Scott Sawyer was a basketball star in high school and at Connecticut College. As a lawyer, he’s no slouch either. Working mostly as a solo since 1995, he’s built a successful practice that led him to argue a highly publicized eminent domain case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But it’s hard to keep the guy away from the hardwood. Four years ago, Sawyer launched a travel basketball program in Stonington for youths in fourth through eighth grades.
Sure, they lost their first game 44-6. But now many of those same kids have improved so much that they more than hold their own when they travel to play in places like Wallingford, Rhode Island, or inner city New Haven.
“I raised my practice for about eight years and had very little to do with basketball,” said Sawyer. “But when my son turned 10, and was starting to play recreational basketball, I just noticed in the town and surrounding towns there was such a limited knowledge base [among coaches] that people weren’t teaching much and [children] weren’t learning much.”
Sawyer said too many plays were designed for the coach’s kids, and too many teams relying on passive zone defenses, which Sawyer describes as lazy coaching.
So Sawyer, who won a state title and was voted all-state his senior year at St. Bernard High School in southeastern Connecticut, is going back to the basics and teaching what he believes are the proper fundamentals.
“The goal of the program is to play man-to man defense, push the ball up the floor with simple, fundamentally-based offenses so that the kids can be comfortable playing anyone, anywhere and at anytime,” said Sawyer.
Sawyer calls his initiative the Journey Program and the teams are called the Stonington Rocks. Sawyer was able to get the Stonington Community Center to sponsor the program, which is fully insured. “[The travel] is a major concern and knew I couldn’t do something like this unless we were doing it through a community center or a town.”
The $300, five-month program includes two practices a week and one or two games on the weekends. In just four years, the program has grown from nine to 60 kids. There are currently three boys’ teams of different age groups and two for girls.
Sawyer said travel teams have the reputation of looking for only the best players. But in Stonington, that’s not the case. Anyone can play. There are no cuts. Sawyer said if a player lacks the skills to play with other kids his age, he or she can play with a younger group. “The thing that’s unique about the program is everybody gets equal playing time until halfway through the fourth quarter; then it’s the coaches’ discretion,” Sawyer said.
Officially, Sawyer coaches only the fifth-grade girls’ team, but he oversees the others and occasionally attends their practices to help out. He said all of his coaches must have written practice plans as the 75-minute practices involve constant fast-paced drills for shooting, dribbling, passing, rebounding and running fast breaks.
“They really have to get used to just running and moving that ball up the floor as quick as possible,” said Sawyer. “It’s the only way you’re going to compete with the urban teams. This slow the ball down, walk the ball up the floor and playing zones doesn’t work. If kids don’t know how to play at full speed, you’ll never get them to. If they play at full speed, you can always slow them down.”
Sawyer, whose legal practice handles everything from real estate closings and probate contests to personal injury cases, admits the Journey Program is time-consuming but worth it in the end. “It’s been a lot of fun for me. It does take up a lot of time but I think it’s worth it,” said Sawyer.
Though the Stonington Rocks took their lumps initially, now, he said, every game is competitive. “It gives you a sense that if you teach kids correctly and they work hard, they can win,” said Sawyer. “It just takes dedication. Not everybody has had that opportunity. It is about fundamentals. Playing and just working hard.”