Mpls Lakers nonprofit seeks more girls, people of color

Mpls Lakers/Facebook The Girls 7th Grade Gold Team in action at the Westonka White Hawk Classic.

When you hear about Minneapolis Lakers basketball, you instantly think about the original Lakers from the 1940s to 1960. George Mikan was the original superstar of the franchise. The team used to be the hottest thing in Minneapolis; now they are the hottest team in Los Angeles with legendary players like Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Magic Johnson and now LeBron James.

However, the Mpls Lakers Youth Traveling Basketball program is alive and well in Minneapolis. It was created to provide opportunities for local youth to develop a sense of community, focus on the fundamentals, and develop their basketball skills while playing at a more competitive level. They are hoping to flush out some hard-working and talented youth looking to play basketball October through March in the community-based Minnesota State Traveling Basketball Program.

Penny Cierzan, founder and president of the Mpls Lakers Youth Traveling Basketball Program, says it was created to be an option for any child that “lives or goes to school in Minneapolis.” As she searched for programs for her children nearly 10 years ago, she found it hard to find any that provided good fundamental skills, solid structure, and discipline that could travel and complete around the state of Minnesota. And not be too costly.

Cierzan says that she tried but could not find any teams that fit the bill, looking for something that provided the same opportunities for all youth fourth through eighth grade. She recalled her own community while growing up at Longfellow Park in Minneapolis, attending Sandford Middle School and finally Roosevelt High School.

She played competitive sports for Longfellow and Roosevelt and went on to play at Hamline University in St. Paul, where she attended college. She also continued her studies and received her law degree from Mitchell/Hamline School of Law.

When her son started playing basketball, she started looking for competitive opportunities in her community and could not find any. It became clear that times had changed and it was increasingly hard to secure competitive opportunities in our own community such as those that the suburbs had developed. She believed that this was something that Minneapolis could do, that her community wanted a youth traveling program and would support it, so she decided to do what it takes to make it happen. 

She found a way through an organization called Minnesota Youth Athletic Services (MYAS). Cierzan needed a charter to be a part of this organization. The goal was to create a competitive and diverse program for all youth in Minneapolis. 

The first challenge for Cierzan was to find gym space for her teams so they could host tryouts (a requirement of being part of MYAS). She met with much resistance as many people told her that the Mpls Lakers could not be competitive, since in 2012, they only had one boys’ basketball team. The program now has 18 teams, having joined the Minneapolis/St. Paul coalition of MYAS.

Mpls Lakers/Facebook Mpls Lakers players at a Southwest Boys Basketball Camp.

Says Cierzan, “While more diversity with African American youth is something we continue to strive for, we have had an increase in the number of African American males engaged in the program since its inception in 2012, but we still seek additional participation from African American girls in our community.”

 James Patterson, one of the officials for the Minnesota Athletic Leagues, says, “Minneapolis Lakers is one of the most sound and structured programs there is in the state of Minnesota. They are on top of their game in dealing with their promptness, uniforms, the rules and regulations.” He sees the two most critical needs of the Minneapolis Lakers Association as getting young women to come to play basketball in the inner city, and getting more minorities to become a part of their board.

The upcoming season for the Mpls Lakers promises to be another exciting year. While Cierzan is still involved, she is transitioning leadership over to Tom Meckey, who has served on the board of the Mpls Lakers for four years, coached in the program, and has been a longtime advocate for opportunities for youth in the community.

Cierzan says, “We have elected numerous new members to our volunteer working board. We encourage anyone to reach out and learn more about the program. While we created the program to support youth in our community, we need members from all over Minneapolis to be involved to assist us in providing opportunities for youth in our community.”

She points out that the Mpls Lakers Youth Traveling Basketball Program is 100 percent nonprofit, and all of their proceeds go directly to the kids, their equipment, gym space and tournaments. “It is important,” Cierzan emphasizes, “that we reach, greet and teach fundamentals so the youth can understand that they need to give back when they finish our program.”

For further information, visit www.mplslakers.org.

About Ken Foxworth

Kenneth Foxworth is a contributing sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. He welcomes reader responses to  kennethfoxworth568@msn.com.

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