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Turning juvenile offenders into good sports

9:20 PM, Jun 15, 2011   |    comments
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  • LA County Deputy Probation Officer Kurt Keller.

By Mike Bush

Malibu, CA (KSDK) - For some kids, a second chance is the first step forward.

"If you show a little love a kid can change," says LA County Deputy Probation Officer Kurt Keller.

On this night, the Kilpatrick Mustangs are locked in a tight battle with the Thacher Toads in Ojai, California. Kilpatrick is quick, athletic and tough to defend.

"The thing with Kilpatrick is that they were always bringing in new players so it was hard to scout against them," says a former opposing coach, Colin Jamerson.

But the truth is their success can't be measured by wins and losses.

Kilpatrick is located in Malibu, California, an affluent, beachfront city in Los Angeles County. You expect to find movie stars here. You don't expect to find a place like this. Kilpatrick is a camp for juvenile offenders. The 80-plus boys in this facility are here for crimes like robbery, vandalism and drug possession.

"I was with my brother and he robbed somebody," says former inmate James Dixon.

Dixon spent nine months at Kilpatrick.

"There's two things that we tell these kids that they weren't getting in the community," says Keller. " What you're doing is wrong. They weren't hearing that and the other thing is, you've got to go to school."

Keller is a probation officer assigned to Kilpatrick. He's also the basketball coach.

"A lot of lessons can be learned through sports," he says. "Dealing with disappointments, setbacks, as well as success."

The 50-year-old Keller played high school basketball back in his home state of Indiana and was a walk-on football player at Colorado. He was assigned to Kilpatrick five years ago.

"He's passionate about his job and obviously he loves and cares for the kids," says Jamerson. "It takes a special individual."

On the streets, many of these kids were in gangs. On the court, they have to learn to work as a team.

"Those kids would have rather shot at each other in the street rather than pass the ball before they got here," says Keller.

But playing basketball is considered a privilege at Kilpatrick. They have no home gym, so they have to leave the facility to play all their games.

"We all got along," says Dixon, "because if we didn't we couldn't leave to go play games and that was our freedom for the day"

Since the players come and go at the discretion of a judge, Coach Keller tries to keep the strategy simple. Good defense, he says leads to good offense. But apparently Kilpatrick also scores points for good behavior.

"They were really all kind, respectful guys," says Daniel Cohen, an opposing player.

You could see how players on an opposing team might be a bit nervous about playing a group of juvenile offenders. But for those expecting intimidation, it's a quick revelation.

"Every time I made a shot, the guy guarding me would be 'Oh, good shot.' If I played good defense, he'd make sure and say, 'Good defense,'" says Michael Cohen, also an opposing player. " It never really happened to me as a basketball player before."

"It's a give and take," says Keller. "They're willing to let us come and play, we need to show respect to their facility and their people."

A year ago, the Mustangs won the regions small school championship but that's not what they are most proud of. They also won another trophy -- the league's sportsmanship award.

"You know they're going to play hard, they're going to give you everything they've got but they do it in a way that is exemplary," says opposing coach, Garrett O'Hara.

There is a power in sports and when players leave Kilpatrick, Keller is confident that what they learned in here will help them out there.

"Give them something they can believe in and they can succeed and be a benefit to their community," says Keller.

One man's dedication to troubled teens, turning hoops into hope.


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