Russell Blackstock is a senior reporter at the Weekend Herald and Herald on Sunday.

Sideline Champs: Showing kids a better way

Ex-policeman's street basketball programme teaches respect and good behaviour to prevent children turning to a life of crime.

Glen Green has started a basketball initiative for troubled youth in South Auckland. Photo / Michael Craig
Glen Green has started a basketball initiative for troubled youth in South Auckland. Photo / Michael Craig

As an Auckland police officer, Glen Green felt he was wasting his time arresting wayward youngsters, already on a depressing merry-go-round of crime and punishment.

He believed there had to be another way of getting the kids on to the straight and narrow than simply locking them up every other weekend.

So, two years ago, Green made a brave move. The dad of three packed in his job as a community constable at Mt Roskill and launched a project that introduced troubled youths to 3x3 street basketball.

"It was very frustrating sending young people to jail where they would learn even more criminality and get into even more trouble when they were out," he says.

"Most weren't bad kids at all. They just needed help and encouragement to change their lives around. About 70 per cent of them had no positive role models in the family."

Today, Green and backer Bhav Dhillon are among the first winners of the Herald on Sunday Sideline Champs Awards 2013, in association with McCafe.

The newspaper has launched Sideline Champs, a far-reaching campaign to support good behaviour on the sports sidelines and to back the work being done to combat increasing numbers of abusive fans.

Street basketball rescuing kids from a life of crime and poverty - it sounds like the script of a Hollywood movie. But the results of Green's "There's A Better Way" initiative seem impressive.

Hundreds of youngsters and families soon signed up to his scheme and crime rates in Mt Roskill began to drop noticeably.

Local businessman Dhillon spotted the difference. When he heard Green had been funding fishing trips, barbecues and leadership camps out of his own pocket, he offered financial assistance.

The result is a programme that is mushrooming nationally. Five regions around New Zealand now have branches. Soon there will be a nationwide tie-in with the YMCA.

Green, 43, is also taking his message to primary schools in South Auckland, like Holy Cross in Papatoetoe. He organises popular 3x3 competitions and spreads the word about the importance of good behaviour and respect towards others.

"We want good attitudes to become the norm, instead of them having aspirations to join gangs."

In Northland, reformed drug dealer Peter Poharama believes starting his own branch of the scheme has pulled him back from the brink. He has more than 100 youngsters involved in street basketball hubs at Kerikeri, Doubtless Bay, Kaitaia and Kaikohe. Poharama, 36, passes on his experiences of giving up alcohol, drugs and crime.

"I was brought up on booze and drugs and a lot of my family went to prison, me included.

"I am trying to use my experience to help others from falling into the same trap."

In Christchurch, "There's A Better Way" organiser Luis Arevalo has gone one step further. He has introduced the initiative to young offenders' institutions, including the notorious youth justice residence at Rolleston.

At a recent tournament at Rolleston, he invited District Court Judge Jane McMeeken to hand out prizes.

"The judge had put many of the youngsters in there and she was delighted to see them so engaged with the sport. Our plan is to next have teams from the outside visiting Rolleston for games."

Basketball parents and supporters are generally regarded as being better behaved than those involved in rugby, league and soccer. It is reckoned about 70,000 people are playing the sport at an organised level in New Zealand, and 50,000 are registered players - making basketball the biggest winter sports code after rugby, football and netball.

Unlike most other codes, there are no national-level initiatives to encourage good courtside behaviour at basketball matches, says Iain Potter, chief executive of Basketball NZ. Some regions have adopted their own programmes.

In Invercargill, the Southland Basketball Association teamed with a local family violence group to spread the word that any form of physical and verbal abuse is not on.

"Basketball is a physical game and there is a lot of passion in the stands," Potter says. "Occasionally we have some over-enthusiastic parents having a go, mainly at the referees, but fortunately most people are well behaved.

"However, the sport is growing extremely fast at a recreational level and we have to make sure that this good behaviour is maintained. I applaud initiatives like "There's A Better Way" that perform a good, strong community role."

Despite the squeaky-clean reputation, there have been a few blips along the way.

Jacqui Nassau, operations manager at College Sport Auckland, recalls hearing of a shocking incident following a tensely-fought school game.

"I have heard some pretty extreme stuff, including one parent who tried to run down a basketball referee in a school carpark after a match two years ago. We have to get a consistent message across that bad behaviour is not acceptable."

Melony Wealleans, referee coordinator for Basketball NZ, has been officiating for almost 30 years. She insists most of the aggro directed at refs comes from players and coaches, rather than supporters.

"The coaches are more aggressive at junior level but a lot of that stems from them being volunteers." More education would help, she says.

Meanwhile, back in Papatoetoe, Green is being mobbed by pupils at Holy Cross primary, excitedly queuing to have their free basketball shirts autographed. "This is what it is all about," he grins. "If we can get the attention of kids at this age and sustain it, whole communities could be saved from a lot of grief."

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