Throughout elementary school and high school I was a member of the Last Choice Club, the collection of unfortunate souls that got to feel like an anchor every time they participated in a team sport. First went the star athletes, then the kids that knew everything about the NBA, then the bulky guys that could at least take up some space, and then me, the uncoordinated, underweight, bespectacled shy guy.
Joe Bock was also a member of the LCC. Joe is a retired electronics engineer from Los Angeles with a big heart. He knew when he entered retirement 10 years ago that he wanted to do something to help members of the LCC actually have fun while being active. His solution: Benchwarmers.
Benchwarmers is a collective of kids that don’t have the speed, agility or knowhow to compete with the starters. For the nerds, the quiet ones, the youngsters that just weren’t born to plan, Joe provides an amazing outlet.
“I truly believe that the best way to learn is by actually playing,” said Joe. For the last five to six years his 20-player groups have been completely full, though he often takes on a few extras due to late sign-ups. (The late ones still get to play, too.) He’s even found an extra facility to host his program, so now there are two groups. He didn’t always have a strong show of support – in fact, numerous schools and park districts turned him down.
“They really weren’t interested and didn’t support it.”
After facing rejection from a number of grade schools and two park districts, someone finally gave him a chance. Cheviot Hills Recreation Center put his program in their schedule and that Fall… One player showed up.
Joe recounts: “I said well, this isn’t gonna work. But the park said let’s just do it again, we’ll send you some kids from the league.” So the park district offered to their less fortunate ballers a path to the court, and in its second attempt Joe had six benchwarmers playing together. “After that it just grew by word of mouth.”
Now, one time a week every semester, a group of oft overlooked eight to 10 year-olds get to dribble, pass and shoot just like the all-stars. They start off with a brief drill to loosen up and build some confidence, and then they split up into teams and play full-court, semi-fast-paced, no-dunk basketball.
And they don’t even keep score.
“They’re still competitive!” Joe assured me. “They’re trying to make baskets.”
His first set of Benchwarmers have since grown up, and three of them have aged out of the program but still come back to help, which affirmed the value of his program for the original bench player. While the eight to 10 group remains full, the 11 to 14 year old group is generally around 15 players strong. Joe said generally, as the kids get older they come back less.
“Some of them have gotten really good, and maybe that’s why they aren’t coming back. I hope that’s why.” He said one of the kids even improved enough to make it onto his middle school team. Still, the magic of Benchwarmers is far greater than building athletic skill.
Some parents have told Joe “it helps the kids feel more normal, even when not playing basketball. It’s really changed their whole life around.”
Now Joe aims to go nationwide, and he’s facing another hurdle: he doesn’t know where to find volunteers. That’s why he entered the Encore Generation to Generation Challenge, where he’s now a lone-star semi-finalist in the competition for $50,000 in funding and a year of mentoring in how to scale his work. Joe said that in all honesty, he wouldn’t know what to do with the money. He just needs the help.
And as a 74 year old that hadn’t seen Facebook until Encore invited him to a group, he once again finds himself in a game where it seems like everyone else has an edge. Still, he’s pushing onward in the hopes of becoming a finalist, and ultimately bringing his vision to bench warmers across the country who just need a chance to play.
If you connect with this story, please, take a few seconds to vote for Benchwarmersat the Encore Prize Gen-2-Gen challenge page. While you’re there, you can learn about 14 other semi-finalists –Table Wisdom included– that are working to connect the older generations with youth in need of help, guidance, and a chance to grow. And you can vote every day, if it suits your fancy.