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AYBL youth hoops league turns 39

Dan Serrano, executive director of the Albuquerque Youth Basketball League, displays plans for a proposed, 10-court facility. The AYBL begins its 39th season on Saturday. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

The late, legendary comedian Jack Benny never got older than 39, at least by his calculation.

By executive director Dan Serrano’s calculation, the Albuquerque Youth Basketball League never gets older – just better. The AYBL’s 39th season is scheduled to begin Saturday.

The future, Serrano hopes, will include a 10-court facility belonging solely to the AYBL – but with availability for AAU tournaments as well.

The past includes luminaries like A.J. Bramlett (La Cueva, Arizona), Bryce Alford (La Cueva, UCLA), Cullen Neal (Eldorado, UNM, Mississippi State, St. Mary’s) and James Borrego (Albuquerque Academy, University of San Diego, current head coach of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets).

Serrano doesn’t hesitate to say the league’s goal is to take Albuquerque-area kids and help them become the best players they can be. The AYBL’s is not a play-day philosophy.

“The primary purpose that we pride ourselves on,” he said, “is to take those most competitive players in the city and pair them with some of the best volunteer youth coaches we can find, so we can team them up to get ready to play at the next level.

“Sometimes we get a little chastised by some parents who think we’re too competitive, but we (also) teach life skills. … We want the kids in our program to know that it’s OK to fall, and that success is measured by things other than the scoreboard. And if you do fall, you’re gonna fall forward and not backward and get back up and get back in the game.”

Evidently, it worked for Borrego. Participation in the AYBL, Borrego says in a video that appears on the league’s website, “helped shape who I am today, helped shape me as a basketball player, as a coach.”

As serious as the AYBL is about developing talent, Serrano said, it is equally so about teaching fundamentals.

“We start off at the second- and third-grade level, (at which players are) guaranteed 15 minutes (per game),” he said. “… The emphasis at that level is on basic skill development.

“We use a lower (basket) height and a smaller ball, to make sure they can handle the ball, dribble and shoot it. When they learn form and mechanics and get a little stronger, then they’ll go up to the next level.”

Fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders of both genders, he said, use a regulation women’s ball, as do seventh- and eighth-grade girls. Seventh- and eighth-grade boys use a regulation men’s ball.

As for that 39th season, a search in the Albuquerque Journal archives found references to an Albuquerque Youth Basketball League as far back as 1972. But that AYBL, founded by former Manzano High School coaches Mike Martin and Jim Thrash, initially was restricted to kids in the MHS district.

The current iteration of the AYBL began in 1981.

“The concept … has evolved into (being) city-wide, plus Rio Rancho,” Serrano said. “The concept was to give every kid an opportunity to go on, play at their mid-schools, and from their mid-schools get them prepared to play at the high-school level.”

The current registration fee is $229 per player, with a guarantee of 15 games plus a postseason tournament. (Registration is closed for the upcoming season.) But no kid, Serrano said, is ever turned away.

“We partner with some people in the business community to ‘scholarship’ disadvantaged kids, though I hate to use that word,” he said.

Regarding plans for that 10-court facility, Serrano said he has a preliminary design, has his eye on a location on the West Side and continues to seek funding.

“I’ve been working on it for about eight years,” he said.

For now, the AYBL plays its games at high school and mid-school gyms throughout the metro area.

Serrano is just the fourth executive director in the AYBL’s 38 previous years, following Jim Patterson, Gene Pino and Frank Castillo. Serrano, who’s an assistant boys basketball coach at Albuquerque High, receives a stipend from the AYBL board.

“I probably get something like 25 cents an hour,” he said. “… I’m pretty much semi-retired, so I’m fortunate enough, blessed by God, to be able to do this.”

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