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A new age for youth sports?

Showtime Athletics founder wants to change the way kids play

Les Harrison is out to do no less than revolutionize the world of youth sports.

He's starting right here in Portland. But he has visions of spreading his sports-is-life philosophy across the country through a company he has launched called Showtime Athletics Inc.

His plan is to field a corps of trained coaches who would combat the disrespectful behavior, violence and win-at-all cost attitudes that plague today's youth sports. Showtime will certify the coaches, insist that parents take part in practices, and stress personal and team growth over team victories, Harrison says. Moreover, the programs will be open to anyone. Kids whose parents can't afford to pay will receive scholarships.

For 12 years, Leslie Raynard Harrison, 39, played basketball and traveled the world with a succession of Meadowlark Lemon teams including the Harlem All Stars and the Shooting Stars. Lemon is the legendary ex-Harlem Globetrotter and 'Clown Prince of Basketball' who is scheduled to be inducted this fall into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

As a point guard for the George Fox University team in the mid-'80s, Harrison set school records in steals and assists.

He also has logged thousands of hours of coaching at local schools and facilities, including Benson High School, Cascade College, Concordia College and the Multnomah Athletic Club.

To promote Showtime and help raise funds for it, Harrison has enlisted high-profile acquaintances, including former and current Portland Trail Blazers, whose names he won't disclose, and other NBA players who would serve as scholarship sponsors and coaches.

Chief among Harrison's supporters is Lemon, now an ordained minister in Arizona.

Says Lemon: 'Les can pull this off. He's bright, an excellent athlete and an excellent coach.'

So far, Harrison has signed up about 70 kids for Showtime's regular season next year, enough for six or seven teams, and is working on Lemon to lead Showtime's programs in Arizona.

Harrison believes Showtime's market is 'unlimited.' About 25 million kids take part in organized athletics in the United States. In Portland alone, at least 5,000 boys and girls play basketball and 10,000 play soccer, according to Andre Ashley, supervisor of the sports department for Portland Parks & Recreation.

Those statistics reflect a growth trend.

In 1991, 30,000 kids were members of the Oregon Youth Soccer Association; now there are 61,000, says Chuck Keers, executive director of the association.

'We're seeing a boom here and across the nation,' says Karl Easttorp, programming director for the Hoop in Beaverton, which provides gym space and organizes leagues of basketball teams.

That boom, driven by parents anxious to see their children take part in athletics, has given the youth sports industry a boost.

Parents can spend as little as $20 per season to sign a child up for an athletic team through Portland Parks & Recreation, Ashley says. However, if their child plays a sport year-round in municipal youth leagues, they can spend thousands of dollars annually. The parents of elite soccer players spend up to $4,000 a year, Keers says, which includes club dues, the cost of paid coaches and travel to out-of-state tournaments.

Some parents also enroll their children in yoga classes, speed and agility courses, and summer sports camps. They even hire sports psychologists to improve their kids' mental game, at a cost of about $100 an hour, says Mark Henry, founder of the Sport Psychology Institute Northwest in Lake Oswego.

Showtime's costs will be higher than fees for participation in a typical Portland Parks & Recreation team but won't soar into the stratosphere. Parents will pay $375 per season plus $85 for a one-week summer camp, Harrison says.

Quality coaching matters

Given that kids are funneling so much energy into sports, Showtime wants to ensure they grow from the experience, Harrison says.

Most boys and girls now join teams coached by volunteers. However, the young athletes' experiences vary widely, depending on coaches' personalities and training.

In addition, kids' experiences can be undermined by overcompetitive parents.

'I've seen coaches, parents, players and officials get worked up during games,' Ashley says. 'The coaches have no control. You always have somebody out of the four acting up during a contest.'

Harrison and his supporters want to provide children with a standardized program.

'We want to make sure that no matter where kids go, once they are part of Showtime, they'll get the same quality,' says Kevin

Doherty, a former Portland State University basketball and football coach who played with the 1973 national champion Notre Dame football team under Ara Parseghian.

Parents play integral part

Injecting the youth sports scene with consistent quality is a much-needed idea, says Ashley of Portland Parks & Recreation.

'We would support Les' idea wholeheartedly,' he says. 'It's long overdue. You have too many armchair quarterbacks. They don't know how to conduct themselves during sporting events. I see it every Saturday.'

Saturday sports matches will be different, in the world according to Harrison. Parents would no longer serve as unpaid coaches. Instead, teams and leagues will be managed by trained and paid coaches.

'It would improve coaching and eliminate people who coach because there's no one else to do it,' Harrison says.

After Harrison's revolution, parents no longer will drop their kids at the gym and drive away. They will be required to take part in at least five practices to learn more about the game and acquire empathy for their children. And, most importantly, Showtime will focus on creating well-disciplined players with skills transferable to the classroom and family dining room table. No longer will kids Ñ and parents ÑÊyell at referees or break into fistfights during games.

'Sports is a vehicle for teaching you how to work with people, to tolerate people and to become effective family members,' Harrison says. Once children embrace this philosophy and hone their skills with trained coaches, it's 'Showtime,' Harrison says.

'We've worked hard all week; now it's time to come to a game and show what we can do as a team.'

Although Harrison has gold-plated intentions and a bevy of well-placed friends, he faces obstacles, says Greg Barton, junior sports manager for the Multnomah Athletic Club. One, he says, is gym availability.

Another, says Easttorp, is convincing parents and players to break away from tradition. 'If people have been doing basketball the same way for many years, it's hard to get them to change.'

But if anyone can convince people to change, it's Harrison, Barton says.

'I have nothing but respect for Les,' he says. 'Here's hoping a nice guy finishes first. He's done a lot of great things for kids and has come up with a concept that may help kids all over the place.'