Tony Freccero brings passion for hoops to South America’s gifted athletes
Athan Bezaitis, Special to the San Francisco Chronicle
“I’m here to coach basketball,” Tony Freccero kept reminding himself as he looked out the windows of the subway train taking him deep into a Rio de Janeiro favela. Outside, he saw what appeared to be a cardboard city. People crowded into open shacks that looked as if whoever was building them never finished. The poverty was a hundred times worse than in any slum he’d ever seen in the United States. He stood out as an American and knew he would be risking his life on those streets alone.
When he arrived at Bolar Basketball Academy in Rio, Freccero said he was struck by the holes in the roof, the concrete playing floor and bent rims. In the distance, the kids. Some of them weren’t wearing shoes. They were supposed to be 17 and 18 years old but looked much younger and thinner.
Freccero, 26, had paid his own way from his hometown of San Leandro and hardly spoke a word of Portuguese. He’d come to Brazil for the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders, a well-funded program furnished with all the best amenities for the top 50 teen prodigies throughout South America and the Caribbean, but this free clinic was something he volunteered to do because he cared about spreading the game to everyone.
For most of these young Brazilians, some of whom had never played basketball, the camp would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As Freccero was introduced, he saw they were brimming with enthusiasm.
“Bolar isn’t really about basketball, it’s about giving the kids something to do every day so they stay off the streets,” said Freccero, a former Bishop O’Dowd High School and Cal State Hayward point guard.
Bolar administrators informed Freccero, who runs basketball clinics at his Triple Threat Academy for kids throughout the Bay Area, that his being an American would be enough to get the kids to show up. If they became committed to learning a sport and started coming into the local community center every day, that would make the Brazilian project a success.
Freccero packed the house; no one was turned away. For two days, he ran about 35 kids through basic skill drills. Some learned the rules of the game for the first time; all were taught the fundamentals of shooting, passing, defense and dribbling.
“A few were jumping over cones without shoes on. They never once complained,” he said.
When the athletes received their certificates of completion, he saw that they did not want to go home. He wondered what they had, if anything, to go home to.
“I wanted to cry when I saw the poverty, but their resolve was so amazing, ” he said.
At the end of each session, many of the kids, who were given free Triple Threat Academy/Bolar T-shirts, tried to return them, as is the custom for practice jerseys in soccer.
“When we told them they could keep them, they were shocked,” he recalled. “They couldn’t believe that an American cared enough to come do this for them. ” After two days at Bolar, Freccero shifted gears, going back into the city to coach the top young talent on the continent. He knew he’d be working side by side with the best players and coaches in the world. Freccero faced a new set of demons. He knew the game well but was still young to be a coach. And as a player, although he was good, he was never NBA material. He would have to prove he belonged.
“Bolar was quite a different atmosphere than the NBA camp, which basically had unlimited resources,” he said.
At Basketball Without Borders, which was held in Rio from June 28 through July 3, Freccero worked alongside NBA staffers such as Tony Ronzone, international scout for the Detroit Pistons, and NBA players such as Nene of the Denver Nuggets and Leandro Barbosa of the Phoenix Suns, both Brazilian natives.
“BWB is a social program,” said Sharon Lima, public relations coordinator for the NBA’s Latin American office, “part of the NBA’s effort at community outreach to the world.”
The clinic in Rio was the first of three programs this summer for the top 50 players ages 16 to 17 from Africa, South America and Europe.
In addition to basketball instruction, the athletes received life tutorials for an hour and a half a day. They had seminars on teamwork, leadership, responsibility, respect and character, and on the final day, a group from Rio came in to talk about AIDS/HIV prevention and awareness.
“In the NBA, it’s very important for us to teach kids in our home country, ” said point guard Barbosa, who is from Sao Paulo.
Freccero worked with Barbosa on dribbling drills from basic to advanced levels at their station. He worked the kids hard to earn their respect along with the admiration of his fellow coaches. It worked.
“He does a great job working with kids at his camps. I thought he would be a wonderful addition to the NBA staff,” said Ronzone.
Barbosa and Freccero complemented each other well despite coming from separate worlds. Barbosa, 21, is a gifted athlete who converted to basketball from soccer when his older brother introduced him to the game as a kid. Freccero played basketball from the first day he entered Bishop O’Dowd’s highly touted program in Oakland. They shared a work ethic and had the same five-day mission at the camp: to pass on everything they knew about basketball from drills to no-look passes to beating a zone defense.
“Every one of them wanted to come here (to the United States) to play basketball,” Freccero said. Some will. One boy from Jamaica at the clinic was on his way to Marist College in New York next fall. Freccero thought that a few others eventually would sign European professional contracts. With Freccero’s help, one of the boys from Bolar, a 6-foot-8 power forward, recently was offered a full scholarship worth more than $100,000 to play basketball and attend Holy Names College in Oakland.
“That alone makes my trip worthwhile,” Freccero said.
But is the lure of NBA fame and fortune giving these kids false hopes?
“The reality for them is the same for kids here; maybe one kid will go to the league,” Freccero said, “But to say that the NBA is giving them false hopes, I don’t agree. … It’s just like Harvard recruiting top kids for their business school. The NBA is a business, after all, but at least they’re doing something positive.”
Ronzone believes that most of the kids, who got to leave their native countries for the first time, were just happy to be there.
“All the kids’ eyes light up around this kind of environment. The NBA is spreading the game globally, just like baseball, ” he said.
Freccero intends to share what he’s learned abroad with American youths. Having witnessed how the sport can help the Bolar kids and how hard the young
men at the Rio camp are working to come stateside to play, he wants to show just how fortunate American kids are to have the opportunities they do with basketball.
“The overbearing theme of all my camps is that if you work as hard as you can and don’t make it, you at least have the work ethic to pursue some other endeavor besides basketball,” Freccero said.
For more information, visit www.triplethreatonline.com or call (510) 432-0742. Athan Bezaitis is a freelance writer.