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Developing winners for life on the court and in the classroom

To hear Sharon Litwin's interview with Sky Hyacinthe on WWNO radio, click here.

Sky Hyacinthe

Sky Hyacinthe, co-founder of Elevate New Orleans

Sky Hyacinthe and his friend Emeka Okafor both played on the University of Connecticut team that won the Division 1 national championship in 2004. Okafor went on to play professional basketball; some may remember him as a former member of the New Orleans Hornets. Hyacinthe went on to work for ESPN before becoming Canadian Marketing Director for Icon International, a specialized finance company offering corporate barter services.

So it’s not surprising that while Okafor was in New Orleans he would invite Hyacinthe to visit him here. Nor is it surprising that Hyacinthe would make the obligatory post-Katrina "disaster" tour to Lower Nine. What is surprising is what happened after that.

“I had never been to New Orleans,” the 32-year-old Hyacinthe recalls. “I’d always wanted to come and eat some of that good food I’d heard about. When I was in Lower Nine, I saw some kids playing basketball and I worked with them a little bit. I saw that they had some talent. So when they asked, ‘Are you coming back tomorrow?,' I said, 'Sure, why not?'”

They made an agreement to meet at 1 p.m. Hyacinthe said they didn’t show up until almost 1:45. After he explained to them that if they made plans with someone they needed to keep them, he asked a few more questions.

“After talking with them, I discovered that academics played no part in their lives,” he says. “And when I talked to them about social etiquette, it was clear they didn’t even understand what those words meant.”

And that was when the idea for Elevate New Orleans was born. Working with Emeka Okafor, Hyacinthe created a basketball skill development program, free to young athletes from needs-based families, that focuses first on academics.

“Emeka Okafor graduated with a 3.89 score in finance in three years,” Hyacinthe says. “And even though he’s not in New Orleans anymore, he still supports us. We have a kid in the program who’s 6'6" and wears a size 15 shoe, same as Mek. He sends them down so his parents don’t have the burden of finding and paying for size 15 shoes.”

Working with talented young athletes, Hyacinthe and his small group of former collegiate and professional coaches require discipline and a commitment to all aspects of Elevate’s program, which is divided equally between work on the courts and work in the classroom. Eight absences per quarter means a student is no longer in the program. All student participants are expected to show up on time, shake hands with everyone they meet, and look them in the eye when they do so. Twenty push-ups are required for those with small misdemeanors; 40 for some more serious.

“We don’t have to say a thing about that,” Hyacinthe explains. “If you leave your jacket behind, we’ll take it, store it and give it back to you. Your peers will tell you it’s 20 push-ups before you get it back, though.”

None of this appears to be highly punitive to a group that greets these requirements with humor. And, since all 13 of his first group of college-age students were accepted into schools with scholarships, the rewards for such behavior and commitment to hard work are obvious to all 40 of the current student athletes.

It also shows in the numbers of young people applying to get into the program. Last year only 20 students out of 165 applicants were accepted. The requirements for family involvement count greatly toward acceptance. For, while the program is free, family members must commit to assisting in helping in other “equity” ways -- either by selling the occasional raffle ticket or by involving themselves in other needed organizational activities.

Hyacinthe has garnered support for his Elevate New Orleans project from several sponsors, in addition to Okafor: Chevron, Loyola University, Icon International, and the New Orleans Saints among them.

“Whenever a graduate of our program goes off to college, WalMart gives them a shopping spree for all their needs: a laptop, blankets, whatever they might need for their dorm room,” Hyacinthe says. “And they give them a $100 gift card each month while they are in college.”

It’s clear that the Elevate athletes are devoted to Sky and his program. As a child whose parents hardly every saw him play in important basketball games because each worked two or three jobs at a time, Hyacinthe  knows what personal sacrifice means to people in difficult circumstances. So creating character and integrity in his students is as important  to him as athletics and academics, which is why his kids went to visit the pediatric oncology patients at Children’s Hospital this past Thanksgiving.

“Before we left the hospital, as we were lining up -- because everywhere we go we walk in a straight line -- they said, ‘Can we go back; can we go back for Christmas?’” Hyacinthe remembers. “For these young people who have some of the things they are going through in their lives to recognize, this is more important than what I’m going through; that says a lot about their character,”

It says a lot about Hyacinthe’s character, too.

For more information about Elevate New Orleans, email [email protected]. For information about ElevateNext, a fee-for-service partner organization for other young people wanting to hone their basketball skills just for the fun of it, go to www.elevatenext.com or call 504-383-5106. ElevateNext’s individual or group classes are held at St. Stephen’s School, 1027 Napoleon Ave.New Orleans, 70115

Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]