Linden, New Jersey, terminal manager Albert Perez has been involved with his community and church for years, so when his son Eli’s youth basketball league needed coaches and sponsors in order to be able to play the season, he stepped up.
“The parents got emailed right before the season started saying that the organization runs off volunteers, and that they didn’t have enough,” said Albert. “I love watching basketball, but I don’t know enough, so I was kind of reluctant to jump onboard originally.”
Albert asked his daughter’s boyfriend, Aldwin Vega, if he’d be willing to help coach. Aldwin played basketball at St. Patrick’s High School in Elizabeth, N.J., which has a long history of producing NBA talent, including All-Star and current Boston Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving. Aldwin agreed to help and the team had coaches.
“Getting my daughter’s boyfriend involved is cool because I get to keep a closer eye on him. Really though, he’s the one that knows his stuff and is running the team. It’s built our relationship and is teaching him how to work with young people and how to give back and be a positive influence,” Albert said. “Everything in the Tri-State area is so fast paced and we forget to think about others and do stuff for other people. So this is me kind of taking him alongside me and showing him it’s not all about you, you gotta teach somebody else and you have to pay it forward.”
The league is ran by the local non-profit, At Heart’s Length, and is just one of several programs it organizes in the community. During the league draft, Albert and Aldwin learned that they were still short of the funds needed to run the league.
Albert’s been trying to get the Linden location’s Team Safety and Improvement Committee (TS&IC) more actively involved with the community. Since Linden is just down the road from Elizabeth, where the league is based, he called a couple of the other members and asked them if they’d be on board with sponsoring a team. They said yes, and the Watco Raptors were born.
“It’s awesome. We have the team schedule up on our board at work, and all the guys have an open invitation to come out and join us at the games,” Albert said.
The team plays in the sixth through eighth grade division and has ten players. There are ten teams in the league and each team was allowed to pick their own NBA team to represent, and the team settled on the Toronto Raptors.
“Eli’s been playing the league the last few years and they’ve all seen the teams everyone picks. Everybody’s all seen the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers. They wanted to stand out and do something different, and the Raptors have a cool emblem,” Albert said.
The Raptors’ first game was postponed due to the winter storm that hit the East Coast in early January, but they kicked off their season on Jan. 9 with a come-from-behind 31-28 win against the Los Angeles Lakers. They trailed for almost the whole game, but with the help of Kenny Joseph’s eight rebounds in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter, were able get the victory and to start the season out on the right foot.
“We did the draft and had no idea who we were picking except for couple kids we knew from the past, but ended up getting a really good team,” Albert said. “The first part of the game was really hard. Everybody was nervous, they were shaking cobwebs off, but in the fourth quarter they really turned it on and we started scoring.”
Albert does most of his volunteer work in Rahway, N.J., where his church is located. He lives about 20 minutes away in Elizabeth, though, so he’s enjoying the opportunity to contribute closer to home.
“Elizabeth has been known in the past for not being such a good neighborhood. You’re dealing with a lot of single parent situations or sometimes there’s no dad in the picture at all. So, it’s really nice to be able to be some kind of positive influence for the kids in my neighborhood,” Albert said.