Basketball as a ministry: Salvation Army in Pensacola sends basketball team to tournament

 Dulcinea Cuellar is the Divisional Communications Director for The Salvation Army Florida Division.

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Love Bettis, top row and third from the left, has dreams of walking in the footsteps of the athletes who have come before him at The Salvation Army.

The Salvation Army in Pensacola has a long, rich history of honing young athletes:

Dallas Cowboy great Emmitt Smith.
World champion boxer Roy Jones, Jr.
Super Bowl champion Doug Baldwin.
Washington Redskin running back Alfred Morris
And now Love Bettis.

Wait? You haven’t heard of him?
Of course not, he’s 12.

Love is part of The Salvation Army of Pensacola’s Emerald Coast Soldiers, an afterschool and summer basketball program.

Coach Dwayne Kelly helms the group of sixth and eighth grade boys. Since the program began four years ago, the teams have amassed dozens of trophies and championships. The eighth grade team plays 37 regular season games, while the sixth grade team plays 50.

Recently the team traveled to ESPN’S Wide World of Sports at the Walt Disney World complex to participate in the AAU National Championship. The eighth grade team competed against more than 30 teams from around the country and finished 11th place. The less experience sixth grade team participated in an international invitational.

Kelley said this was the first time many of them have left Pensacola.IMG_4735[1]

“Many of our kids are from the neighborhood,” Kelley said. “For some of them, this is their first real time out of the Florida panhandle.”

Along with basketball, Kelley and several assistant coaches, also teach the boys about consequences – the coaches regularly check student’s report cards. A failing grade means a boy sits out a few games until his grades improve. Oftentimes, that means coaches sitting with the student and going over homework assignments.

Kelley also encourages the each boy to volunteer in the community. Most recently, several team members drove to Gulf Breeze, Fla. to help hand out supplies and meals to residents who were impacted by flooding in April.

“We are really more of a family, then a basketball team,” said 14-year-old D.J Kelley. “We run our program so that it’s more than basketball.”

And for Love, the sixth grader? He has dreams of walking in the footsteps of the athletes who have come before him at The Salvation Army.

“Who knows, maybe there are scouts in the bleachers,” he said with a smile. “And we have a better chance of going pro.”