An Inner Southeast man has made girls' basketball his mission...and registration is open now

ELIZABETH USSHER GROFF - Woodstock resident Steve Cooper has been planting lawn signs to recruit players for the Southeast Portland Girls Basketball Club, for which practice begins this month. He does always ask permission before placing the signs! What would motivate a middle-aged man to devote thirty years to coaching girls' basketball?

For Steve Cooper, a Woodstock resident, it began when his wife Sarah, volunteering at Lewis Elementary School thirty years ago, told him that the coach for the girls' basketball team was moving away. Sarah volunteered Steve – and he was off and running.

"I had no experience [coaching basketball] but our two daughters had been playing basketball at Lewis, so I put together a team of twelve girls," he recalls.

Cooper passed out fliers to recruit the girls, and then teamed up with Sarah Clement, a youth basketball player who became a coach. The pair were successful in putting together third grade teams from other schools, and formed a club.

The now-well-known nonprofit "Southeast Portland Girls Basketball Club" has always been known for its equity and diversity. "Our program is pretty unique. We take anyone who wants to play," says Cooper. "We don't charge huge amounts of money, and there are no try-outs, no discrimination. In the past we had a player with hearing problems, and another with a withered hand who went on to play at Cleveland High School."

Sarah Clement continued to coach along with Cooper for many years until she got a full-time job, a husband, and a baby. But she is still on the Board of the club.

For the first few years back in the 1990's, the third-grade teams did not play competitively until a friend suggested they play in tournaments. They saw more established teams playing in uniforms, so Cooper used his past skills at fundraising (for NW Impact and Portland Civic Theatre) to fund uniforms.

He also knew that getting girls from a level of having no skills to a competitive level requires parent involvement. "The commitment and hard work sometimes surprises parents," observes Cooper. "But today the club has parents doing statistics, assistant coaching, and participating at practice sessions.

"It's a challenge to get parents to commit to what it takes. But at the end of the first year, parents say they can't believe that their girls have learned so much.

"In addition to the body and eye coordination, they learn how hard you have to work to have your dreams and goals achieved. We aim to have our girls gain the confidence and skills to go onto high school basketball," explains Cooper.

But overall, life skills are never overlooked in the basketball program. "Our focus, first and foremost, is to have a long-term positive impact on the lives of the girls in our program, and to value the life-long friendships that are formed." Building character, teamwork, discipline, personal responsibility, academic achievement, and a competitive edge are the club's goals.

Cooper is always looking to form partnerships. A recent addition to the club is Tim Bieri, the basketball coach at Multnomah University. "He helps design and run our [summer] camps – which run 4 days a week, 6 hours per day. He volunteers because he likes our program, as well as our commitment to using basketball to teach life lessons," smiles Cooper.

This year the club has girls from twenty-one local elementary and middle schools, who will eventually feed into Cleveland and Franklin High Schools.

Cooper is personally visiting all twenty-one participating schools to talk with Principals about getting out the word, and e-mails are being sent to every teacher and staff member to help with recruitment. One hundred lawn signs have gone up, with Cooper knocking on doors to get permission to post them.

Registration for the club is still open for new student players; parents with children just finishing soccer or other some other sport should sign up ASAP, Cooper tells THE BEE. Practices start mid-November, games start in January.

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