Basketball is one of the games Dundee's Youth Sport Development Project is using to improve the prospects of inner city youths, writes Roddy Mackenzie
If basketball was created as a pastime for the middle classes, there is no doubt its popularity owes much to American cities. Many of the players in the National Basketball Association of the United States learned their trade on city streets and some even argue that the best players are still found in the toughest inner city areas.
Dundee has been using basketball, one of the sports in its Youth Sport Development Project, to help primary children. The project, funded by the Scottish Executive and Dundee City Council through the Social Inclusion Partnership, aims to increase opportunities for physical activity among under-18s living in deprived areas.
In some of the most disadvantaged areas of the city, basketball is more popular than ever. In addition to helping the development of children, some players now coming through the project could make a name for themselves in the game.
Chris Dodds, the basketball development officer for SportTayside, is in the process of finalising an under-12 mixed squad for the primary schools inter-regional competition in Tranent on April 24 and says he will be surprised if at least two or three children from the Youth Sport Development Project are not included.
"Basketball has experienced a number of peaks and troughs in the past 10 years but it is buzzing in Tayside just now," he says.
"There are 32 secondary schools in Tayside and each has between six and 10 cluster primary schools. We hope to reach 30-40 per cent this year and build it up to 75 per cent next year. If we can get to 120 primary schools then, with 10 on a team, we'd be reaching 1,200 children by next year.
"We have regional squads at under-12, under-14 and under-15 level and part of my job is to set up basketball programmes for the Youth Sport Development Project, which are working really well.
"There was one pupil in a Forfar primary who had behavioural problems and since he joined the basketball team, not only has his behaviour improved but his exam results have shot up as well.
"It's a sport that youngsters are seeing more and more on TV and some of the stars of the game in America are now household names over here, like Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal.
"There is even a Scot, Robert Archibald, who went to Dunfermline High. He went on to play for four NBA clubs and now plays in Italy. So it shows that you can grow up in Scotland and go on to play at the highest level.
"There is also a player, Gareth Murray, who played for Arbroath Musketeers juniors in 2002 and has spent two years on a scholarship at college in Michigan."
Beate Petersen, the development officer with the Youth Sport Development Project, underlines the importance of getting into primary schools in problem areas in the city. "We use sport as a tool to get people involved, not only pupils but also volunteers and parents in areas of deprivation in the city," she explains. "We assist in breaking down the barriers.
"We are involved in a variety of sports as we react to the demand.
"We have a fair play policy and try to show it's not all about winning and losing. That is why we have prizes for behaviour in sport.
"There are a lot of issues with aggression and sport teaches the values of sticking to rules and of forming relationships with team members. It also helps to build up confidence and self-discipline.
"We want to leave a programme that's sustainable and teachers and volunteers can build on," she says.
As part of the project, one officer, Jamie McBrearty, is assigned to the Springboard programme, which deals with children from the age of 14 upwards and tries to steer them into a future in sport, be it basketball or whatever.
"This is aimed at pupils who are on the brink of exclusion for various reasons. Maybe they are finding it difficult to cope at school or are in a learning support unit or have offended," Ms Petersen says. "This programme seeks to help these individuals, whether they want to become a coach in their community, receive funding for a Scottish Football Association course or just gain a coaching qualification - whatever assists them to achieve a qualification that can help them pursue a career in sport."
While future funding for the project is unclear (some has been secured from the Community Regeneration Fund but applications for further support from SportScotland are still being assessed), money has been received from the Scottish Executive's Better Neighbourhood Services Fund to provide a multi-purpose outdoor court which can be moved from school to school.
There is evidence that basketball has a new lease of life on Tayside.
Arbroath High is through to the final of the girls' open tournament of the Royal Bank Scottish Schools Cups, which will be played at Linwood this weekend, and the school has a place in the semi-finals of the boys' open cup. So far, it has never managed to win one of the senior trophies but there are high hopes that that could change this month.
There is also a strong possibility that Tayside will have a senior Scottish League team for the first time in over 10 years next season. Perth Club has been working closely with secondary schools in the area and it is now convinced it has the framework to sustain a national league presence.
"A lot of children are playing and a lot of schools have lunchtime sessions and after-school clubs. Our festivals are all well attended," says Mr Dodds. "In fact, we are now having to train more coaches to cope with the demand."