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More than just basketball

By Jared Green, Daily Planet Staff
Saturday June 29, 2002

Dynasty Basketball helps get players into the community 



It’s 3 p.m. in West Berkeley, and there are a dozen restless 4-year-olds at the Oceanview YMCA Head Start Program. They do their best to sit still and listen to the story being read to them, but their eyes and minds wander around the room as sunlight leaks in through a couple of windows. 

The storyteller isn’t your usual preschool teacher: He’s about 6-foot-5 and barely fits in his junior-sized chair. He’s also 17 years old and sports cornrows. But Berkeley High rising senior K.K. Alexander doesn’t mind the reading time, as long as he eventually gets to stretch his legs. 

When Alexander finishes the story (something about Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam and a cannon), the preschoolers break out to the yard, complete with playstructure, foursquare court and picnic tables. But despite the playground equipment, the biggest attraction is Alexander and three of his fellow volunteers. The kids chase them, try to steal a basketball from their hands, and climb on them like jungle gyms. The young men are all exceptionally tall and athletic, and there’s a good reason for that: they’re the founding members of Dynasty Basketball. 

Started by El Cerrito High’s Jonathon Smith and his stepfather, Berkeley High graduate and Cal Hall of Famer Gene Ransom, Dynasty Basketball is an AAU summer team for promising high school ballers. They practice several times a week and have finished in the top two in all four tournaments they’ve entered this summer. Next month, they will jet off to Las Vegas for the Adidas Big Time Tournament, the most prestigious prep basketball event in the nation. At first glance, they’re just like most other AAU teams, a collection of some of the best players in the region who are hoping to make the leap to college ball. 

But Dynasty Basketball is about more than just basketball. Ransom, a former freshman coach at Berkeley High, made sure when he agreed to coach the team that the players would be committed to community service and hitting the books. Starting with Smith and boyhood friend Alexander, they recruited players from schools like St. Joseph, Kennedy, and Salesian to fill out the team.  

While the players may not be the kind of stars that recruiters gossip about, they all have a chance to move on to the next level, and Ransom wants to make sure they don’t miss out. 

“They asked me (to coach) because they knew I’m a coach that’s concerned with them as true student-athletes,” Ransom says. “My kids didn’t feel as if they were getting enough from their high schools. They know I’m about them, not about myself.” 

Ransom coached the freshman team at Berkeley High during the 2000-01 season, but decided to step away after his proposals for study programs and community service for the players fell on deaf ears. With the budget getting tighter every year at BHS, the support system for younger players can be lacking. In fact, with the newest set of budget cuts, the freshman team has been eliminated for the upcoming school year. 

So when Davis asked Ransom to help organize a team for him and his friends, Ransom jumped at the chance. While taking classes at the New College of California in San Francisco, he had written a proposal for a comprehensive program for high school athletes, complete with study sessions and community service as equal components with practice and games. Dynasty Basketball is the beginning stages of that vision. 

“These kids were overlooked, and now they’re getting a chance to show how good they are,” Ransom says. “A lot of AAU teams want to stack up with known star players.” 

For Smith and the other players, basketball is admittedly the main focus. But they enjoy their time at Head Start, sporting huge grins as they show off fancy dribbling moves and hoist kids over their shoulders. 

“We probably practice just as much as any other AAU team, and that’s important to us,” Smith says. “But when we’re not playing, we’re doing something as a group. This lets us do something constructive with our off-time, instead of just hanging around.” 

It’s hard to say who has more fun during playtime, the little kids or the big kids. Head Start Director Pam Shaw says having the players come in is the highlight of the preschoolers’ week, especially since the Head Start staff trained the players on how to interact with them. 

“The kids look so forward to seeing them,” Shaw says. “It has really escalated basketball to new high among four-year-olds. It’s something you don’t really see in most programs.” 

The team visits Head Start once a week, and they recently finished painting the Oceanview YMCA building. Later this summer, they will volunteer at homeless shelters, which Ransom thinks will give them some perspective on the importance of education. 

“I feel this stuff makes these kids realize basketball can only go so far,” Ransom says. “When I finished school and got into coaching, I started to see how the system can take advantage of athletes. When someone is done with you, they can just throw you away. These young men have to be ready for when they aren’t playing anymore.” 

Paula Gerstenblatt, mother to Smith and wife to Ransom, encouraged the two to get the program going and has been instrumental in fundraising efforts. She knew Ransom wouldn’t let the players just work on basketball all summer. 

“The team gives them an opportunity to experience things that they might normally miss at this age,” Gerstenblatt says. “If you can prod them out of their little world of basketball into other things, it can only help.” 



Russell Murrey 


Gene Ransom 841-7835 205-3395 

Tried at Berkeley High to start afterschool program, but it never materialized. So I went independent, started own AAU team.  

There are kids out there with just as much talent, just lack being taught basketball skills. 

They are role models, more than just players. Came up had a lot of mentors, nowadays lacking in positive mentors, just giving back what people have given to me over the years. 

Resources are there, what I came to find out is that some programs are not really fro the kids as far as building character, teaching them about life as much as basketball. 

Grad 75. Cal 75-78.  



Paula Gerstenblatt 741-1272 

agreed to coach the kids, group of parents got together, really team formed because of lack of this kind of program at HS level. What we wanted to do for our kids was provide a more nurturing experience for academic, athletic, social skills. Based on proposal Gene New College of California, proposed at BHS, plan to have kids reading and doing comm service. Used that as springboard assign book to read, do comm service as part of team requirement. Began just trying to put together team with schedule. Not familiar with AAU circuit. Fumbled way through dark. Fundraising for a fraction of costs. Garage sale, EC Honda donated money. Pooled money, four tournaments so far, taken second in three and first in one. SNJ spring league. Going to Vegas Big Time Tournament, Elite 8 at Cal. 

Impetus came from how a lot of athletes are not offered a full development. 2.0 effort on court would not be tolerated. What’s blossomed has been camaraderie and friendships. 20 years from now look around and see friends that came from this. Other piece is that really fortunate to have Doug Murray SJSU HOF and Gene. 

Head Start connection, some kids done comm service in their communities. Natural linkage to Berk/Alb Head Start. Gives them opp to experience things that they might miss at this age. If can prod them out of their little world of basketball into other things.  


Pam Shaw Berkeley Head Start director 848-9092. 925-457-7308 cell 

Fun having kids there that aren’t little kids. Takes them away from just being basketball players. Had to train them more about how to play with the kids, how to read stories. The kids really look up to them, literally and figuratively. 

Mutual benefits are incredible, and kids get a chance to run wild. Our kids need everything we can give them. 

Birth to five, preschool, thorugh Berk/Alb YMCA. Funded to serve close to 500 kids, now have 9 centers in east bay. focuses on kids and families, low income. Get kids ready for school. 

office used to be gym, Gene played basketball here. Fond feelings, working on whole child, natural progression, inclination to do work within community. 

Did apply for grant Youth Involvement, federal government, to expand program to target high school athletes. October. Try to work with coaches in area to have more kids do community service with us. Interesting target, kids often don’t do much outside of school other than athletics.