Ten-year-old Jaheim Martin loves shooting layups at Philadelphia Youth Basketball camp, but he also likes working out in a particular off-court space:
"It's good," he said, stepping momentarily away from a hotly contested board game that requires calculations based on NBA player statistics. "It's like, math is fun, because you're playing with your friends."
At PYB, organizers have embraced the backboard and the blackboard, incorporating a daily academic curriculum that uses basketball to teach a variety of concepts. The development of professional leagues becomes a way to talk about history and business, top coaches a lesson on leadership, the spread of the game a study of geography.
PYB's Collegiate Summer Camp aims to help campers, many from poorer neighborhoods and struggling schools, grow not just in sport but in learning, its leaders say.
"There are ways to engage the hearts and minds of kids that don't involve cracking textbooks," said Kenny Holdsman, the organization's president and CEO.
The nonprofit is best known for its attempt to find success where others have failed. In December, the group announced plans to raise $25 million to build a basketball and education center in Logan, on a weedy, 35-acre parcel where scores of houses sank into the ground.
On Valentine's Day 1986, the explosion of a ruptured gas main revealed a larger disaster: Nearly a thousand houses were sinking amid the erosion of an old, underground fill of ash and cinder. The city and federal governments ultimately spent $38 million to buy and demolish houses and pay for environmental clean-up.
The area known as the Logan Triangle became an empty no-man's land.
Over the years, it has been proposed as the home of a supermarket, a senior housing development, a shopping mall, and a tree farm, complicated by the fact that the unstable ash remains below. PYB says modern construction techniques can overcome that problem.
Basketball holds a special place in Philadelphia, cutting through barriers of race, ethnicity, and economics. PYB says status offers a means to help young people develop not only as athletes, but also as students and citizens.
Holdsman said he hopes to announce major donations by the end of the year. As fund-raising proceeds, PYB wants to build programming and help young people through its camp, held through the summer at city universities including Drexel, Temple, and St. Joseph's.
"We thought, let's use basketball as the carrot," said PYB program director Eric Worley, a former West Chester University star and school principal, "and then backdoor them with some really relevant information. . . . We try to make it feel not like school."
Campers spend an hour a day in the classroom, the instruction focused on five themes: basketball history, the game by the numbers, the business of basketball, the importance of coaches and mentors, and basketball around the world.
The camp costs $350 a week; need-based scholarships are available.
On Tuesday, in the Tom Gola Arena on the La Salle University campus, 60 boys and girls in grades four to seven romped across the courts. Basketballs bounced everywhere, as college and former pro players advised children on skills and technique.
After 90 minutes, part of the group broke off and headed to a small classroom just off the gym, where, with camp counselor Antonio Woods, a University of Pennsylvania guard, they considered the quotation of the day:
"I firmly believe that respect is a lot more important, and a lot greater, than popularity."
Those words came from former Sixers star Julius Erving, known as Dr. J. But, Woods asks the group, what do they mean?
The children shout out answers before 12-year-old Narah Phillips raises her hand.
"He'd rather be respected," she said, "than not be respected and be liked."
The discussion moves on to the storied collegiate group the Big Five - what it is, who belongs, and how it once was the heart of Philadelphia sports. Then the children break into teams to play NBA Math Hoops, a fast-paced board game built around the scoring and shooting percentages of popular NBA and WNBA players.
So many people revere basketball in Philadelphia, Holdsman said, that to avoid using it as a teaching tool would be a missed opportunity.
"We want it to look and feel very different from school," he said. "The noisiest and most productive classroom you can find."