At CIAA basketball tournament, ‘Operation Future’ program gets young Baltimoreans on the court

For ninth grade Benjamin Franklin High School student and basketball player Colin Tucker, 16, participating in the CIAA Tournament as a ball kid brings him a step closer to something he’s excited about — moving on to college basketball.

“I always wanted to play at the next level,” he said.

As hoopsters compete in the six-day Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association men’s and women’s basketball tournaments at CFG Bank Arena, young Baltimoreans will also get in on the action — sitting on court to watch games and retrieving basketballs — thanks to “Operation Future,” which took charge of the tournament’s ball kid program 25 years ago.

By sweeping the courts, fetching basketballs and providing referees with water and towels, ball kids get a chance to get closer to the games than most fans, said Robert Chadwick Jr. and Ben Piggott, who have been at the helm of the current program since its inception in North Carolina over two decades ago.

Participants also get a glimpse of what it’s like to be a student and play basketball at historically Black colleges and universities, as Maryland’s Bowie State University and 12 others compete in the oldest historically Black athletic conference in the U.S.

“The beauty to it is, is to be able to see the looks on those kids’ faces when they can see hope in watching basketball games” and taking in all that the tournament has to offer, said Chadwick, who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and touted the ball kid program as the only of its kind in the country.

Last summer, the CIAA announced that its annual men’s and women’s basketball tournaments — which will be held in Baltimore for the third consecutive year this month, and which draw tens of thousands of attendees — will remain in Charm City through 2026. The event had previously been held for 15 years in Charlotte, North Carolina.

When the tournament moved to Charm City, Chadwick decided “Operation Future” had to “afford the youths of Baltimore the same opportunity that we have in Winston-Salem, that we have in Raleigh, that we have … everywhere that we have been,” he said.

CIAA Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams Parker said in a statement to The Baltimore Sun that the program “exemplifies the mission of the CIAA through legacy, leadership and community. It conveys leadership as we see each participant carry out their assignment for each game with honor and pride.”

This year’s crew of Baltimore-area ball kids will be joined by youngsters from North Carolina and Virginia, with each participant tasked with attending at least one game during the tournament.

Chadwick, 58, takes charge of the administrative side of the program, which he said includes students in good academic and social standing from public schools; members of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington at Charles Carroll Middle School in New Carrollton; and youth recommended by professional contacts and friends living in the Baltimore area.

He called Piggott the “floor general” — responsible for “whatever it takes for the kids to be successful on the floor.”

As the CIAA tournament again takes over Baltimore this year, around 80 to 90 kids will participate; four kids per game will show up to the arena an hour before play begins.

“And they get the best seat in the house” stationed to the left and right of the basketball hoops, Piggott, 66, said. “And they’re learning knowledge about CIAA too.”

Piggott and Chadwick recalled times they connected ball kids with HBCU leaders, like when they introduced one ball boy interested in becoming a pilot to the chancellor of North Carolina’s Elizabeth City State University, which has aviation programs.

“We know we have won when we see one of our kids that participated [in the ball kid program] in somebody’s college. … We definitely want them to go to a CIAA school,” Chadwick said.

“These experiences, these kids will talk about it forever,” Piggott added.

The pair also noted former ball kids who later forged professional basketball careers — including Jared Harper, Darius Johnson-Odom, DeAndre’ Bembry and Kennedy Meeks — and said they’ve made a point to involve kids of all different backgrounds, and girls, too.

“It was amazing to see people that look like me play basketball and have that passion that I have for the game as well,” said Ny’Ceara Pryor, who participated in the program while playing basketball as a senior at Western High School, where her team won regional championships in 2019, 2020 and 2022, in addition to a state championship that same year. In 2022, she was also named The Sun’s All-Metro girls basketball Player of the Year.

“You see all the facial expressions, the grit, the passion that the coaches have, the band, the cheerleaders,” she added of being a ball girl at the tournament. “People may fall in love with the game of basketball when they go to a game like that.”

Pryor, 19, had watched Morgan State University basketball games growing up in East Baltimore, but said the CIAA Tournament exposed her to HBCU basketball in a bigger way.

Last academic year — her first as a point guard at Connecticut’s Sacred Heart University — Pryor became the first in league history to be named Northeast Conference Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year in the same season.

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Eventually, Pryor said she wants to go pro. She credited the CIAA ball kid program as her inspiration for another endeavor, to give back to Baltimore; at a backpack drive she hosted in the city last summer, Pryor donated around 400 backpacks filled with school supplies.

“That was amazing … just to see that I could give back to my community the same way Chadwick gave back to his community,” she said.

At Benjamin Franklin, the handful of student-athletes participating in this year’s CIAA ball kid program have the opportunity to meet college basketball players and coaches and “put themselves out there to be seen as athletes,” said William Russell, a basketball coach and English teacher at the school.

In the future, Russell said he’d like to see the program feature an “academic component,” with workshops to learn more about the conference and life at HBCUs.

An 11th grade shooting guard on Benjamin Franklin’s varsity boys basketball team, Corey Singletary will join the group of ball girls and boys at the CIAA Tournament for his second year in a row.

“It brings kids together,” Singletary, 16, said.

CIAA Tournament

Through Saturday, CFG Bank Arena

Stream: ESPN+

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