It was a surprise. A local basketball team was given free tickets and transportation to see the Erie BayHawks. But not just any basketball team. It was the Meadville Ballers.
The Ballers are a team spanning a wide age range — five to 18 years old — that gives those who, for one reason or another, did not make their school team a chance to play. The Ballers play adult teams from around the community, including groups from affordable housing nonprofit Common Roots, Thankful Thursdays, Meadville Calendar and officers from the Meadville Police Department.
The Meadville Ballers formed about three years ago, according to Rosemary Richardson, one of the coaches of the team, when a group of parents, looking for outlets for their kids to play basketball when they either didn’t make the school roster or were let go from it, created their own group. The team plays at Second District Elementary School and is open to any student interested. The Ballers currently have 31 members, according to Richardson.
“We all are one group,” Richardson said. “They play together. The little kids mix in with the big kids. Believe it or not, they can play.”
Former Meadville Sgt. Neil Falco and a group of officers played the opening game of the Ballers’ first season, forging a connection with the department and a tradition of returning every year. When Falco pursued other opportunities, Officer Vince Trenga stepped up to continue the tradition.
"Rosemary reached out to me to help organize a game with them, just to make a special kind of experience for them to play against the police officers and see us outside of our uniform and see us in shorts and a T-shirt on the basketball court," Trenga said. "It’s a special feeling for everybody to experience — just to see us as real people."
Soon Trenga had an idea. The officer has a second job working security for the National Basketball Association, specifically for the Erie BayHawks, an NBA G League team. After discussions with Richardson, Trenga spoke with the BayHawks' ticketing manager about the Ballers and the police connection.
"I wanted to provide them with an experience they wouldn’t have otherwise had," Trenga said. "We both agreed it seemed like the right thing to do to get them to a game to see what it was like."
Trenga was able to secure 40 seats, free of charge, in a special section right behind the BayHawks players bench for Saturday's game between Erie and the Westchester Knicks of Westchester County, New York, at Erie Insurance Arena.
"They were excited, as you can imagine," Richardson said. "A lot of the kids had never been to a professional basketball game before."
The Ballers still faced the problem of affording transportation. Richardson had a conversation with Lee Scandinaro, community coordinator for the Meadville Neighborhood Center, who suggested crowdfunding on Facebook. Within an hour, they raised enough money for a bus, $300 in total, something that came two days prior to the game.
"It made my heart melt," Richardson said. "I definitely didn’t expect it to happen, especially not that quick."
The BayHawks won against the Knicks by one point in double overtime, a game characterized by Richardson as "intense" but "definitely the best game to go to."
Trenga was hopeful his continued participation with the Ballers would help improve community relationships with the police department and considered it "a great honor" to be able to help them see the game.
"I think it’s very heart-warming," Trenga said. "I think it’s a really good program, and I would do anything I could to stay involved with them, to encourage them to stick with it."
Richardson was very appreciative of Trenga's gift and emphasized the importance of the Ballers as an outlet for kids to grow and stay social in a friendly environment.
"We just want them to come play, have fun and learn," Richardson said. "It keeps them happy and out of the streets and a sense of a home where they’re always welcome."
Tyler Dague can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.