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Hoops for tots? Y not?

In basketball, some misbehavior is not exclusive to the big leagues.

"Sam, did you bite him?" coach Mike Lukowich inquired of a player on a recent Friday at the New Tampa Family YMCA.

Sam looked confused.

Lukowich tried again: "No biting."

Sam grinned in response.

"No biting," Lukowich repeated, later explaining to a reporter: "I've told him that's a foul."

Personal fouls weren't Lukowich's only concern. There's also the trash talking. He admonished a player who nicknamed a teammate in a defense drill: "It's not nice to say loser, okay?"

Sure, like NBA bad boys Allen Iverson and Ron Artest, Lukowich's charges acted like little children. But unlike those pros, these are little children: ages 3 and 4, to be exact, 56 kids strong, all learning basketball fundamentals at the YMCA.

Of course, a little misbehavior is impossible to avoid when all the athletes in question were born during President Bush's current term. The reality is this: The coaches and directors run a tight ship.

Lessons about values such as caring, honesty and respect are taught at every session. Most of the kids pay close attention throughout the skills training and are actually getting pretty good at ball handling. Not bad for a program run at very few YMCAs across the nation.

Most YMCAs start team sports at age 5, but New Tampa runs leagues for younger boys and girls in not only basketball but also flag football, soccer and T-ball.

"Our market sort of demanded it," said Ryan Smiley, New Tampa Family YMCA's sports director. "Parents here wanted anything for (their youngest) kids to play, and through the seasons, it's really progressed."

Now three years old itself, the basketball league for kids 3 to 4 actually started a year before the YMCA facility was completed, training outdoors at neighboring Tampa Palms Elementary.

It now consists of six sessions, 45 minutes per session. The first three weeks are oriented on basic skills training: Here's the ball, pass it to your teammates, defend it from opponents, try to shoot it into that hoop over there. The kids' hoops, of course, are set at heights from about 3{ to 4 feet.

For the second three weeks, the teams pair off into scrimmages; no score is kept.

Watch the practices and prepare to be impressed: For their ages, some of these whippersnappers are good.

"They got skills," said Courtney Sheppard, 14, a volunteer who helps coach the kids and appreciates their exuberance. "They're happy about playing basketball."

True, but the King High freshman did have to rein in a rugrat who ran at the hoop and tried to drop the ball right in: "No, we're not doing slam dunks yet."

Skills training ranges from practice shooting and defending shots to learning how to step forward for power when making a bounce pass to a teammate. Coach Paul Zack was teaching the bounce pass in a drill on Friday.

"This is their third practice and they're doing great," Zack said. "We've got 4-year-olds who are really tough and can dribble a ball."

However, the disparity between kids who have the skills down and those who do not is as wide as one might expect at these ages. Fernando Rojas, another volunteer coach, worked with a group that ran the gamut. Some looked like they were born with basketballs in their hands. As for others . . .

"No kicking! No kicking!" Rojas directed. "Catch the ball with your hands, please!"

Some kids spent more time staring into the rafters than anything else, which is why more than a few caught passes not with hands but with noses, chins and even ears.

To the young athletes' credit, not a boy or girl in the house shed a tear after getting nailed.

There are few role models for training such young children, so Smiley used parameters from the National Alliance for Youth Sports as a framework: "They have guidelines for how to introduce sports to children this young, so I've taken them into consideration and molded our program accordingly."

The program received a mixed review from Dr. Ronald Kamm, president of the International Society for Sports Psychiatry, responding to a brief summary of the activities. Basic skills training is useful, he said, but running scrimmages is probably less useful.

"It's not too early for relating to a ball and having fun with other kids," he said. "But as far as competition goes, (ages 3 and 4 are) really not ready for that. Most kids can't grasp that at their age."

Team-related play accomplishes little until children reach ages 6 to 8, Kamm said, but the rest of the program can be beneficial: "If they're enjoying the league, it's fine. Just don't expect teamwork; don't expect competition."

Parents watch closely as their kids learn the ropes. Friday, Charisma Henry strutted her stuff for parents Lynette and Orland Henry, who live in West Meadows.

"Just look at her," directed Lynette Henry, as 3-year-old Charisma dribbled to the hoop, stopped and banked a shot off the backboard. She pumped little fists into the air.

Charisma's older brother Joseph, now 6, was in the program, so she wanted to join, Orland Henry explained. Now the Henry kids participate in basketball, swimming, dancing and flag football.

Taking a cue from Tiger Woods' dad Earl, Orland Henry explained his game plan with a wink: "The kids are my secret investment plan. I intend to retire off my kids."

Fifteen feet away, Charisma giggled and bounced a pass off an adjacent boy's backside. Both howled with laughter.

Such episodes actually are as key to meeting the program's objectives as anything, Smiley explained.

"The enjoyment the kids are having is success to us," he said. "For many kids, this is their first sports experience. We want them to have fun, and it's not only the kids but the parents, too. Here at the YMCA, having that togetherness with family is what matters."

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