Inside the Philly youth basketball league striving to give Latino kids brighter futures

Draft day is a long one for a 400-children-strong youth league on northeastern side of Philadelphia, but it’s worth every minute. One year a young boy showed up in a suit for the momentous occasion and afterward visited his father’s gravestone at the cemetery, still dressed up, to excitedly tell him about his accomplishment. The video his mother posted of how impactful sport could be brought tears to the eyes of directors and parents alike.

This is La Liga del Barrio, literally translated to the “Neighborhood League,” Philadelphia’s first Latino youth basketball league. And entering its 21st season this winter amid an ongoing pandemic and rise in gun violence in the city, those special moments for kids ages 6-18 become a beacon.

“It’s all over the news,” director and president Raymond Alvarez said of the league’s importance to the city’s Latino community. “Philadelphia is becoming probably, if not already, the next Chicago with gun violence. We want to do everything we can to keep the kids off corners.”

That’s why the league was founded in 2000 and it’s why it plans to expand this winter to young adults while continuing to foster a girls program that has always been a challenge.

La Liga began in 2000 with NBA's 76ers

La Liga del Barrio in Philadephia began as a way to keep at-risk youths in the heavily Hispanic part of town off the corners. (Provided by Raymond Alvarez/La Liga del Barrio)
La Liga del Barrio in Philadephia began as a way to keep at-risk youths in the heavily Hispanic part of town off the corners. (Provided by Raymond Alvarez/La Liga del Barrio)

The league’s beginnings date back to Pat Croce, the Philadelphia 76ers president from 1996 to 2001, and the Puerto Rican Day parade held every second Sunday in June. The 1999 event prompted Philadelphia native Croce to call up city councilman Angel L. Ortiz, the first Puerto Rican to be voted to the council when he was elected in 1985.

“Croce thought to himself, ‘Wow I didn’t know there were so many Latinos in the city of Philadelphia’ and he made a call to [Ortiz] and said, ‘What can we do for your community?’" Alvarez told Yahoo Sports. “He immediately just responded, ‘We need an outlet for the kids. Keep them off the corners. Why don’t you create a basketball league for them?’ And lo and behold that’s what happened.”

Alvarez was Ortiz’s community outreach lead and headed up the project along with community organizers Israel Colon and Marilyn Martinez-Perez. He’s stayed with it as a volunteer ever since, he said, along with his wife, Esther, who is on the board of directors. The 76ers and now the Sixers Youth Foundation support the league along with various sponsors throughout the two decades.

"La Liga del Barrio has done a remarkable job in providing safe places for young members of the local community to enjoy the positive benefits of basketball," Philadelphia 76ers COO and Sixers Youth Foundation Board Member Lara Price told Yahoo Sports. “Through their work, La Liga del Barrio has driven tangible change in our communities and reinforced the power basketball has to uplift our youth."

Initially, the Latino community was the target and so it was based in Eastern North Philadelphia where an already robust Hispanic/Latino community was expanding. It grew 110% from the 1990 United States Census Bureau to 2010 and approximately 15.2% of the city’s current estimated population is Latino.

That community still comprises the bulk of the organization, which in the last season before the COVID-19 pandemic had 369 participants, but the league has become incredibly diverse. Alvarez said it’s been consistently around 55-65% Latino with a mix of other races.

“When you look at it we’re as close to the melting pot as you can look for in a sports organization,” he said.

The league has rebranded itself as “La Liga Familia” to promote the family aspect. Players switch teams every season and experience different coaches and teammates while playing their former ones.

“Everybody no matter what race, ethnicity, they pride themselves in being part of that family,” he said. “It’s definitely a very cohesive organization in terms of race and we don’t see any color in that.”

The league hopes to expand its 32-team family to actively include those 18 and older after seeing the increase in gun violence in 2021 that’s up 18% year-over-year.

“It’s a challenge. That group is a pretty tough group,” Alvarez said.

Alumni from the program came back recently for a 3x3 tournament with coaches, and Alvarez saw the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic first-hand. Even with younger players actively in the program, Alvarez said he suspects based on conversations and social media many went back to the corners and streets amid too much idle time.

La Liga del Barrio focuses on education first and works with teachers to make sure players are doing well in school before they take the court. There are college scholarships available through La Liga and they offer resources to help with job preparation.

There are plenty of success stories of the more than 7,000 students who have gone through the program, from MMA fighter to doctors to teachers. One is even playing overseas. And now two more, Tahmiyaah (West Chester University) and Tahniyaah (Central Penn.) Jackson, plan to join him after finishing school as the first girls from the program to do it.

Latinas loving basketball

La Liga del Barrio has experienced challenges in growing the game for girls in the community. (Provided by Raymond Alvarez/La Liga del Barrio)
La Liga del Barrio has experienced challenges in growing the game for girls in the community. (Provided by Raymond Alvarez/La Liga del Barrio)

Esther Alvarez doesn’t want the girls progress in the program to go unnoticed because drawing them in and keeping them has always been a challenge, the Alvarezes told Yahoo Sports. There are the big picture reasons girls either don’t play or drop out at early ages, and then there are cultural differences they believe could be involved.

“They reach a certain age and the girls want the nails, they want the hair, the makeup, and they don’t want to look … sweaty,” Esther Alvarez told Yahoo Sports. “For years we’ve struggled in keeping girls in the league and to finally see we’re going to have our first girls play professionally overseas, to me, I’m so proud of it.”

Of the league’s 32 teams, only 12 are for girls. Esther believes part of the problem is a stigma around the sport in the Latina community wherein if girls continue playing at a certain age they're viewed as “a tomboy.” There’s also an issue of parents wanting a certain life for their child and not letting go of that dream — which in many cases does not involve a basketball lifestyle.

But she sees things changing and hopes representation trickles down. La Liga del Barrio proudly shared former Rutgers standout and 2021 WNBA draftee Arella Guirantes as a role model on its Instagram page. Guirantes plays for the national team in Puerto Rico, where her paternal grandfather was born, and the Los Angeles Sparks in the U.S. She is one of only a few Hispanic players in the league, the most notable being Diana Taurasi, whose father was raised in Argentina.

“It is that connection that [young players] make with pro athletes that sometimes makes the difference in how they [act] because they follow them,” Raymond Alvarez said. “The impact of them is unbelievable.”

The percentage hovers around 2% for Hispanic players in the WNBA while there hasn’t been a Hispanic/Latino assistant coach since 2002 and there’s never been a Hispanic/Latino general manager, per the TIDES 2020 racial and gender report card. The numbers are better in the NBA, due in part to more available positions. Hispanic/Latinos represent 3.3% of coaches, 2.2% of players and two chief executive officers/president positions as of Nov. 1, 2019, the last statistics available.

Some WNBA teams, such as the Sparks, host Hispanic heritage nights. WNBA stars of all races are increasingly showing girls they can be both athletic and feminine, from on-court lashes to off-court makeup sponsorships and fashion deals. And of course, the popular tunnel walk for pre-game fits has even made it to broadcasts.

It may not be a direct connection, but it’s a start. La Liga has seen how a direct contact makes a difference with former 76ers forward Robert Covington visiting its teams and wants to foster it on the girls side.

“I think them being able to meet other athletes, other females, and that exposure — it’s not all about boys,” Esther said. “Basketball is not associated only with males, it’s both. And I think that also helps.”

With the league in its third decade, success begets success and girls in the program can now be what they see first-hand: a player who looks like them going on to college and overseas.

La Liga pushes into third decade

There are thousands of stories the Alvarezes could share about their two decades of basketball players. In one summer league session, a young boy with autism was watching his sister's game when coaches and players gave him a jersey to join.

It wasn’t so much that they did it. It was how they reacted to him.

“The smile on that kid’s face, running up and down the court, it was a nice feeling,” Esther Alvarez said. “Especially seeing the kids interacting and them passing him the ball. Even though he didn’t know what to do with the ball, he would pass it back to them.

“His mom called one of our coaches up and said, ‘Tom, thank you. My son came home and laid his jersey on the bed and was just so happy that he was able to play.’ It teaches our kids so many lessons.”

La Liga started out for the neighborhood as a way to give youth in the growing Hispanic and Latino community more opportunities than they were currently receiving. It’s now a family playing under the Latino heritage it started within but encompassing a melting pot of children learning from sport rather than the streets.