A drive to give back

Port Richmond native uses basketball to bring youth together, help son overcome obstacles

Samuel squad: John Dever and the players who come out to his free workouts take a quick break during a Monday night practice. MELISSA KOMAR / STAR PHOTO

By Melissa Komar

It’s a Monday night and the sound of sneakers screeching on the gym floor inside Samuel Rec Center is a familiar sound.

Neighborhood kids are upping their basketball game, running back and forth, touching imaginary lines part of a standard “suicide” drill.

John Dever, 53, stands on the sideline, shouting words of encouragement before granting the sweat-drenched ballers a brief water break.

The players return to the court, all still wearing some sort of autism awareness T-shirt.

Although their uniforms are synchronized, they come from different teams.

Franklin Towne Charter, Mother of Divine Grace, Saint George, and Our Lady of Port Richmond are all represented by one player or another.

The practice, and every other one held on Monday, Tuesday, and occasional Friday nights throughout the year for the past four years, is an effort led by Dever to build bonds beyond school boundaries through basketball.

“I’m for the neighborhood. I’m for the kids of Port Richmond,” said Dever, who also coaches at Mother of Divine Grace. “I grew up in this neighborhood and I want every kid from here to succeed.”

For an hour and half, a dozen or so kids will run through drills, play four-on-four games, and receive instruction from Dever.

“I call it workouts. We’re there doing drills and playing some games,” Dever said. “It isn’t like when I grew up. I basically lived in the playground. These kids nowadays are on PlayStation, Xbox, the computer. If I don’t do this, they’d probably be sitting in the house not doing anything. It’s to keep them active.”

Dever has played basketball his entire life, playing “practically every day at Stokely” as a kid, then Nativity and Northeast Catholic High School, and started coaching his oldest son, who now is 25, when he was 8 years old at the Leprechauns and then Nativity.

“It teaches you to work hard, it gives you a work ethic, you meet a lot of good people, and just to compete is fun,” Dever said. “I love the game and I love being around the kids,” he said. “It’s helping them and it keeps me busy. But, I know at the end of the day, it really helps the kids.”

Currently, Dever coaches a team at Samuel Rec Center and at Mother of Divine Grace.

In total, he’s been involved in youth coaching for almost 20 years, coaching at Nativity School when his older son played, helping out at Our Lady of Port Richmond, and coaching at MDG.

Between rec and elementary school practices from November to February, and his own open training year-round, he spends about six hours a week with kids on the court, every second of it volunteer.

Constructive criticism: John Dever watches from the sideline and offers feedback as neighborhood kids complete various basketball drills. MELISSA KOMAR / STAR PHOTO

Dever’s youngest son, Joseph, 12, participates, and many of his fellow workout teammates are friends.

And, while the practices help Joseph hone his technical skills, it’s an outlet for his social skills to blossom.

Joseph, and his older brother, Ritchie, 16, have autism.

The Dever family hosts an autism fundraiser every year, Dever’s Autism Beef and Beer, in South Philly, this October marking the 10th year for the event.

“Most of our help for the event comes from this neighborhood. There’s nothing like this neighborhood,” Dever said. “Last year, we raised $40,000. Most of the money goes to Autism Speaks for research, but there’s also some autism organizations we donate to that the boys were involved in at some point.”

While the Dever family aims to raise money for research, raising awareness is just as important.

“Autism becomes your life,” he said. “But the main thing is, if you don’t already know somebody with autism, you probably will soon because of the statistics. It might be your grandson, your nephew. I knew nothing about autism 15 years ago other than “Rain Man.” And, it comes in all different shapes and sizes.”

And, although autism month was April, it’s something Dever hopes people are aware of year-round.

“Be aware of it,” Dever said. “And, especially with kids, if you see one acting a little different, don’t laugh at them or make fun of them because maybe they have autism. If you see a kid acting different or drifting off to the side, don’t be afraid to talk to them.”

For Joseph, basketball has been a springboard to overcome obstacles associated with the disability.

“He’s really come a long way. He’s really improved a lot,” Dever said “And, a lot of it has to do with this. It’s the constant playing, being around the other kids socially. He plays in a league in the Northeast in the summer and he’s on an AAU team. It’s really helped him socially. You become friends with the guys you’re playing with over the years.”

Joseph is in a regular classroom, and, although he falls under the autism spectrum, “for most parts, he’s a typical kid. He’s got a couple quirky things, but he’s down the playground playing with his friends.”

Friends is a term Dever uses frequently when referring to the kids who come out for the workouts at Samuel, underscoring the main reason he runs the practices other than sharpening skills.

“It’s not like when I grew up and you hung out with everybody. I tell these kids all the time, it doesn’t matter what school you go to, you got to stick together,” Dever said. “And, when they’re here, they’re all friends and they’re all one team.”