YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


There Are Many Reasons Why They Come to the Y

May 23, 1999|DIANE PUCIN

Going to the Y. That sounds so '50s, so pedal-pushers and gingham skirts, so ducktails and Elvis, so absolutely of another century.

Which brings us to the Inglewood YMCA in 1999, less than a mile from the Great Western Forum, where there is rap music playing in a weight room. Where a dozen young men dribble basketballs between cones in a well scrubbed gym. Where four men watch and coach, whisper encouragement and check on grades, say hi to moms and just kind of keep an eye on everything.

Ty McElrath is 23 now, a graduate of Inglewood High and a student and football player at Compton College. He has been coming to the Inglewood Y since, he says, "I was 6 or 7. First I came because all my friends would come here and then I came here because it was like a family. I came here because there were people to talk to when I was in trouble. I came to play basketball but I came for lots of other reasons too."

McElrath is still coming to the Y, three or four times a week. He is an employee and a coach, a mentor and a friend. Now teenage boys come and tell him their troubles.

McElrath has diamond studs in his ears and wears his baseball cap turned backward. His pants are baggy, his gym shoes new. He has been hassled by gang members and once ran from a riot into the safety of this Y. He is not much different from the hundreds of boys and girls who come here every day after school and 12 hours on Saturday, just a little older. He is the next generation of Michael Solomon, Levi Green, Tony Lovett, Ben Furnace.

Solomon is the director of the Inglewood Y. He has been for 20 years. Green works in physical therapy and has become a coach at the Y because his own sons once came to play. That's also what pulled Lovett and Furnace into this cinder-block building on the corner of Kelso and Spruce. They came because of their own sons and have stayed because so many of the other kids didn't have fathers around.

"Single parents, that's mostly whose kids come here," Solomon says. He is 45 and wears a purple and gold Laker jacket. "Single parents, mostly moms. These kids come looking for more than basketball, but it's basketball that brings them."

Players like Paul Pierce (Kansas and now the Boston Celtics), UCLA's Baron Davis and Utah's Andre Miller have all spent hours at this YMCA. The newest crop of future stars includes Marquis Poole of Compton Centennial High, who is headed to Washington State on a basketball scholarship, and Brandon Moorer of Manual Arts High, who has a basketball scholarship to Texas A&M.

For six years, Moorer says, he has spent most of his free time here. He is the third son of a single mom, Mary Thomas. Thomas worked all day and sometimes at night to support her sons and yet she is so appreciative of the Y that she has joined the board of directors.

As for Brandon, Thomas is certain that having the Y kept him out of trouble. It gave him confidence, she said, and it gave him a family of fathers who taught Brandon about basketball but also about studying and keeping up grades and being respectful and responsible. They helped teach him, Thomas says, "to be a good man."

Every kid, of course, can't be a basketball star. Every kid, of course, can't earn a college basketball scholarship. Solomon, Green and Lovett sit in Solomon's tiny office and explain how they try to make the world of sports about more than being the star athlete.

Solomon says, "We try to tell kids that you can be a trainer or sports doctor."

"Or," Lovett says, "you can be an agent or a team owner."

"Or you can write the stories or take the sports photos," Green says.

Solomon does not lay blame on the absentee fathers or run off the gang kids who come to the Y. He welcomes everybody, even boys as young as 9 or 10 who he knows belong to gangs.

"We invite them in, we let them play on our teams, we try and make them part of our family," Solomon says. "We make them follow the rules. They help sweep up, clean up, just like everybody else. And they don't cause us any trouble because they feel like they belong to something.

"All kids need a place to come and find friends and a family atmosphere. That's what we try and offer. Now, after 20 years, I have kids coming back as grown men and women who want to give back, to volunteer."

Green has two children living in Texas and three more in Los Angeles. He has tried always, as he puts it, "to not be the money-order father, the one who only drops off a check." And as the Y closes on a Thursday night, as the boys put away their basketballs and head home, Green has a wish.

"Father's Day is coming up," he says. "I wish that dads in the city would, instead of looking for presents, take their daughter to church or throw a baseball with their sons or invite the boy next door who doesn't have a dad to come over for dinner."

It is this spirit, Green says, that will keep him coming to the Inglewood Y, even when his youngest son is grown up.


Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address:

Los Angeles Times Articles