Late Saturday afternoon at Hollis Playground in Queens, former New York City high school basketball star Royal Ivey took to the mic to address those in attendance at the final day of the Royal Skills Clinic, his basketball and life skills camp for kids.
Ivey could muster only a couple of words before falling silent for a few seconds as his emotions got the better of him. Here he was, standing in the old playground behind his middle school, surrounded by people who helped him every step of the way and were there to support his great cause -- his parents, cousins, best friends, several former school teachers and even his 92-year-old grandmother, who traveled from Providence, R.I.
Then, wiping away tears, Ivey said, "The sky is not the limit."
It was a message Ivey wanted to get across to the children, ages 8 to 14, who participated in his fifth annual community event, which tipped off Thursday and was free to the public. Through basketball instruction, life mentoring, games and dancing, the kids, who were mostly from Hollis (some came from New Jersey, Connecticut and Baltimore), learned that there are different ways to express yourself -- and not just one route to success.
With such thinking, Ivey, 30, made it to the NBA, where he's now in his eighth season and playing for the Philadelphia 76ers. While growing up in Hollis, after moving from his birthplace in Harlem, Ivey was never on the national map for basketball. He even had to learn a new skill -- dancing -- in order to enroll at one of the best academic high schools in the Big Apple, Benjamin N. Cardozo.
"I would mess around and dance in the huddles, and stuff like that," Ivey told ESPNNewYork.com. "Cardozo was a specialized high school and it was out of my jurisdiction, so the only way I could get in was through the math or science program, or the dance program. I'm not a big math and science dude, but I said, 'I could dance.' My mom and I put the routine together and I practiced it for about a week and a half. When I got up on stage, I got a little stage fright and I forgot about it. But when the music came on [the song was "It Takes Two" by Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock], I felt so comfortable that I was just dancing. After that, I got admitted."
Two years later before making the varsity basketball team as a junior, Ivey realized he wasn't going to make his mark on the offensive end. So he looked to master another new skill -- playing defense. Then, during the season, he proved to Cardozo coach Ron Naclerio that he could routinely guard the best opposing player. That enabled him to earn a scholarship to Texas and then get drafted by the Atlanta Hawks in 2004. Today, Ivey's path to the NBA is represented in his camp's slogan: "Defending your dream."
"I always wanted to play in the NBA; that was my dream," he said. "In New York City, it's known for flash -- guys who can handle the ball, score and pass, the point guards -- but I was a defender. That's the niche I took. I said, 'I'm going to be different. Everybody's going left; I'm going to go right.' When I got drafted, that was icing on the cake. It was extra. Nobody thought this little guy from Hollis, Queens, would be in the NBA. I just stuck to my dream and I was going to do anything and everything to defend it. I really wanted the kids to understand that, so they can build confidence in their own lives."
Five years ago, Ivey and his parents, Rod and Jennifer, realized their dream of running a basketball tournament in Hollis. But after the tournament's first year, Ivey realized he needed to focus first on instruction, and he asked Naclerio to help him build a clinic.
"The kids think it's about dunks, 3's, one-on-one, but it's a five-on-five game," Ivey said. "I wanted to take the game out of the game and put more structure to it. And make it fun, too."
The next addition to the camp was mentoring, and along with Hollis community leaders, Ivey has stressed education, personal growth and the development of new hobbies, like he did with dance. This year, the kids were introduced to a new training tool called Smack Fu, which involves a large shuttlecock that players hit back and forth with their hands to improve speed, accuracy and agility.
In addition, Ivey has a yearly off-the-court theme. In 2011, his former Texas teammates and NBA players, T.J. Ford and D.J. Augustin, addressed the camp on the subject of nutrition. This year, the topic was finance, and Ivey had a representative from TD Waterhouse discuss the importance of being smart with your money. He also had a member of the Denver Nuggets equipment staff speak to the kids about his job.
"I wanted to teach the kids more than just basketball, because there's more to life than just being an athlete," Ivey said. "I tell the kids, 'Whether you become a carpenter or school teacher, become the best carpenter or school teacher you can be.' I also want them to know me as a person, not just a basketball player. I answer any questions they have. And I joke with them, dance with them."
Ivey also reaches out to parents, passing on to them the acronym POME (Product Of My Environment), which stresses family and togetherness.
"If their dream is to become an astronaut or if their dream is to become a professional whatever, I tell the parents, 'You've got to support your kids. You've got to be there for them,'" he said. "So if that's their dream, they've got to back that dream to making it a reality. That's what my whole thought process is."
When Ivey and his parents started the program, the community had just put the finishing touches on the renovated Hollis Playground. It's in an area that has produced several celebrities, including ESPN personality Stephen A. Smith, legendary rap group Run-D.M.C., hip-hop artists LL Cool J and Ja Rule, former NBA player Lloyd Daniels, actress Tika Sumpter and "America's Next Top Model" contestant Bianca Golden.
Ivey is very proud to call Hollis home, and on Saturday, he donated two $1,000 checks, one to his former Cardozo dance teacher, Carolyn Devore, and another to a community chess center for kids. And to say thank you for his dedication to the Hollis community, artist Kenya Lawton, who runs Art-1 Airbrush, surprised Ivey with a mural of the combo guard.
"That's my community," Ivey said. "I went to school there. I walked those same streets that those kids walk every day. It's about just bringing the community up. It's just a good feeling, man, to give back where I'm from and see the smiles on the kids' faces, and the parents, and just having a good time. There was just so much positive energy in that park throughout the whole camp. It just leaves me speechless every time I think about that."
Ivey said he plans to meet with the NBA soon to see how he can continue to grow his camp. He's already working with Ford on finalizing their Texas 360 Now foundation, which will include programs in Houston and Austin, Ivey's camp in Hollis and potential ones in Harlem and Philadelphia. Ivey also wants to coach one day and eventually open his own charter school.
"[NBA Hall of Famer] David Robinson gave me a tour of his charter school [in San Antonio], and that kind of motivated me," he said. "That's my biggest plan."
It's a plan that all started in Hollis, and standing in the middle of the playground on Saturday, with hundreds of his biggest supporters looking on, the moment tugged at Ivey's heart.
"It was just overwhelming," he said. "The tears just took over me. I didn't know that was going to happen, and it just came on and I couldn't fight back. I'm human and I just let it go. It felt good. That shows how much I care about my community and the kids. As long as I'm living, I'm doing this every year."