PEMBROKE — Standing on the court at the English E. Jones Center on the campus of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke on Wednesday, Nigel Grant was fulfilled.
A rising senior for the Braves’ men’s basketball team, Grant and his teammates had just finished a three-day camp for roughly 125 kids from the region.
“I started to get to know their names,” said Grant, who clapped and cheered on his group of kids throughout the day. “It definitely energizes me seeing that (the kids were) getting better. You see their improvement within a few days and it’s great.”
It was one example of what UNCP coach Ben Miller likes most about the camp each year — seeing the connection between his players and the campers.
“That’s made a big impact,” said Miller, whose team claimed a pair of Peach Belt Conference titles last season.
“I think if you get kids in the community excited about your program, that’s going to get the families involved. It’s really neat to see. There are some kids here that have been five or six years in a row. They start to build those relationships with our players.”
With sneakers squeaking, basketballs bouncing and music pumping throughout the gym early Wednesday morning, campers went through a plethora of drills within their groups.
And it was clear that shooting proved to be the favorite drill for Mitchell Smith and J.T. Hepler, a pair of 9-year-old basketball players who call Lumberton home.
The soft-spoken Hepler said “playing knockout” was the highlight of his day. The main objective of the game is to make a shot before the player in front of you. If that happens, you knock the player in front of you out.
“I liked knocking them out,” Hepler said with a smile. “I’ll do better (next year).”
Smith enjoyed “learning how to ball handle, shoot and pass” but was enthralled with the camp-ending scrimmage between the current and former Braves.
“They were dunking and shooting 3s,” Smith said. “I liked that.”
And he had a favorite Brave as well.
“The little one,” he said, pointing at Alex Bradley, who started at point guard for UNCP last season.
Like Smith, Hepler didn’t know the name of his favorite player — James Murray-Boyles — but he liked the rising junior’s “tall hair.”
For Miller, it was like a family reunion, watching everyone rally around the game he’s loved throughout his life.
“One thing that’s been great is seeing our veterans come back, some of the guys that are playing pro ball or have graduated, along with the returning players and three of our new guys that came in.
“It’s a great week for them to bond and reconnect. This is a fun week for our basketball family to get together.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.