As a kid, the playground basketball courts in Chris Ward's Bradenton neighborhood looked like any other to the untrained eye: hoops over concrete with free throw lanes painted on each end.
For Ward, however, they were classrooms. Sure, there may not have been desks and blackboards, but don't think lessons weren't taught. Lessons about basketball and lessons about life.
As a young player, he tested himself against the older guys. He had to earn his way into the best pickup games. Once he did, the court elders, if you will, talked to him about how to enhance his performance and carry himself as a young man.
They saw potential and did what they could to nurture it.
"The guys were guiding you through," said Ward, who attended Bradenton Southeast High School before going on to college and then a successful professional career. "They didn't beat you down. Where I grew up, the community raised you."
Ward, 36, said the street-wise tutelage he found so beneficial has become a lost art. No longer does he see older players reaching out to kids.
More often, athletes with immense talent flounder because no one shows them how to go from the pickup game to college and beyond.
"It's sad, and I see a lot of it," Ward said. "To me, it's not about going pro in athletics, it's about going pro in life."
The Skills Center will look to reverse that trend and restore the teaching that once happened naturally. Along with partners Celeste Roberts and John Arroyo, Ward has developed a new nonprofit that strives to help aspiring students ages 8-18 manage athletics, academics and life.
The group kicks off its effort Feb. 28 with youth sports clinics at Tampa's MacFarlane Park from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. It's also staging an online raffle for a three-day, two-night trip to New York City. Go to www.theskillscentertampabay.org for details.
The center has engaged experts to offer lessons in several sports, but the athletics serve as a tool to teach kids intangibles such as trust, responsibility, work ethic, character and communication. For older students, these will be enhanced with an increased focus on academics and preparing for college.
"Kids can use sports to take them anywhere they want to go," Ward said.
Since an injury cut his international career short, Ward has worked with a number of current NBA players as a development specialist for sports management agency IMG in Bradenton. He knows the game.
However, his willingness to help is equally impressive.
He once found Jamaal Maiden playing in a YMCA league and helped him get on a community college team. Maiden eventually earned a degree and is now a regional manager for Target, overseeing teams that open new stores for the retailer.
"You can't tell me basketball didn't help prepare him for that," Ward said.
It's not a coincidence that folks I once covered as a prep sports writer keep popping up in my current columns as successful young professionals. They truly learned life lessons from athletics, and it's refreshing when they aspire to pass it on to the next generation.
"I want to touch kids and give them my story," Ward said. "I know God put me in this position to do that."
Just like God put some people in Ward's neighborhood to touch him.
That's all I'm saying.