When Jack McHale and George Komar founded Burke Basketball in 1992, they knew the organization had to be more than just a way to sweat things out on the court. They envisioned a community of players who share a similar spirit. Loving basketball is part of it, but coming together for camaraderie, fun, team spirit and learning is what it’s really about.
Burke Basketball, a chartered organization through the county, draws from the Burke, Fairfax, Fairfax Station, Clifton and Springfield areas. The league’s uniforms are even made in the local community: at Burke Sporting Goods.
But Burke Basketball is not just for children. McHale started the Gray Hair League several years ago, making the age range among Burke Basketball’s members a large one. Players are anywhere from 5 to 75, and their athletic ability is all across the board as well. Four programs exist within the organization: gray hair, travel, instructional and house.
And the benches are not as warm as other leagues’ benches, no matter what program a player is in.
"Everyone has to play all games, at least half a game," McHale said, emphasizing the importance of giving everyone an equal chance at playtime.
Playtime is what teaches players, he said, and the teaching doesn’t stop there. Burke Basketball offers a winter clinic at Terra Centre Elementary, for 5-and-6-year-olds. The clinic, called the Instructional Program, teaches children the basketball basics. What it really teaches them though, is to have fun and contribute to a team.
"They love being teammates," McHale said.
And the Instructional Program’s popularity has exploded. It started with about 50 to 60 children, and now it attracts more than 500, said Richard Esposito, Burke Basketball’s community outreach director.
"It puts big smiles on their faces," said Esposito.
For the house and travel team players, skills and training clinics are offered through Lessons Learned Hoops — an organization of qualified coaches that provides instruction to local basketball organizations. The four weekly sessions teach children, ranging in age from 7 to 18, the fundamentals of basketball, according to Burke Basketball’s Web site. The basketball fundamentals include footwork, ball handling and shooting.
Samantha Partonen, who will be a sophomore at Robinson Secondary next year, no longer plays with Burke Basketball because of her conflicting high school schedule, but attributes much of her athleticism to the organization. Samantha made the varsity team at Robinson her freshman year.
"It just helped me develop as a player, so I was able to make my high school team," Samantha said.
BURKE BASKETBALL is also preaching education to its coaches. All coaches must attend training seminars that teach them to be positive mentors to the children. Since children make up about 1,700 of Burke Basketball’s 2,000 members, they’re the main focus.
"There’s a two-day session with the coaches, and we also train all our own referees," said McHale.
The incoming Burke Basketball president, Dave Baciocco, is another way the organization will keep things alive and interesting, said McHale. Baciocco wants to increase the number of clinics and the program’s community involvement, and his background is something everyone is excited about. His children are basketball players and he’s the junior varsity summer coach at Robinson, McHale said. "He loves basketball."
"Dave’s knowledge of basketball and enthusiasm will help take this organization to the next level," said Esposito. However, said McHale, one thing holding Burke Basketball back is gym space. Much like the county’s lack of large soccer fields, used for sports like soccer, football and lacrosse, enough gymnasiums aren’t available to accommodate all of the county’s basketball players, he said. Currently, Burke Basketball conducts practices for its teams during basketball season, which runs from November through April.
So, the organization practices where it can. Players use the Burke School’s gym whenever it is not in use, along with many other Burke and Fairfax schools gyms. The Robinson gym is another partial home to Burke Basketball, especially because of one special night every year.
"It’s the biggest night in Burke, we believe," said McHale.
When Robinson and Lake Braddock play the big game of the year, whichever gymnasium the game is at becomes Burke Basketball’s gymnasium, McHale said. The schools waive the entry fee to those wearing their Burke Basketball jerseys, and the gym becomes its own community. And the standing room only makes it feel like an NCAA Final Four game, he said.
"Burke Basketball Night speaks to more of a community event than a sporting event," McHale said.
And that community is what gives Burke its own town hall, or main street, for those who play in the league. For the 2,000 people who shoot hoops, Burke Basketball is the glue that holds Burke together. At least that is how one enthusiastic co-founder sees it.