Book and Ball: Summer Camp at Epiphany Mixes Jump Shots With Summer Reading

"All you gotta do out here is care! Just care!" Mark Hall throws his big arms up and he looks like someone whose words should be heeded. But Hall is the "good cop," not the one feared by campers and aspiring hoopsters at Hoops for Hopes, in session this week at the Epiphany School.

The "bad cop" role falls to Juma Crawford, "Crazy Man" Crawford, as Hall calls him. He's the one who blows the whistle and instructs his charges to "line up on the baseline," perhaps the most dreaded words to the ears of anyone who ever laced up a pair of basketball shoes.

The "three-man weave" drill has hit a snag, even when executed by three young women, and now the offending campers must pay a price, one that will drive them further into oxygen debt.

It's not even 10 a.m. at summer camp, and the six teenagers are sucking wind and sweating.

"You have to do things you don't want to do sometimes in life," Crawford says later. "Whether it's showing up for class on time or paying your bills. Sometimes you have to do the things you have to do. And you have to do it right."

Doing it right is the distilled message of the combination basketball camp "academic enrichment" curriculum that Hall, Crawford, and program director Emilie Schnitman are conducting at the Epiphany, on Centre St. In its first year, the weeklong program blends basketball instruction-pretty intensive on Tuesday morning -with academic guidance like helping the 9th,10th, and 11th graders with their summer reading.

"Basketball is the hook," says Schnitman, who started the athletic program at the Codman Academy Charter School two years ago. "It's a basketball camp, but what we're really trying to do is give them direction in life."

Schnitman works now at Belmont Day School and was planning a soccer camp for Belmont kids. But she noticed a greater need for roundball hopefuls from Dorchester, Hyde Park, Roslindale, Roxbury, and Mattapan. And, drawing on her own Dartmouth College and Harvard Graduate School of Education training, she saw an opportunity to blend sports with school. The morning is for basketball. In the afternoon, reading, then reflecting, debriefing, and then writing in a journal.

"These kids really need so much more than just basketball, because they're all college-bound, they just needed the guidance," Schnitman says.

"Guidance" may not be the way the Codman Academy students on summer break look at the set of "suicide" sprint drills that "Crazy Man" Crawford has assigned. Crawford, now a Codman Academy teacher, was a swimmer and soccer player at Amherst College, where he met Hall, who played on the Amherst basketball team. The whistle-toting duo seems to have learned a few exercises that tax the cardio.

"I've never worked so hard in my life as I am right now," says Joyce Mendes, a 16-year-old power forward from Roxbury. She says she enjoys the mix of ball and book.

"If you really love the game and you want to be a part of it, it helps keep your mind on your studies," Mendes says. "There's things you've got to live up to."