On a hot, humid summer evening, string bags, water bottles, and walking shoes are strewn around the walls of a small, dusty gymnasium on the north side of Champaign. On the court, two dozen 12- and 13-year-old boys run laps, do drills, and play basketball. The team gathers here together twice a week. For these adolescents, it’s an opportunity to hone their game, have fun, and fill time during the summer when there isn’t much else to do.
But, for the team’s founders, it’s a way to curb rising gun violence in the city.
Bill and Chris Dixon are brothers, born and raised in Champaign, who, along with their friend Jamie Gatson, founded the Dixon Stars basketball team in Champaign earlier this summer. The team is registered with the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), a summer club sports organization, and one of only three such teams in Champaign-Urbana.
Studies have shown that gun violence deaths rise considerably in the summers. In economocially disadvantaged neighborhoods, a lack of air-conditioning draws residents outside where they are more likely to be injured or killed in shootings. For children, school is often refuge away from the violence, but during the summers that protection is gone.
Dixon Stars co-founder Jamie Gatson said that’s exactly what he hopes the team can offer to local middle-schoolers.
“We really want this to be like a safe haven,” said Gatson. “We want people to be themselves in here, to grow with basketball but grow as a man as well.”
In just the past few years, gun violence in Champaign-Urbana has increasingly affected adolescents. In September, two teenagers were shot, and one later died, while sitting on a sidewalk outside International Prep Academy. Only a few weeks later, shots were fired outside Jefferson Middle School and Centennial High School in Champaign.
To the Dixon brothers and Gatson, who works in maintenance at Unit 4 schools, the surging violence was harrowing, and they began thinking about ways they could help. Dixon Stars rose out of that concern, addressing part of the gun violence problem at its source, keeping young children safe but also teaching them life skills.
That the Dixons’ remedy was basketball comes as no surprise. Bill called it a “family situation.” Bill’s father enrolled him and Chris in summer basketball leagues when they were younger, so the brothers know first-hand what kind of effect that programming can have on a young man.
“I went on to play college football, my brother went on to play college basketball,” said Dixon. “There’s not a lot of teams here now for the youth, and they needed it.”
Already, many Dixon Stars players count college in their plans as well, even if they won’t play ball there. Kentucky was a common favorite, but there was a good share of future Illini as well. Bill said the team planned to tour Purdue University during an upcoming tournament in West Lafayette, Indiana.
“We want to show them that they can do more than just being here,” he said.
Dixon said the team is about much more than just basketball. It’s about turning adolescents into men, giving them life skills, and showing them good role models. He mentioned how the team recently welcomed former Detroit Lions running back Mikel Leshoure to their practice to talk to them about what they could do coming from Champaign. Leshoure is a Centennial High School graduate, University of Illinois alumnus, and was a second round NFL draft pick in 2010.
The Dixon brothers and Gatson have lofty goals for themselves as well. In its debut roster, Dixon Stars counts two teams of about a dozen students, one for 7th graders and one for 8th graders. Chris Dixon says they hope to bring these same students back every summer, following them up through high school, while also adding more and more teams each year.
Joining the team is free, aside from some small fees to enter tournaments. Bill Dixon said a similar team in Chicago might charge as much as one thousand dollars just to join. He said they try to help parents as much as they can to ensure the kids can participate.
The trio distributed flyers to area middle schools and posted on social media to recruit their freshman cohort. Each player had a different story of how they became involved with the program. Some brought the flyer home, begging their parents to let them try out, others were pushed to join by their parents, who recognized the importance of a summer program like this.
While some on the Dixon Stars’ roster have played organized ball in the past, many have only played pickup games in driveways and parks with friends and family. But for all of them, basketball is an important part of their lives, a way they connect with family, and an outlet they can rely on.
Several players said they spend their time outside of Dixon Stars practice, working on their game, alongside spending time, as one described, “like a normal kid.” Everyone said they stuck with the program through the summer so far because they love the game and their coaches.
That care is evident when watching the Dixon Stars practice. Teammates applaud for each other during drills, everyone attentive to how well the others are completing their exercises. All three coaches shout words of encouragement to the students, helping them complete their laps across the gym floor and back.
The skills these boys are learning on the court at Dixon Stars are helpful for success in basketball no doubt, but they’re also preparing them to be graceful, kind, and respectful in the real world.
As these young men enter a turbulent time in their lives, preparing for high school, dealing with violence in their neighborhoods and the challenges of their teenage years, they’ll bring the lessons they’ve learned on the court along with them. They are fortunate to have the Dixon brothers and Jamie Gatson to usher them along.
You can follow the progress of the team at the Dixon Stars Basketball Facebook page.