On Saturday, over 200 kids were sweating on a basketball court in Prince George’s County, Maryland. They all had one thing in common: at least one of their parents are incarcerated.
The Prison Fellowship Angel Tree organized and hosted the camp at the First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Upper Marlboro.
Karen Lopez, director of church partnerships and Angel Tree Sports Camps said events like these are meant to reveal a better path for these children.
“It’s about offering support and care to these families so that we can change the course of these children’s lives,” she said. “It’s meant to really plug them into healthy community.”
While the main focus of this camp was basketball, the court was also used to discuss how to overcome adversity. And few know those challenges better than former pro basketball player Brandon Johnson.
“My message right now [is] just to give them hope,” said Johnson.
Johnson was once part of both the Wizards and Suns organization in the NBA playing on their G League teams.
Then, in 2013, Johnson was convicted on multiple charges surrounding an illegal sports gambling ring while he was playing college ball at the University of San Diego.
He was sentenced to six months in federal prison.
“I lost everything in 30 seconds. But while you sitting there, and whatever you’re going through, you got to still have the hope. You got to have faith,” Johnson told the kids.
After completing his sentence, Johnson ended up playing professional basketball overseas in Europe, South America and China. He now runs a nonprofit called the AWAKE Program, which mentors youths in juvenile detention centers.
“So the same thing that basically changed my life, has changed my life even more right now,” said Johnson.
He, like many of the campers, also had a parent who was arrested and incarcerated when he was young.
“I watched my mom go to prison. I remember her crying in the middle of the floor,” Johnson told campers.
When his mother was sent to prison, he ended up moving in with his father, who he had just met. It was around that time he began playing basketball.
“That was the only thing that kept me grounded. I found myself homeless in the ninth grade,” Johnson told the teenagers.
He eventually got a scholarship to play basketball at the University of San Diego. It was during that time he also became involved with illegal gambling.
“I got in with the mafia. I lost everything that I ever worked for, because of one decision,” he said.
But for the young players at Saturday’s camp, Johnson’s message was one of hope and second chances. He shared with them how he later reunited with his family, lived out his dream to become a professional basketball player and now spends his time trying to help others.
“No matter what decision you make, make sure your next decision is your best decision. That’s not giving up. God is the last judge and that’s what I learned through this process.”
Beyond sharing his story, Johnson also played a little one-on-one and gave tips to the young players. Kids participating in Saturday’s camp also received a free pair of Nike basketball shoes.