Basketball is the sport James Decrisantis, of West Hartford, loves to play and Kevin Kirksey is the coach James Decrisantis loves to play for.
On Wednesday nights, you can find both of them working hard for their future with other members of the Greater Hartford Pro-Am Youth Basketball teams.
“We can’t mess around at all,” Decrisantis said. “We have to give 110 percent and stay focused.”
These practices have become a priority for the young players, many of whom have hopes of playing in the pros and know the GHPA has helped create some of the greats.
Ray Allen, Kevin Ollie and Marcus Camby have all played in the program and, while Coach Kevin is a part of their story, his own story has truly changed the game.
In 2008, Kirksey became seriously ill. He was diagnosed with a liver disease and went into full-blown cirrhosis.
“I had 10 percent of my liver left and they were like, ‘You need a transplant,’” Kirksey said.
At the time, Kirksey did not fully comprehend how bad his situation was.
He was in and out of the hospital for days, sometimes weeks at a time. It was exhausting, but it was also eye opening.
In 2010, Kirksey received the transplant he had been waiting for, and with the new liver came a new outlook.
“While I was in the hospital, I decided I wanted to work with the youth more,” he said.
In the years following his transplant, Kirksey has expanded the youth program from three teams to seven, and from 25 players to 70. He has invested in their overall well-being and made it his mission to keep the kids on track, not only on the court but also in the classroom.
“It is incredibly bigger than basketball. It is really a way of life. It is about being part of something larger than yourself,” he said
The player’s families have seen Kirksey’s influence firsthand.
Maxine Stewart said she has witnessed her grandson become a better player and a better person, thanks to Kirksey’s coaching, and thinks he has been firm, but fair.
Stewart said she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“He is one of the few people out there that truly cares. Not for fame, not for success and not for himself. He is very much into what is good for the children,” Stewart said.
To Kirksey, that means being present and passionate, not only at every practice but also for whatever his players need.
It is not uncommon to see him on the sideline at another sporting event or checking in on homework assignments and their home life.
“I am not trying to limit myself to being a coach,” Kirksey said. “I am not trying to call myself a mentor; I’m just trying to call them my family.”
Coach Kevin’s players said he is all of the above and because of that, they are forever grateful.
“I can’t thank him enough. It is an honor to play for him,” Decrisantis said.
To learn more about the GHPA, Coach Kevin and the youth program check out the GHPA High School Basketball Classic.
The event takes place on Dec. 19 at Trinity College.