Basketball camp set at YMCA
SIKESTON -- When Captain "Magic" Valentino Willis was introduced to the assembled group of kids at the First Baptist Church, he marched through the doors and stole the show.
Immediately he had captivated the audience with his energy and excitement and his talent with a basketball.
Willis, who has been called the "Clown Prince of Basketball" of the Harlem Swish Comedy Basketball Team, isn't just a funny guy that entertains children.
He has a serious message.
"My main thing is saving these kids from drugs, alcohol and cigarettes," said Willis. "So many kids are taking these things and fighting with their teachers, so I go to elementary schools, middle schools and high schools and do an hour program. I tell the kids that, 'if I was on drugs, I can't spin the ball on my finger. If I was drinking alcohol, I couldn't do these tricks. Listen to mommy and daddy, your teachers, your coaches, your counselors, and don't take drugs. Stay in school. You kids are the future of the world.'"
Willis, a Norfolk State University product, was drafted initially by the New Jersey Nets, but he ended up playing in the Eastern Professional Basketball League where he averaged 25 points per game.
After that, Willis joined the Harlem Globetrotters where he played alongside Curly Neal and Marcus Haynes.
He's been entertaining ever since. He's been with the Swish Comedy Basketball team for seven years.
But his true calling didn't come until years later when a good friend of his died from a drug overdose.
That friend, former Maryland Terrapin star Len Bias, overdosed on cocaine just a few days after getting drafted by the Boston Celtics.
Willis knew then what his mission was going to be.
"I got a phone call, 'Len is dead,'" said Willis. "I made my mind up that this is my mission now. My mission now is to get this message to the kids. You've got to listen to mommy and daddy first."
This is Willis' fourth visit to Sikeston. He entertained the Sikeston Junior High back in January.
On Thursday, Willis was at the First Baptist Church to help promote a basketball camp that will be held at the YMCA on July 17 and 18.
"He's very community-oriented and very family-oriented," said Sikeston YMCA program director Chris Hodgkiss. "He does a lot at schools and YMCAs around the country. He's been to the YMCA a couple of times to do family nights and he's been in town to some elementary schools.
"We haven't had a basketball camp at the 'Y' in a couple years, and we wanted to bring somebody in to do a camp and we thought it would be a good thing for Magic to come back with all his experience to keep the kids entertained as well as teaching them some basketball skills."
Willis entertained the children at First Baptist Church will his wide array of ball tricks. Another forte is getting the children involved with the tricks.
But Willis' message is always the first priority.
"I get these kids in an assembly and I show them some tricks and show them that they can have fun without the drugs, alcohol and cigarettes," said Willis. "I get the kids involved and I get the staff involved. I'm trying to help these young generations stay on the right track.
"I'm here to do a demonstration for the kids, show them that we're going to have fun at the basketball camp. I teach them the fundamentals of shooting, dribbling and all that stuff. But at the same time I preach 'no drugs, stay in school.' I have a lot of fun with the kids. I love my kids."
Hodgkiss is hoping that Willis will make Sikeston an annual trip.
"He knows the community of Sikeston and the needs of Sikeston and how it's important to get his message to this area," said Hodgkiss.
"So he really enjoys coming back to our community any time he can. We try to get him to come a couple different times a year. He did a family night for us earlier this year, but this is the first time that we've had him for a basketball camp.
"We're looking forward to the kids coming out to the camp, learning some skills about basketball, but also getting a good lesson in how to be good, successful adults. We look for this to be an annual thing to where he comes back every summer and does a camp in addition to the family nights."
For more information on the basketball camp featuring Magic Valentino Willis, call (573) 472-9622 or register at the YMCA front desk.