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‘No Books No Ball’ links athletic prowess to academic achievement

Jimmy Myers
‘No Books No Ball’ links athletic prowess to academic achievement
The Raptors, who won the Pee Wee Division. PHOTO: Annette Grant Photography

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More than three decades have passed since Tony Richards Sr. created a youth program to motivate urban athletes to new heights of scholastic achievement.

The initiative, still going strong, is “No Books No Ball,” an academic adjunct to the game of youth basketball.

“We teach life lessons while providing a safe environment for the youth that come into this program,” said Richards. “This co-ed program has served the community throughout its existence. It is truly a labor of love that continues to drive us forward.”

Richards started the program at the Roxbury YMCA in 1991. “I wanted a place for my two sons, Tony Jr. and Elijah, to learn the game and play it correctly — in a safe place,” he said.

“I am extremely proud of the fact that no major violence has come near the children of No Books No Ball since its inception.  I credit the strong support of the community for much of that,” said Richards.

The Junior Division Spurs Championship team PHOTO: Annette Grant Photography

One of seven siblings born to the late William Richards Sr. and Bessie Richards, 87, Tony struggled with academics as a high school student in the late 1970s.

“I used my example of being academically ineligible to play high school basketball because of poor grades as a motivating factor for No Books No Ball,” he said. “I worked hard to become a member of the second graduating class in the history of Madison Park High School and never forgot the value of good academics.”

“By the time I reached 30 and started No Books No Ball, the thought of academic achievement was of the highest priority in my mind.  I didn’t want my children to just be athletes — I wanted them to be solid in their studies and to be good citizens,” said Richards.

The concept is captured in the program’s mission statement: “Books First, Ball Second.”

One of the unique aspects of this program comes from the teaching component.

“Upon registration, every player must produce a report card with passing grades,” said Richards.

“Before every game, each player must participate in a literacy program.  If a player fails in school, they must turn in weekly progress reports until their grades are passing.  They are still required to show up for games, sit on the bench and cheer on their teams.  When they see the fun their teammates are having, it motivates them to hit the books and get back on the court as quickly as possible.”

While fathering four children of his own — Tony Jr., Elijah, and stepchildren Ashley and Austin — Richards became a father figure to thousands of young girls and boys over the life of No Books No Ball.

Graduates of the program include NBA champ Bruce Brown; Shabazz Napier, two-time NCAA champ at the University of Connecticut; Taina Mair, currently starring at Duke University; Nasi Simmons, currently a member of the two-time defending Independent School League women’s champ Noble & Greenough School team; and hundreds of others who have honed their skills in the program.

The Youth Division champions Celtics PHOTO: Annette Grant Photography

A testament and major endorsement to the program is the membership of one “Deuce” Tatum, the 6-year-old son of Boston Celtics all-star Jason Tatum.  Richards proudly said, “Jason put his son in No Books No Ball because, in his words, ‘I want my son to be among children that look like him.’”

Other principles of the program include mandatory parent participation, accountability for being on time, wearing proper uniforms, good sportsmanship and respect for everyone.

Like so many programs of this kind, No Books No Ball battles never-ending financial burdens just to keep things going.

“People such as Michael Bivins” of Bell Biv DeVoe fame “have been Godsends to the program.  But there are always needs like books and other items that require money to provide for our young people,” said Richards.

During the COVID years, the multiple award-winning program operated outdoors at Derby Park with huge success.

“We didn’t give out trophies during that time.  We gave out book bags with school supplies and gift certificates to Staples, because that was much more important to the needs of our children.  We also fed every child and several members of the homeless community every week. And we did it all on a limited budget.  We’ll always need funding, but thanks to God, we’ll find a way to continue,” said Richards.

No Books No Ball just concluded another successful season operating out of Orchard Gardens Middle School.  Games run from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays beginning in October.

For more information, contact Tony Richards at (617) 828-8816 or email him at t-rich@hotmail.com.

basketball, literacy, No Books No Ball, Sports, youth sports