EDDIE Smith dribbles the basketball downcourt with perfect rhythm. The straps dangling from his bib overalls sweep the floor with each step. Then he ducks and feints through three guys to drop in an easy layup, NBA style.
Kareem Horton, in a red sweatshirt stamped with a map of Africa, picks up the ball, dribbles slowly while sizing up his opponents, then lunges toward the hoop. Swish - two points.
These young teens - displaying dazzling moves with the basketball and sporting "fade" haircuts with parts and pumped -up hightop sneakers - are younger versions of the real thing: pro basketball players.
Between alley-oop passes and slam-dunks at the Hennigan School gym in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston, Eddie, Kareem, and friends talk about their favorite NBA players and their basketball dreams. Their conversation is not unlike that of other young basketball fans' across the country. Eddie likes Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. Junior says Reggie Lewis from the Boston Celtics is his favorite player. Kareem is partial to Kevin Johnson of the Phoenix Suns.
NBA stars are clearly their role models. And that is why the Boston Celtics, among many other NBA teams, are reaching out to inner-city youths. Last fall, the Celtics organized a community relations department to coordinate appearances for players at schools and community centers, as well as to sponsor programs like Stay in School (see story at left).
"Every player has the right to be a pro athlete and with that comes responsibilities to take that high-profile life and try to better the lives of somebody else along the way," says M. L. Carr, community-relations director for the Celtics and a former Celtics player. "Most players take it as an obligation because they know from where they've come, understand how fortunate they are, and they love to give back something. It's not just going out to give. It's rewarding. It makes them feel good to give."
One of the Celtics' main goals this year, Carr says, is to reach out to inner-city youths. "We want to see a diverse group of people at the games, and we're more interested in youth being a part of that."
Two of the hottest - and most accessible - players are Reggie Lewis and Ed Pinckney. Lewis made the NBA all-star team this year, and Pinckney was given the Sixth Star award by the team's cable TV outlet, SportsChannel, for outstanding play from the bench.
Lewis, whose ear-to-ear smile is warm enough to melt the ice under the parquet floor at Boston Garden, says that he likes to share his experiences of growing up in the projects in Baltimore with young people in the Boston area. "I tell kids some of my stories and maybe my situation helps them with theirs. I tell them about the importance of staying in school and staying away from drugs," he explained during an interview.
Each summer, Lewis runs a free basketball camp at Harbor Pointe Housing Development in Boston. It's free and open to kids of all ages from all parts of the city. In addition to basketball skills, Lewis and the staff teach kids how to get along with others, how to deal with peer pressure, and good sportsmanship.
Pinckney also hosts a basketball camp each summer - in the Bronx (New York) where he grew up. It, too, is free to anyone. Besides basketball, they talk about kids' problems, drugs, anything they want to talk about, he says. "The thing that's most gratifying to me is hands-on contact with kids, interacting with kids one-on-one."
'Coach' Willie Maye, sports director at WILD AM radio station in Boston, often acts as liaison in bringing pro players closer to kids. WILD AM is a popular Boston station, especially with inner-city kids, and its staff help make Celtics players accessible on and off air. Maye says this is important because they can provide a side of the athlete to their audience that others can't - whether it's bowling with Dee Brown or playing tennis with Larry Bird.
WILD's disc jockeys often make joint appearances with Celtics players at such places as schools or community centers where they can involve inner-city youth. They also challenge Celtics players to sports contests such as three-point shootouts or tennis matches. Recently, disc jockey Stephen Hill challenged Ed Pinckney to a three Bs tournament: billiards, bowling, and basketball. The basketball segment was held at the Tobin High School in the Mission Hill section of Boston. After the one-on-one game, Pinc kney stayed and answered questions from kids who watched.
Young people really relate to sports figures because they are like heroes or role models, Maye says. Sports heroes seem to understand inner-city struggles, he adds, citing Magic Johnson's visit to a high school here as an example.
Ralph Mosher, a professor of psychology and education at Boston University, cites several reasons why adolescents identify with professional athletes. "In growing up, adolescents are forming answers to questions like: Who am I going to be when I grow up? What values will I live by? Who am I going to model myself after?" According to Dr. Mosher, these questions are "either asked of adolescents intuitively or brought about by fortuitous relationships with older men in their communities."
M.L. Carr of the Celtics sees sports playing a large role in dispelling stereotypes. "For example, at the Olympics you see hugs, high fives, disappointment, jubilation that crosses all barriers - wealthy, poor, inner city, suburbanite," he observes. "All stereotypes just go out the door and sports has helped integrate this country better than anything else."
Still, a youth's chances of attending a pro game are not often good. Boston Garden, home of the Celtics, seats only 14,890 and games have been sold out continuously since 1979, says Wayne Levy of the Celtics community relations department. However, this past season, the Celtics and Gatorade cosponsored a program to donate 25 tickets to 15 home games this year to groups like the Roxbury Boys Club and the Dorchester YMCA, according to Levy. The tickets are used as motivational awards for academic achieveme nts or perfect attendance at school.
Back at the Hennigan School, Eddie, Kareem, Junior, and friends say they have never had the chance to attend a Celtics game, but they rarely miss televised games - regardless of what team is playing.
Kareem's dream is to play basketball through high school, win a basketball scholarship to Harvard, and go on to play for a pro team. Lemuel Mills, director of the community center at the Hennigan School, says that Kareem has a good chance for a scholarship at one of two prep schools located in Boston suburbs because he is both a good ball player and a good student.
Pinckney's advice to kids with dreams like Kareem's: "Stay focused as much as possible, and if you become the very best that you can be, doors may open up for you. And don't let anyone discourage you."