by Leo Sepkowitz | @LeoSepkowitz
Make A Play Inc. doesn’t forget about the little guys—literally and figuratively. M.A.P. runs basketball tournaments and practices for ballers of all ages and skill levels throughout New York state. The non-for-profit organization is about developing kids both on and off the court.
Rafael Salazar Jr, a former assistant coach for the Dominican Republic’s under-17 team, and Sean Brown run the show. The co-founders were kind enough to talk to SLAMonline about the company’s recent growth, why they chose basketball instead of other sports and the type of kids M.A.P. focuses on helping.
SLAM: Tell me what your company is about and what you’re trying to accomplish through it.
Sean Brown: It’s a unique organization trying to give inner city kids the opportunity to have some academic and career aspirations while doing the things that they like. The initial sport is basketball, but as the company grows we look to specialize in more sports and activities that our population, quite frankly, is in demand for.
SLAM: Why did you pick basketball as the main sport? Do you find it to be a useful tool to get through to kids off the court?
Rafael Salazar Jr: One of the reasons me and Sean decided to do this was because a lot of the AAU programs and a lot of the programs that were coming up at our time would pick and choose—almost like pick the best out of the litter and leave the rest. So we decided after our college career that we should give everyone a chance—no matter how good they were or how bad they were, as long as they had a commitment to education and a commitment to excellence and giving back to the community. We played basketball, we know it, we live it.
SLAM: When did you guys hatch the idea for this organization?
SB: The organization became official three years ago. But the idea probably resonated maybe, eight years ago. We’ve been doing it organically, without the official title, just by being involved in the community.
SLAM: Has it grown in the past few years?
SB: Absolutely. You know, the funny thing is when you’re the new kid on the block and you’re fresh, lots of people don’t pay any attention to you. But when you start producing a positive outcome, whether that be one kid telling another kid about their experiences or the opportunity that they now have been afforded, word travels. And people become interested and want to be involved in the latest thing. But to us, we’ve always been on the ground level trying to fight for everything that we currently have today.
SLAM: About how many kids are involved in the company now?
SB: We have a downstate and an upstate program.
RS: We have about 50 to 70 kids down in our program.
SB: And in Albany, we’re roughly around 30. So in total about 80 kids.
SLAM: How good are some of the top kids?
SB: Well, we did just take a contingent of sophomores and juniors to a Hoop Mountain tournament. We won, where at least three of our players got recognized on the NERR Scouting Report as low-DI or DII prospects. So the talent pool is there, and it’s just being able to cultivate that from the bottom up, rather than inheriting.
RS: On my end, I kind of did it in reverse. I was lucky enough, being in New York City, that I have a lot of connections within the Spanish communities, and I did play for the Dominican National team. I was able to recruit some of the best Spanish players (for his AAU team)…I had a lot of Division I and Division II players and the good thing about it is a lot of guys who use the program, they actually come back and help out and coach the kids, so that’s one thing that we pride ourselves on.
SLAM: So it’s not just about getting the top talent and sending guys to DI and maybe the NBA…
RS: Right. The top kids are great, but the top kids will always be great and can always get showcased. It’s those kids middle-level that come to a fork in the road where it’s either make-or-break with this basketball thing. I didn’t want to miss out on those kids who wanted it.
SLAM: I know you have a relationship with Karl Towns, who’s probably gonna be one of the top picks in the 2015 Draft. How did you meet him? Do you still talk to him?
RS: We just spoke yesterday. I met him because at the time I was an assistant coach for the Dominican National team—17 and under team. I was called by a friend to check this kid out, who was real raw and in eighth grade…Within two minutes of me seeing him, I left the gym and said, Oh my god.
SLAM: What makes him so special?
RS: At the time, he was 6-8 in eighth grade and shooting lights-out. Usually when I see kids that big and that young, the first thing I look at is their feet, to see if they’re kind of stiff or whatever. I’m not looking above the waist because that’s easy to teach. I’m looking below the waist, and when I saw the way he was moving his feet, I knew the kid was going to be a star. The way he was moving his feet was so fluid. And at the time he was just knocking down threes. It literally took me three minutes and I walked out.
SLAM: Have you had a chance to work with any of the really good players for the DR?
RS: Yeah! I’ve worked with Charlie Villanueva, Francisco Garcia, Felipe Lopez, Edgar Sosa, Luis Flores…yeah pretty much all of them, except Al Horford.
SLAM: Can you tell me about the tournaments you guys play in? Are they open to the public?
SB: Yeah, absolutely. Tournaments are definitely open to the public. Great environment, great atmosphere.
To check out the schedule for upcoming M.A.P. tournaments, click here.