Club Founder Awarded Key To The City
Long before Paterson bestowed Shane Gerald with the key to the city, he was just a good father trying his best to do right by his daughters. He wanted to provide them with an impactful youth sports experience. Little did he know at the time, but that simple motivation would alter the course of his life and the lives of countless girls in the Paterson community. We traveled to Paterson to meet with Gerald and discuss how his N.J. Sparks program has made a cultural impact on the community.
How did the program get started?
I was born and raised here in Paterson. I had great coaches as a youth. They instilled in me the belief that one day I could be a professional player, or at the very least the game could take me to college. They taught the game, not only physically, but also mentally. And when my girls were growing up years later, I thought to myself, “you know what? I need my girls to experience that same kind of teaching.”
So when they started out, there wasn’t a lot of coaching going on. I would never knock a volunteer coach, but essentially they’d just show up, roll the balls out and try their best to get the basketball to the two best players. So instead of trying to change that situation from the outside, I figured I could start my own team and do it the way that I thought was right.
My oldest daughter was a major fan of the L.A. Sparks. This was right when the WNBA was just starting out, and she LOVED Lisa Leslie. So I told her, we’re going to create our own team, what should we name it? And she said the “LA Sparks!” So I explained we couldn’t be the LA Sparks, but we could be the Sparks. From that point on, we had an identity, we were the new kids on the block. (Pictured, former N.J. Sparks player Danielle Patterson with Los Angeles Sparks’ superstar Candice Parker.)
What were some of the challenges in the early days?
When we started, we needed to find girls, because there were already established teams in Paterson. I went to her middle school, she was in second grade at the time, to recruit some of the girls who wanted to play. And we were able to get enough girls to have start a team, that was the first challenge. Then we needed a place to play, so we had to head out to the playground, Paterson school No. 13. And once we had the girls and a place to play, history was made from then on out.
We started off as a town team, and the girls were just learning how to play the game. We were facing solid competition and learning from our mistakes. And by our third or fourth year, we broke through, and we were winning everything. The girls were great, and our staff put in so much hard work. The community started to notice right then and there, that we were taking things seriously and that’s when it flipped from recruiting girls to people seeking us out and putting their daughters, nieces, and cousins into our program. That commitment to good coaching and the infusion of talent led to an incredible run, ten city championships in a row. That led to competing at the state AAU level. And we were able to capture a handful of titles there too. That led to a national schedule, competition-wise, which led to us getting picked up by Adidas. And before you knew it, Nike came and we went with them. So this is all to say, once we cleared those first few hurdles, things really took off for us.
How have you been able to leverage city resources to expand your program?
We still do not have an official facility that we can say this is the home court of the N.J. Sparks. Paterson is the inner city, it is underprivileged, it doesn’t even have its own recreation building. There is a recreation department, and we were fortunate to have relationships inside the department. They saw the important work we were doing in the community, and they gave us access to all the schools that had gym time available. Of the roughly 30 gyms in Paterson, we were given access to 15. We’re able to use the small gyms for our beginners, before fifth grade. Then the seventh and eighth graders got access to larger facilities. And finally, the high school facilities are reserved for our high school girls.
When we’re rolling, I’m all over town, at multiple gyms every single day. I’m the east side for a bit, I’ll drive over the west side for a later practice, it’s a Monday through Sunday grind, if you’re looking for me, I’m in one of the gyms. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. When you see these girls succeed it’s amazing. When they sign a national letter of intent for college, that’s a dream fulfilled. You don’t need to be a WNBA or overseas player, but using basketball as a means to college acceptance, that’s the goal. And we’ve seen these girls achieve that level of success, become better people and then come back to spread that message of hard work and perseverance to the community. (Pictured, former N.J. Sparks player and McDonald’s All-American Raven Farley, now on scholarship at LSU).
You have clearly impacted your community beyond basketball, were you surprised when you were awarded the key to the city?
It was a truly humbling experience and I have to say going into it, it was the furthest thing from my mind. Usually, these things are awarded to men and women who have left the city and achieved tremendous success as a singer, athlete, or rapper. And we’re talking about a small group of people who have received this honor. So for me, as a Paterson product, born and raised, as a city kid who experienced the good and the bad right here, I didn’t envision something like this happening for me. Accolades like this happen to a Tim Thomas or a Victor Cruz or a Fetty Wop, those guys who made it out.
I’m here every day. I’m married for 22 years, a father of three daughters, a protector of my three daughters in this environment, I can’t stress it enough, I’m in it. To do all that, go to work every day, and then give back to the community it became natural. My girls are all five years apart, so it was a way to connect with each of them through sports, so I never thought of it as giving back to the community, it was just what I was doing, and next thing you know 20 years have gone by with this program.
So I’m still in shock that I was given the key to the city, for just doing what I love to do. I tell people all the time, if you think girls’ basketball is the second tier, you’re wrong, you don’t know what you’re missing. To go from an outdoor court to the McCormick Center in Chicago in front of hundreds of scouts, and having sent girls to the WNBA and major D1 programs, it’s a tremendously fulfilling feeling to see that the community and people appreciate it.
After 20 years it’s clear you still have that passion, where does that come from?
It comes down to the passion for the girls, wanting them to succeed. There are a lot of private trainers in this industry that are only in it for the money. We’re trying to elevate our girls through this program, to give them exposure to things beyond basketball. These trainers who are promising the college scholarship, the guaranteed results, they’re only in it for a dollar. They don’t have the commitment we do, to care about the girl when she leaves the gym after a workout. They’re not worrying if she has food on the table at home, has she done her homework, does she have a place to sleep. I don’t want to knock another person’s business, but on our end, we’ve stuck to the same mentality from the start and that’s to help these girls in life.
The three or four hours a day we’re working with the girls is a chance for them to get away from the environment here in Paterson. The drug dealers on the corner, parents who have substance abuse problems, our program is saving a lot of kids from these kinds of negative things. The public schools here have cut their budgets so much, there aren’t the outlets I had growing up. There are no more outdoor courts, there are no more swings, it’s just empty playgrounds. They cut sports, band, music programs, art, music, after-school programs. We have to provide that outlet for the kids ourselves.
At the end of the day, you can’t fake heart. The parents see the passion, and it serves as way for us to grow the program. When they know that we’re fully committed to this, if they’re on the outside looking in, they say to themselves, “I want to be a part of that.”
Did you have a moment growing up that instilled in you the power of community?
I was on the first AAU championship team to come out of Paterson. I was 13-years-old, and I remember we needed to raise money and we were outside of this McDonald’s asking for donations. They call it tagging, when cars stop at the red light I was there with my teammates and we’re basically asking for help for the travel and the hotels. The owner of the McDonald’s came out, “you boys can’t be out here tagging.” Our coach explained that we had won, the first time ever a Paterson team had won the state championship, and we had no other way of raising the funds to fly to St. Louis, Missouri. And Mr. Henderson, the owner, he says okay you boys come inside, off the corner. And he speaks to the whole team, and explains we can’t be tagging anymore and we don’t need to do, because he was going to sponsor the whole thing. That touched me, this guy may have seen us in his restaurant, but he didn’t know us. And for him to do something like that for our team, to do it big, a massive gesture like that, that changed me.
The day we were set to leave, they had us back to McDonald’s for a big breakfast, and they gave us hats and shirts. As we were leaving the restaurant, a big charter bus came. And the customers lined up in two lines outside the door, so we walked through this tunnel of people. And they were cheering, making us feel like superstars at 13-years-old. Those memories will be with me for the rest of my life, and that’s our goal with the program. To give these girls something positive to build on.
How has LeagueApps lent your program a helping hand?
I’m not a paperwork guy, I’m a hands-on guy. I’m blessed to have my wife and Coach Dawn Grant to handle that stuff with LeagueApps, it’s made a tremendous difference for us. Before we used LeagueApps, I’ll be honest, it was a struggle. We would have to physically track down the paperwork. We’d often have people filling out their registration, right before a tryout. And when it comes to costs we try our best to keep our tuition as low as possible, but people want to know where that money is going. We have flights, rental vans and cars, hotels costs. Being able to show the parents with their receipts, to show what’s coming in and out of the program, that’s a major benefit of using LeagueApps. It’s a huge burden lifted off of us, because if our office isn’t in order you have parents getting frustrated, and that frustration is passed to me, which in turn is passed to my staff, and then all of a sudden it’s a negative environment.