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In year 3, ASFL Challenge breaking more barriers

Courtesy Betsy Cullen

Like any successful organization, A Shot For Life began as an idea.

In 2011, Mike Slonina, then a Catholic Memorial senior and manager of the basketball team, had gone through a traumatic personal event and basketball courts became his safe haven. At the time, his mother was going through a brain cancer scare and in those times of worry and uncertainty, Mike would get in his car, drive to the Waltham YMCA, and shoot for hours.

What was thought initially to be a cancerous brain tumor turned out to be non-life threatening. Doctors believed the dot on her brain could have been a lesion from an old infection.

During the many hours shooting, Slonina, a Watertown resident, wondered how he could turn his negative into a positive. He decided to create a fundraiser for brain cancer research, where he would shoot at the hoops in the CM gym for 24 hours straight. He put up 8,101 shots at the event with minimal breaks along the way.

It wasn't until about a week later when everything started falling into place. The outpouring of support from everyone from friends to complete strangers showed him the message and cause resonated with people and gave him a glimpse of what A Shot For Life could become.

“I think it was probably when the first ESPNBoston story came out,” he said. “I got absolutely bombarded with emails, calls, and texts from people all over the country and even several people in other countries. It really took off and people were telling me their stories and what A Shot for Life meant to them and honestly, what I meant to them. That was just, as an 18-year-old reading that, that really gets to you. I think that was the moment when I knew the projection for A Shot for Life was a lot bigger than me and there’s a much bigger system that we can build here to impact all these people on a much greater scale.”

Now, four years later, what was once a one-man operation has turned into an established non-profit organization. It will hold its third annual “A Shot For Life Challenge” event this Saturday at Hanover's University Sports Complex. Since 2013, ASFL has annually pitted the Bay State's top high school shooters in a test of endurance, inspired by Slonina’s first marathon shooting session. Proceeds from this year's event will go to both Children's Hospital and the Dr. Curry Research Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital.

To take part in the event, players are first put through a selection process. They are watched for a nine-month period. ASFL also interviews each player as well as those around them, such as coaches, referees, reporters, and others who can express an informed opinion. Each player is required to raise money for the program.

Slonina was determined to create a culture around the program. He wanted to make sure those he chooses to represent the ASFL brand will represent it the way he wants it to be represented. Once the players are introduced into the ASFL program, to Mike it means they are in it for life.

“I call it the Shot for Life family,” he said. “Part of the reason why I think it’s so popular is when a player becomes a part of this program, they really become ingrained in this program. I have their back pretty much no matter what they need from the day of the event to the rest of their lives really. Every player who has ever gone through my program I am still in touch with. I really try to sort of fill a mentorship role, which is probably my second favorite part of the job.”

Each participant will take part in a two-hour shooting contest. The first hour is broken up into three parts, with 20 minute periods each dedicated to free throws, mid-range jump shots, and 3-pointers. After a 10-minute break, the second hour commences with 30 minutes of solely midrange jumpers followed by 20 minutes of all 3’s. The person with the highest percentage at the end of the competition is awarded a trophy signifying them as the best shooter in Massachusetts.

“To get picked for the program is extremely competitive every year,” Slonina said. “They’re all unbelievable shooters. An incredible, incredible athlete and basketball player will come in last. So while the winner is the best shooter in Massachusetts and they totally earn that, it’s not as if the other players are not as good. It’s a huge thing to get picked for this. They got picked from a watch list of about 120 players.”

Saturday’s event already surpassed last year’s $27,000 fundraising total with days to go and is expected to put the program over the milestone $100,000 total since its inception four years ago.

Each year, ASFL continues to grow and expand exponentially. It would not be where it is today without Mike’s hard work and dedication to the cause. He spent his freshman year at Quinnipiac University developing the infrastructure of the organization, which meant getting a Board of Directors together, developing 501c3 non-profit status, and trademarking the logo and name. All of that was an arduous and time-consuming process for a group with no funding, but Slonina’s belief in the cause and his vision kept him going.

“The first lawyer I talked to about getting the 501(c)3 status looked me in the eye and told me I could never do it and that there are teams of people that try to do what I was trying to do every day and that it would never get off the ground and there was no way without the proper funding there was no way it would ever be what I wanted it to be,” he said. “I don’t really respond well to those things. I just looked him in the eye and smiled and said I’ll talk to you soon. When we did get the 501(c)3 status, I sent him a note just thanking him for the motivation from what he said.”

Along the way, ASFL was able to secure necessary funding and garner sponsorship help from organizations such as, most recently, Dick’s Sporting Goods. Mike’s persistence found him in many offices early on, explaining his vision, business plan, and where the organization was and could be in the future. He found the right people who believed in the cause and it was on to the next step.

“I was told during every step of A Shot for Life’s progression, ‘Well, you know, it’s a great idea but I don’t know how it’s actually going to work,’” he said. “At every stage, we have far surpassed those expectations. Please believe me when I tell you A Shot for Life will be a national fundraising organization. I promise.”

Things will only go up from here for Slonina and ASFL. Since he graduated college in May, he has more time to dedicate to the program and developing his vision. He has toyed with ideas of how to make the “A Shot for Life Challenge” even bigger, but he is apprehensive of growing the event too large too quickly. He chose to instead focus on the quality of the event and not detract from its competitiveness. Already, the group has plans to run more events in the next 12 months. While Saturday is for high school players, ASFL is planning events for players of all ages and skill levels in the near future.

Mike’s high school playing career was cut short by a debilitating ankle injury, but his love of basketball has only been strengthened throughout his journey. Saturday will be emblematic of how unifying the game can be. One person who used the game as a sanctuary will bring together the best shooters in Massachusetts high school basketball in the name of competition, but it is really about the cause. They might keep score, but everyone involved is on the same team. They have all raised money to help one day outscore cancer.

“Basketball has given me almost everything in my life,” he said. “I literally could talk about it like it is my life. I know it sounds like a cliche, but it’s not. I have given everything I have to this. It’s funny how things work out. I get a debilitating ankle injury and it ends my high school career. I don’t like to talk about where I could’ve seen myself as a player because I don’t like to say things I can’t prove. I do know that because of that injury, I became one of the best shooters out there. It’s sort of funny how things work out. That horrible, horrible situation ended up in turn making me build this great organization. It’s crazy how if you just work hard and dedicate yourself fully to something, what can happen and what the result of that is.”

To donate to A Shot for Life, CLICK HERE. All donations are tax deductible.

To become involved in A Shot for Life, people are encouraged to email Mike Slonina at mikeslonina@ashotforlife.org.