Team spirit: Knights men’s basketball develops deep ties to local Boys & Girls Club

Basketball players with club members

After winning the Northeast Conference championship last year, members of the Fairleigh Dickinson University Knights men's basketball team met up with some of their biggest fans: young members of the Boys & Girls Club of Lodi/Hackensack. (Photo courtesy of FDU Knights Athletics)

By Kenna Caprio

Surrounded by a crowd of children, Fairleigh Dickinson University Knights men’s basketball Head Coach Greg Herenda leads a chant to get the kids pumped up for some fun and games. “FD, who?” he shouts, call-and-response style. “FDU!” they yell back.

The children at the Boys & Girls Club of Lodi/Hackensack know the drill by now. They’re used to FDU visitors: Herenda, his team and his staff are frequent guests at the organization, which provides a safe place for children to go when they’re not in school, and promotes academic success, good character and citizenship, and a healthy lifestyle. And those children adore their FDU role models.

“They look up to us — we want them to know that they could be us, an athlete with a full scholarship, living the dream,” says forward Mike Holloway, a sophomore sports management major from Pittsgrove, N.J.

Since Herenda arrived at FDU in April 2013, he’s made it a priority to get his team out into the local community and involved in service. In fact, before the press conference announcing his new position, Herenda reached out to the club, and invited members to attend. They did — and the partnership between the University and the club was born.

“It’s so gratifying,” says Tyrone O’Garro, a public administration graduate student from Newark, N.J., who plays forward. “I was that kid who had a dream. To give back now, that means everything.”

Throughout the year, the team makes regular visits to the club to host basketball clinics and play games with the boys and girls.

“Some of the little kids are just in awe, and some of the older ones want to play one-on-one and beat our guys. Sometimes they do! When you’re a kid and people come to see you, it makes you feel special,” says Herenda. “You walk out of there feeling like you’ve done something positive. We get a lot out of it, as much as the kids do.”

Each year, the student-athletes participate in a torch run, which opens the club’s annual Olympic-style competition, running alongside the children through the borough of Lodi, N.J.

MBB cheering crowd

Members of the Boys & Girls Club of Lodi/Hackensack cheer on the Knights men's basketball team last season. (Photo by Larry Levanti)

“Even if they don’t grow up to play basketball, they can do whatever they want as long as they dream and work hard,” says junior Mike Schroback, a point guard from Hasbrouck Heights, N.J., studying sports management. O’Garro adds, “Dream and execute. Plan with discipline.”

The children also attend the team’s home games, forming a very enthusiastic cheering section. “They go crazy when we score,” says O’Garro. “It gets you hyped.”

After the men’s basketball team won the Northeast Conference Championship last year, they hosted a “trophy day” at the club. The team took photos with the children and the trophy, which O’Garro says all of them wanted to touch, and showed off their championship rings. “When we walked into their gym after the championship, they were so excited to see us. Even the staff went bananas,” adds O’Garro.

Coach with club members

Men's basketball Head Coach Greg Herenda shows the Northeast Conference Championship trophy to the children of the Boys & Girls Club of Lodi/Hackensack. (Photo courtesy of FDU Knights Athletics)

Herenda wants his team to take this commitment to service well beyond college and graduate school. “In a few years, they’ll be graduates of FDU … I just want them to realize that giving is so important,” he says. “I just love the kids, and the people who run the club. Those are the real heroes in our community.”

Now, the team and the club are developing a new project together called “peer pals.” The idea is to have the student-athletes and children write to one another in between visits.

“The players and coaches — they honestly care. Our kids don’t necessarily have great adult relationships in their lives,” says Joseph Licata, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Lodi/Hackensack. “They need to know that there are adults out there who care and want to get involved, and that’s what FDU does for our kids.”