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Phelps leads initiative against violence

Andrew Owens | Friday, September 21, 2012

This summer, Larry Whitmore was playing basketball with a group of friends when Richard “Digger” Phelps approached him. The former Notre Dame men’s basketball coach had a simple message for him.

“Let’s find a way to get you back to school,” he said.

With Phelps’ prodding, Whitmore hopes to play junior college basketball, inspired by the example of Dallas Mavericks center Bernard James. James, 27, entered the Air Force after experiencing difficulty in high school. After he returned to the United States, James played basketball at a junior college before transferring to Florida State and reaching the NBA.

“Last year, [James] was on that team that beat Duke twice, [North] Carolina twice and they get an NCAA tournament bid,” Phelps said. “The idea is to give these kids hope using basketball as a hook.”

During his coaching days, Phelps was a game-changer. These days, he’s a life-changer.

Phelps, who works as an ESPN college basketball analyst, returned from the Final Four in April to find a disturbing headline in the South Bend Tribune.

“It said, ‘Youth violence on the rise,’ ” he said. “I knew it was go-time.”

At a 200-person meeting the following week, Phelps pledged to lead an initiative to empower South Bend youth to pick up the books and drop the weapons.

“I said, ‘I’ll coach it,’ ” he said. “From that time on, from 8 [a.m.] to 5 [p.m.], sometimes later, I just tried to identify as many community assets as I could.”

A month later, 700 people attended a town hall meeting at the Kroc Center to implement the plan: Focus on reaching children from kindergarten through fourth grade, as well as middle school and high school programs, and place them in school and after-school programs.

“When you get a kid at age 6, it’s a 10-year investment, so by the time he or she is 16, they see there are other options,” Phelps said. “We’re always going to have some sort of violence. … But we can get kids focused to pull it down to where it’s not [as bad], and say, ‘Enough’s enough,’ and show these young people there are other options.”

Community leaders George Azar of the Rise Up Academy and The Crossing’s Rob Staley have worked with Phelps to assist students struggling in school and to get high school drop-outs to transition to education or work. John McCaskill, regional supervisor of Kraft Foods, told Phelps the company will find jobs for targeted youth, even those with a blemish on their records.

“That was the model for the drop-outs, and from that standpoint, now let’s go to work,” Phelps said.

Naturally, Phelps wanted to integrate basketball into the community initiative to reach as many youth as possible. He and three South Bend leaders recruited over 40 kids to join a Friday night basketball league at the Kroc Center this summer.

“We used basketball as a hook. Starting in November, we’re going to have an eight-team league out there,” said Phelps, who volunteered to fund the league at $250 per team.

Phelps, who has also funded programs in Memphis and New Orleans, credits University President Emeritus Fr. Ted Hesburgh as his own inspiration.

“He’s got me from coaching basketball to coaching the streets,” Phelps said. “I’ve done it ever since I left here [in 1991]. I saw Hesburgh at a function [in 1997] and told him I started a mentoring program to have people give up one lunch and go in with a high-risk kid, and I told him I’m working at ESPN. He said, ‘That’s it?’ “

Phelps said Notre Dame students can help make a difference in South Bend, which reported its 13th homicide of 2012 this week, nearly as many as those incurred in 2010 and 2011 combined.

“We’re Notre Dame,” he said. “It’s up to the [students] to carry on the mystique and tradition of what this place is all about. Look at the [Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE)]. The ACE program, led by Fr. [Tim] Scully, typifies the mission of the CSC. If you’re distracted from [outreach], you’ve failed Notre Dame. Notre Dame hasn’t failed you.”

And each day, Phelps works to make sure the South Bend community doesn’t fail its youth.

Contact Andrew Owens at
aowens2@nd.edu