East Rutherford, N.J. — How do you show you want to be part of the community when you're the new pro basketball team in town? Start a youth league that emphasizes citizenship, education, and career goals more than slam dunks and behind-the-back passes.
That's the idea behind the program started by Joseph Taub, the principal owner of the New Jersey Nets, when the team moved into the brand-new 20,000-seat Byrne Arena at the Meadowlands in 1981. To help him, he asked Lary Doby, the former major-league baseball star and coach, to organize the league. The two had grown up together in Paterson, N.J.
''All of us have had help from somebody along the way,'' says Mr. Doby, explaining the importance of the youth league. ''But today, it's needed even more than when I was a youngster.''
Over 1,000 kids from Grades 6 through 8 from four northern New Jersey cities are participating this year, he says. In addition to two games a week, the youths hear talks, not only from athletes, but from adults in other walks of life as well.
''We point out that there aren't going to be that many of them who can make it in pro sports,'' says Mr. Doby, who in 1947 became the first black to play in the American League.
To play in the league, the youths must keep a good attendance record at school, keep their grades up, and come to lectures by speakers ranging from pro basketball players to police officers warning of the dangers of drug abuse.
''These are tough city kids, blacks, Hispanics,'' says Phil Dundie, the Nets' vice-president for marketing. ''But some of these kids are going to come away with the message.''
The Nets players, he says, ''never complain about going out with the kids. Going to a luncheon with a group of businessmen, they may. But not kids.''
As the program has grown into four leagues in four cities, New Jersey businesses have stepped in to help the Nets shoulder the costs, he says.
The team also lets high schools and other amateur teams play for free in the arena before the Nets game. ''We supply the scoring crew. They use our locker rooms and get to rub elbows with our players who come in just as they're leaving.
''The idea is to involve their community to come out and see them play here. The tickets are good for both their game and the Nets game after.''
The programs appear to be a success at the box office. The team's paid attendance grew faster than any other team in the league last year and averaged 13,875, fourth-highest in the National Basketball Association.