough for adaptive stuff like wheelchair basketball,” Holdsman said.

Holdsman, former president of Legacy Youth Tennis and Education (new name for the Arthur Ashe tennis center), will tell you that their programs are about way more than basketball, providing a space for all sorts of activity that can improve the civic life of the city. A Temple law school graduate who worked for a few years at Ballard Spahr, Holdsman also was a senior program director for the Academy for Educational Development, based in Washington and New York. This is his lane.

“It’s basketball and mentorship, and health and wellness, and leadership development, and healthy meals,” Holdsman said of PYB’s aim. “There probably will be 50 to 80 paid job opportunities for kids. A lot of career exposure, and a real place for kids to consider their home.”

Holdsman also said, “For us, the end game has never been about elite-level athletes. That’s not our business. … Simply hosting leagues and having 95% of the programs being game play under a whistle, and then a very small part be listening to a speech by someone, that isn’t us. We’ve tried to design a program that we thought would really drive changes in the lives of kids, serving 5,000 kids a year, then another 800 in our neighborhood-based program.”

Without the facility moving forward, you’d question whether Holdsman is earning his salary (200K, he said). Or hiring a chief operating officer for $150K a year. Except without Holdsman, for instance, there is no reason to think there is a $5 million gift from Horwitz. (“My God, Kenny Holdsman,” Horwitz said. “I never saw such passion.”) This has been a 75-hour-a-week commitment from the start, Holdsman said. He’s got a whole swath of Philadelphia basketball supporting him, including the City 6 college coaches, informally. PYB also just received a $1 million award from the state through its Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program.

The goal is to have a $4.5 million yearly budget by the second year the facility is fully operating its summer and after-school and other programs. Also, providing space for small businesses to come, from financial planning to a store to space for a school to operate. Holdsman explained that a third of the operating budget will come from donated revenue, a third from earned revenue flowing from PYB programs, a third from earned revenue from non-programs. There will be tournaments and high school games, but Holdsman said he was urged by local college coaches not to get too heavily in the tournament business; that’s not where the need is in the city.

“People were wondering, PYB said they were going to build the greatest youth center in the country … what happened?” Holdsman said. “We failed the first time out. … I really think it was a blessing in disguise, that we ended up failing and we needed to pivot. All those years, we were able to build a much stronger organization.”

Originally, the idea was for the facility to be built in the Logan Triangle, but that proved unviable. One of the local college coaches told Holdsman some years ago, don’t wait, start building programs.

“We’re not going to be the boy who cried wolf,” Holdsman said. “We’re not in the business of under-delivering. We will not fail.”

Bill Ellerbee, the retired Simon Gratz coach and Temple assistant under John Chaney who is on the PYB board, said he was initially wary when Holdsman took him on a tour of the Ashe facility. “I was impressed with what he had done,” Ellerbee said. “Getting the young people, getting them jobs. But I told him, ‘That’s tennis. This is basketball. You’re talking about a whole different group of people.’ He convinced me that it could go. I was skeptical in the beginning. I’m all in now.”

Holdsman said Ellerbee also had questioned whether the basketball community had deep enough pockets to commit financially. That mission led him to Horwitz and the Lenfest Foundation, an early benefactor, and anyone else who would listen to what they were trying to accomplish.

“Some of the energy and devotion needs to come from the top,” Horwitz said. “Kenny Holdsman is a legit leader. When you invest in people, you invest in their enthusiasm and their passion.”

What does Ellerbee want to see inside the place?

“I just think about the things, the good things, while I was at Belfield Rec Center,” Ellerbee said. “I think about all the young people who came through … even the people who weren’t self-starters. You had to go get ‘em. I remember we had a family, almost a family of troublemakers. It pretty much turned them around. The things that happened at Belfield are just going to be multiplied many times over.”

“We try to emphasize, not just minority-owned businesses, but Black-owned businesses,” Holdsman said of the vendors he expects to be inside.

Holdsman, whose own mother was a guidance counselor at Simon Gratz, talks of the facility being a hub, but with the programs set up already in middle schools continuing as spokes.

“What I would like to see out of the center, outside of just being a place of hoop, is a safe place, and I want to continue to see people who look like myself, Black and Brown people, in positions of leadership,” said Aaron Crump, who has been involved with the program for more than two years as a coach-mentor, and now is part of the leadership of a PYB program called “I AM because WE ARE,” designed for at-risk young men looking to leave street life behind.

Looking at gun violence on the rise in the city and all over, Crump said the conversations had in the program are vital, even on van rides to the facility. Maybe especially on van rides to the facility.

“Just little things, like having conversations about what kind of music they’re listening to, gives you a good feel for what they have going as young men,” Crump said. “You have to understand who they are, to build that community of love and brotherhood.”

“Much of what we’re trying to address is dropouts and disconnectedness and gun violence and lack of opportunities for kids to really be nurtured and nourished in the most holistic of ways,” Holdsman said.

If that sounds like a big lift, with such a wide sweep … everyone involved will argue, what does anyone have to lose reaching? The facility is slated to open in late 2022.

Horwitz, who grew up in West Philadelphia and made much of his money from his company Campus Apartments, noted that it was the death of a PYB coach-mentor, Joe Daniels, in late 2019, that really put the need for a program like this front and center in his mind. Horwitz hosted Daniels’ son Zahir and a group of 25 or so at a Sixers game. “Ben Simmons’ mom came over and sat. … She went to Ben, told him the story. Ben actually had Zahir on the court, had him shoot with the players. The kid was in his glory.”

“PYB is as authentic as they come,” Horwitz said, his mouth still backing up where a healthy slice of his money and soon his name are going.