First Step basketball season begins with another round of tryouts

COREY HARPER (Left) and John Batson are the co-founders of First Step Youth Program. The lifelong friends wanted an athletic yet holistic learning environment for their own children, so in 2001 they founded the First Step program.

One of Chicago’s oldest independent basketball programs, ‘First Step’ is embarking on its 16th season with open tryouts for travel teams from grades third through sixth.

Tryouts begin on October 14, for third graders and run from 8 a.m. – 9:30, followed by fourth graders tryouts from 9:30 a.m. – 11 a.m. and fifth and sixth grade tryouts from 11 a.m. – 1 p.m.  Tryouts are at Corliss High School, 821 E. 103rd St.

Chicago residents John Batson and Corey Harper, lifelong friends, now in their 50s, founded First Step Youth Organization as a tool to reach inner city youth who need an outlet to prepare them for college, and life beyond, according to Batson.

Harper offered that basketball is the entryway to “assist in the physical, psychological, educational, social and spiritual development of young student athletes.” The teams, comprised of boys and girls, travel throughout the Midwest playing in a variety of tournaments. They also compete in the largest youth basketball tournament in the country held in Las Vegas, NV annually.

A unique aspect of First Step is the participants are treated to field trips, connected with mentors, and have an annual gala. The gala, Batson said, is the first time many of the youngsters get dressed in semi-formal attire, have a four-course meal, and are rewarded for their academic achievements. Students who attain an A-average are given First Step All-Academic varsity jackets. “Their eyes get THIS big when we give them their jackets,” Harper said, adding that students who don’t receive a jacket are inspired to aim for one the following year.

The program’s commitment to educational excellence is reflected in its board of directors membership. The board members are:

Joyce Kenner: Principal Whitney Young Magnet H.S.

Katharyn Houke-Smith: Travel Executive/Business Owner

Timothy Anderson: Assistant Principal Richard T. Crane Medical Prep H.S.

Alvin M. Daniels: Media Professor at Chicago State University and Filmmaker

Curtis Goodman: Pharmaceutical Salesman

Batson smiles as he talks about the program growing from one team of youngsters in the first year of the program to nine by its third year. He offered that parents appreciate the opportunity for their sons and daughters to be involved in an initiative that focuses on the whole person and not just the children as athletes. “It’s athletic and educational,” Harper said. Both men recite the careers First Step alumni have entered, including Medicine, Law, Culinary, Engineering, Schooling, Banking, and the Arts. Their most famous alums are probably Jabari Parker, a Simeon Career Academy graduate now playing for the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA, and another NBA player, Anthony Davis, a Perspectives High School graduate who is a member of the New Orleans Pelicans.

Harper said both players stay in touch with the program and are examples many of the participants look up to. The tryouts and more information, including additional tryout dates should contact Batson at 773-891-6402 or

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