Ball in the Family
Back in the summer of 2020, a group of pre-teen boys in St. Petersburg were absolutely cooped up, unbelievably bored, and itching for something to do amidst the pandemic.
Seventeen-year-old Jonathan Shield’s little brother called a friend to organize a casual basketball workout, headed by Shields, a St. Pete High School student who played for the school. A friend called a friend, and another, and eventually Shields found himself at the head of a team of 12 younger kids at Denver Park in Shore Acres.
“It was just something to do,” Shields said. “My 10-year-old little brother had a ton of energy, so my mom had the idea to put together an outdoor workout with nine of his friends.” It started out as a casual outdoor workout, coached by Shields and his friend Tim Reilly. “But then I was like, ‘Hey, these kids are pretty good,’” Shields said, laughing.
The team members are all ages 13 to 15. Signing up to play in an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team is only about $100 per tournament, so registration fees and jerseys are an easy split. And so, the St. Pete AAU Basketball Team was born in the summer of 2020. Though the two older founders have since gone off to college, they return home and coach the league without fail. “It was crazy – the kids clicked right away,” Shields said. “We had a real family feel; it was sad how fast the first summer went. But we always come back together.”
Fourteen-year-old Zack Spinazzola has played in other AAU leagues before, but this one is close to the heart. “It’s like all my best friends, and when we get together, it’s family,” he said. “Jonathan trusts me a lot, and when there’s something he needs to tell the whole team, he tells me to tell them.”
Though ninth-grader Spinazzola is one of the boys who had experience, not all the team members did. Jake Starling, another ninth-grader who joined the impromptu camp when it originally formed, says this team is what fueled his love of basketball. He wants to eventually attend Florida State University, and he hopes to continue playing basketball there.
“I kind of fell in love with it; it’s the only sport I do now,” Starling said. “I love the pizza and swim parties we go to, too.” Starling’s mother, Bekki, added that the experience has been a win-win for the kids and the coaches. “They take these boys up to Orlando, and they’re just great with them,” she said. “They play against much older kids. Some of them have beards.”
Next Up: A Championship?
Talk to any of the boys on the team, and they’re bound to bring up their near-championship status in the first 10 minutes. The team has made it to the championship game but has yet to get that big win. According to Shields and the team, that’s the goal for 2023. “I’m ready to regroup and have fun, and win that championship,” Spinazzola said. “We’re so, so, close.”
In addition to their summer reunions, the kids went to visit Shields at his college basketball game in Chicago last year. Reuniting – and for some kids, seeing snow for the first time – was an unforgettable experience. “It made me happy to see him,” Spinazzola said. “It always does.”
They have the heart, and the skills. The only thing this team needs, they say, is a better home court.
“Someone please help renovate Denver Park public court,” Shields said. “Kids fall and get stitches – it’s been the same since I was seven years old. If someone knows someone at the mayor’s office, we’d love to see some renovations here.”