BUCKTOWN — Coronavirus canceled many children’s activities this summer, but one basketball camp is still underway, bringing kids from across the city to Bucktown.
Hoopademix, a youth basketball instruction and mentorship program, is meeting for outdoor practices at Fleet Fields, a set of soccer fields on the Bucktown side of the Lincoln Yards megadevelopment. Developer Sterling Bay lent the fields, 1397 W. Wabansia Ave., to the camp for free.
The pandemic shut down the camp, however.
To keep the campers active, Monson sent out workouts via email and text, but students and their parents asked if there was a way he could safely coach kids in-person.
Knowing camp would have to be outdoors, Monson thought about his memories of playing basketball outside in 90-degree heat during childhood trips to Mississippi. He thought about where in Chicago he could make outdoor courts from scratch.
Monson sent emails to about 40 people and toured a handful of sites before connecting with Sterling Bay, a developer with a lot of land in the middle of the city.
The developer was willing to convert Fleet Fields, formerly publicly available soccer fields, into what Monson needed for Hoopademix.
The North Lawndale resident and Chicago Public Schools educator created the program to bring kids from different backgrounds together through basketball — a mission that became even more critical during nationwide protests after police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“I wanted to use the game of basketball to destroy the institution of racism,” Monson said. “To weed out insecurities these groups have. … Being able to put everybody under the same umbrella at an early age … it’s a really different, beautiful thing when you get a kid from the Gold Coast mixed with a kid from Englewood.”
Socially distanced summer camp looks a lot different than a typical Hoopademix season.
All campers are playing in groups of no more than six children. Basketballs are sanitized between use and players wash their hands every hour. Players are temperature checked upon arrival.
“We want to provide a contactless camp, a distanced camp,” Monson said. “We compete at 6 feet. I think we say ‘6 feet’ over a thousand times a day.”
Players show up in three-hour blocks: Younger children play 9 a.m.-noon and 1-4 p.m. while high schoolers play 5-6:30 p.m.
The first 20 minutes of camp is “open play,” but no one-on-one play is allowed. The next hour and a half is spent on cardio exercises and individual skill development. The final hour is game competition, but games are contactless — “knockout,” for example.
About four weeks into camp, these protocols were put to the test when one camper tested positive for coronavirus. The camper’s sibling had tested positive, as well, after the family returned from a trip, Monson said.
The day Monson learned about the positive case, he shut down camp and ordered rapid testing and send-away testing for each of his coaches and staff. The children in the sick player’s group were tested, as well. Every person tested was negative and camp has since resumed.
Monson credited his safety protocols and the “blessing from God” for protecting campers and staff.
‘We Become The Bridge’
Monson, 37, played for his team at Farragut Career Academy High School. Nothing like Hoopademix existed in Chicago when he was in school, he said. His program has helped create a safety net for students from disinvested neighborhoods.
About 60 percent of the program’s 200 players pay program fees; they come from families who can afford the costs of uniforms and travel. The remaining 40 percent of participants do not pay a dime, Monson said.
During regular seasons, the program pays for those players to get to and from practices, as well as for uniforms, equipment and transportation to games, which can take place in the suburbs or as far as Las Vegas.
The average cost to support these students is about $1,250 per season or $3,750 annually. Hoopademix relies on donations, sponsorships and volunteers to offset costs.
“They come from neighborhoods that have little to no social programs. We become the bridge between the kid and the school, between the kid and the community, the kid and their parent,” Monson said.
Hosting Hoopademix this summer provided a healthy outlet for several students from neighborhoods experiencing high levels of gun violence and coronavirus case rates, Monson said.
During a typical year, there are three travel seasons. In the fall and winter, kids in second through eighth grade play. High schoolers join them in the spring.
Grade checks and attendance checks are a big part of being in Hoopademix, Monson said. The program’s name is a mix of “hoops” and “academics” — the public school teacher’s two passions.
In all, about 300 students try out each year, Monson said.
“I try not to cut, but because of the gym rental space in Chicago, it’s like an endangered species,” Monson said. “I can only keep so many teams.”
There are three weeks left of summer camp and Monson is not currently at capacity, so players can still sign up if interested. Learn more online.
Those who want to donate or become a sponsor can learn more online. Hoopademix is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
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