In praise -- and in search -- of the rec leagues

There is this amazing new ad for the Junior NBA -- the NBA's youth-basketball initiative -- called "The First Day" that launched last week and I won't lie: I welled up while watching it. Take a look:

I know, right?

The spot dovetailed with the 2016 Project Play Summit, held two weeks ago in Washington, D.C., and featuring a couple hundred leaders from the youth-sports landscape -- local leaders, national organizations, even Michelle Obama.

I moderated a panel on revitalizing in-town sports leagues, with an emphasis on inclusion. That's a big reason the Junior NBA spot hit so close to home: Few -- come on: none -- of our kids are going to be the next Steph Curry. But they all can benefit from the life lessons, socialization and fitness-positive experience of playing sports in an organized way.

That is: If they haven't been scared away by the local Kobra Kai. Or if they haven't been priced out by private leagues with an incentive to focus on parent-customers with a willingness to pay the most. Or if they haven't seen their local rec leagues evaporate.

The solutions proffered at the conference were smart and largely focus on localized action: raising awareness to resuscitate cultural norms about the value of the rec league, reframing the conversation for parents from outcome (mythical college scholarship/admissions edge) to process (developing well-adjusted people). There was a fascinating sidebar about rebranding "rec league" to something less subordinated to catchier names like "travel team."

The comment that has stuck with me came from Noah Blue Elk Hotchkiss, the teenage founder of Tribal Adaptive Organization and an advocate for adaptive athletes, particularly in the Native American community. He said, "Most kids are athletes -- they just don't know it yet."

How do we as parents -- and members of a larger local community revolving around our kids and sports -- solve for "just don't know it yet?" The answer is a renewed commitment to inclusive local rec leagues.

From this past Monday through the next two weeks, we're all so focused on that final Finals moment: Who's left standing at the end? Who survives? Who is the best? The reality is that just like the commercial says, the first day of any kid's experience with participating in organized sports is just as dramatic, important and mind-blowing than anything that could happen next week in the Bay Area or Cleveland, no matter how long that city's fans have been waiting for that elusive title.

Yes, waiting umpteen years for a championship feels brutal. Now imagine if the elusive thing was a reasonable local sports league for an 8-year-old to play in.

Dan Shanoff writes about parenting for espnW. By day, he works for Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns the NBA's Washington Wizards and WNBA's Washington Mystics. You can connect with him on Twitter at @danshanoff or continue this conversation on espnW's Facebook page.

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