Fifty years ago, Kevin Washington walked into the Christian Street YMCA for the first time - a lanky, amiable kid who loved to shoot hoops.

On Saturday night, Washington walked in again - but this time, he was the incoming president of YMCA of the USA, about to take the helm of 2,700 Y's nationally as the first African American chief executive of the organization.

"This," said his old friend Barry Burwell, who first met Washington as a member of the safety patrol at Barratt Junior High in South Philadelphia, "is a big deal."

Back in the gym of the Christian Street Y, Washington accepted hugs and handshakes from friends, family, and well-wishers delighted, but not entirely surprised, that the hometown kid had risen to the top job in the organization that has meant so much to his life.

"Kevin was always different," said Anthony Williams, Washington's junior high gym teacher, a sharp 83-year-old with a warm smile for his former pupil. "Even then, he seemed to be more focused on what he was supposed to be doing."

The Y found Washington, he likes to say, when he was 10, when youth director Bill Morton rounded up Washington and other South Philly kids from the William S. Peirce School to play basketball and pool and learn to swim.

"It was a safe haven for a lot of us," said Washington, 60. "We had great leadership there, people to help us, support us, direct us, keep us on the straight and narrow."

The Y helped Washington get through Overbrook High and to Temple University, where he became the first in his family to collect a college diploma. It gave him his first real job, as youth director at the Christian Street Y, and every job after that, a 36-year career with stops in Chicago, Boston, and Hartford, Conn.

Washington becomes the national CEO in February.

"It means a lot," he said of assuming the national post. "It really is an opportunity to take the opportunities I have had and use them for others. We're going to talk about making sustainable, impactful change in all the communities the YMCA serves."

Although he has lived elsewhere since the 1990s, Washington is still very much a Philly guy, with all of his five siblings and his wife's family still in the area. They filled the gym Saturday at the reception held by the Philadelphia Freedom Valley YMCA.

Lawrence "Snuffy" Smith, who grew up playing basketball with him, said Washington has always remembered his roots.

"We're jubilated that someone from the neighborhood has done so well," Smith said. "He's been a steady shooting star."

Malik Tappe, now the youth director at the Christian Street Y, made sure to shake Washington's hand. He has shown the kids he mentors Washington's photo as an example of what is possible.

"He gives all of us hope," said Tappe. "He's the national face of the Y. That shows you that the ladder can turn into an escalator if you use it right."

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