When Yogev Berdugo lost his father, he found solace in the game he once loved.
After his college career as a walk-on guard at Hofstra and then at Brandeis University was over, Berdugo traveled to his native Israel and played a year professionally. It wasn’t until he returned stateside did he get a call from an old friend that changed his life, and subsequently the lives of so many of his future campers. “He said, ‘Yogev, you got to go into basketball. You’re passionate, you love kids, you’re getting good at what you do. Start working with ball and clear your head at least,’” Berdugo says. He did just that. He ran a camp with two kids and lost money for two and a half years, but through that time, the ideals of Step It Up basketball camp were being born.
Step It Up camp is hosted by Colby Sawyer College in New London, NH with the entire campus at the campers’ disposal. The campers live in the dorms and eat in the cafeteria during their stay, which is either a four-, six- or eight-week session. The camp is available to boys from fourth grade throughout high school, taking in all levels of skills amongst the aspiring ballers.
Berdugo has assembled a staff of teachers to help coach his campers, not just decorated former players. “The number one thing I look for is that you have to know how to work with kids,” Berdugo says. “Just the basics of playing pro ball means nothing—it’s not going to help develop these kids.”
Mark Sanford, the Player Development Coach for the Memphis Grizzlies, along with Jacob Gino, formally an assistant coach at Maccabi Tel-Aviv, highlights Berdugo’s staff. Gal Mekel of the New Orleans Pelicans also is a presence at the camp, teaching not only skills but sharing stories with the campers of what life is like in the NBA. Step It Up has also hired specialists to make the camp as well-rounded as possible. Having professional nutritionists, Pilates instructors and NCAA strength coaches on campus, the young men are learning from experts in all facets of basketball and overall healthy living.
For Berdugo, his goal to enhance the fundamental basketball skills is only a mere shred of his camp’s mission. Berdugo has introduced a series of seminars to help his campers deal with life beyond the hardwood. The young ballers will go through emotionally channeling seminars, lessons on how to be confident in any endeavor and even participate in Habitat for Humanity. Step It Up campers need to be just as confident with their crossover as they are in speaking in front of their peers, so Berdugo has made public speaking seminars mandatory.
“I’ll take the most awkward kid and put him in front of 200 kids and say ‘Go’,” Berdugo says. “No one’s taught them this resiliency, persistency, the ethics, how to be honest. We do a lot of skill development and a lot of life skills. That’s Step It Up—we are on these kids’ asses daily.”
The campers will leave the camp with an improved defensive stance, court awareness and vision for their upcoming basketball seasons, but it’s the life skills preached by Berdugo and his staff that have the families of these kids forever grateful. But your average basketball parents aren’t the only ones who have praised Berdugo’s methods—he’s caught the attention of NBA personal trainer David Thorpe, whose son has attended camp. Thorpe, who has trained Luol Deng, Udonis Haslem and Kevin Martin, was impressed with the camp’s instruction.
The “life skills,” as Berdugo and his staff call them, are the primary takeaways he hopes his campers leave each summer with—not just a stronger left-handed lay-up. “Here’s how you shake a man’s hand, here’s how you look at coach when he’s ripping into you—you don’t buckle, you don’t start picking at your fingernails and putting your hands in your pockets,” Berdugo says.
Photos courtesy of Step It Up