Competing for a second chance at the Scoonie Penn T.O.U.C.H. Hoops Classic.
by Brendan Bowers / @BowersCLE
Scoonie Penn never needed a second chance.
Growing up in a Boston neighborhood surrounded by crime, violence and temptation, he used the game of basketball to avoid the pitfalls that many around him didn’t.
After a decorated college career, the former second-round pick traveled the globe on the strength of a lucrative overseas playing career that spanned 12 seasons.
In now his second act as a husband, father and active member of the community, the newly retired point guard is using the game that saved him to create a second chance for a segment of the population that needs it.
This past weekend, Penn hosted the second annual Scoonie Penn T.O.U.C.H Hoops Classic. On the surface, it’s a double-elimination basketball tournament played by ex-college stars and overseas professionals that pays out over $17,000 in prize money. But beyond an opportunity for the winning team to walk off with a $10,000 check, the event fuels a much deeper passion for Penn.
“T.O.U.C.H. stands for Teaching Opportunity Unity by Connecting Hearts. It is a mentorship organization that helps people who are trying to get back into society after being incarcerated,” Penn told SLAMonline when we caught up with him at his Columbus, OH-area tournament. “It’s a difficult adjustment, and an issue that’s prevalent in the communities I’m from. Through the T.O.U.C.H. Hoops Classic, I’m working to help raise money and awareness for that effort.”
For Penn, a college All-American and recent inductee into the Ohio State Athletic Hall of Fame, the challenges of that adjustment are something he’s witnessed firsthand.
“Coming up the way I did, knowing a lot of my family members and people I knew who were in and out of the system, when they came home they didn’t know where to turn,” Penn recalled. “It happens a lot in our community, and I started this tournament to help raise money for T.O.U.C.H. who provides support for people facing those challenges on a daily basis.”
The non-profit organization provides that support just prior to a person’s release from prison and then continues with wide-ranging assistance once they’re home.
“T.O.U.C.H begins working with inmates through webinars while they’re still in prison, just prior to release,” Penn said. “Then, when they get out, they provide continued mentoring services, basic needs like bus passes, helping people get to and from programs, to and from work, along with work force development and job training services. All of the money raised at the basketball tournament, through the entry fees and sponsorships, go back to fund those programs.”
Each of the 12 teams participating, from states that included Tennessee, Wisconsin, Illinois and Georgia along with Ohio, each paid a $500 entry fee.
With $10,000 hanging in the balance, Penn considers the competition involved with the tournament to be symbolic of the competitive spirit required to be successful in life after release from prison.
“The basketball here is great basketball,” Penn said, sitting courtside during the tournament. “What T.O.U.C.H. does, what makes them great, is the same thing that makes a basketball player great. That will to compete, that will to go out and win. That’s what this organization does, it teaches people how to compete again in life after spending time in the system.”
As we talked, a member of Racine Select from Wisconsin finished a lob pass with emphasis over a group who made the trek from Memphis, TN. The Racine bench, along with their fans who made the trip, erupted to ensure the Memphis crew felt the full impact of the posterizing finish.
“It’s killing me not to play,” Penn said, while applauding as he laughed. “But it’s my tournament, I don’t want people thinking I cheated.”
But for those who know Penn, they thoroughly understand that he’s never cheated anything in his life.
“Scoonie has a very giving heart in the work he does for the community,” said Brian Wood, founder of T.O.U.C.H. “We targeted him two years ago based on the work we’ve seen him do and the reputation he has in the community. We thought he’d be a great fit for our organization and he’s been even more than that. He’s been fabulous for us.”
Another person who’s been fabulous with the basketball in his hands since the first day he laced up his Nikes is Andrew Lavender, who was competing in this year’s tournament.
Lavender played alongside LeBron James, Chris Paul, Luol Deng, Kendrick Perkins and others in the 2003 McDonald’s High School All-American game before starring at Xavier University.
“It’s good competition out here for sure,” Lavender said. “Teams from different states, different cities and everything. It really is the team who plays the best defense and shares the ball the most though that wins. It’s not like other charity tournaments I’ve played in that way.”
Last year, in the inaugural T.O.U.C.H Hoops classic, Lavender’s squad walked out with the $10,000 first-place check.
“There’s a lot of grown men in this tournament, so if you don’t do things smart you’re not going too far,” Lavender added. “The guys out here are going hard, and ultimately everyone is trying to win the $10,000, but there’s also more to it. It’s great what T.O.U.C.H is doing and the event really is bigger than basketball.”
Some of the competition Lavender was referring to included, among others, Isaac Jefferson from Hampton, Brandon Foust who played at Oklahoma along with Brian Brown, George Reese and Jason Singleton from Ohio State. It also included Jared Sullinger’s brother, Jules, who many consider the most athletic of the Sullinger family.
Singleton, Penn’s teammate on the 1999 Ohio State Final Four team, echoed Lavender’s sentiments about the competition.
“There’s some really good competition and it’s a really good tournament,” Singleton said. “There’s a team down from Atlanta that’s pretty athletic and I definitely have my eye on those guys. But more than that, it’s also a great benefit. T.O.U.C.H is doing a lot of great things and it’s good that we’re able to play basketball and help a group that’s changing people’s lives.”
The two-day tournament concluded on Sunday with a double-overtime thriller. The Wild Bunch from Cincinnati emerged from the loser’s bracket to beat Finesse from Columbus and walked off with the prize. The second-place team earned a $5,000 payout while the third-place finishers banked $2,500. The biggest winners, however, were the people T.O.U.C.H’s team will be able to further support by the dollars raised.
“On a daily basis, we average about seven or eight individuals as far as full-time and part-time employees who work to assist the recently incarcerated,” Wood said of his staff at T.O.U.C.H. “It depends on the type of projects and the type of funding we have at any given time.
“We started in 2008, and to date we’ve served over 500 people. That’s 500 clients that have used our services and we have a very, very low recidivism rates—7 percent—when you compare to industry standards it’s a phenomenal number.”
As far as the primary fundraising event for T.O.U.C.H. is concerned, Penn believes they’re just scratching the surface.
“It’s definitely something we want to really blow up and get even more teams from all over next year,” Penn said, as the tournament wrapped up on Sunday evening. “It’s not only about the money and the basketball, at the same time, people will become more aware of what T.O.U.C.H. means and what it can do for the community.”
That same community the kid they called Scoonie will continue to assist with every chance he gets.