Every great athlete has to start somewhere. For three fourth-graders at Wayne Avenue Elementary School, they’ve been able to get off to a blazing fast start thanks to the Harnett Strong Ballers travel basketball teams.
Kyrese Williams, Kobe Plata and Malachi Cooke were each invited to play at the National Youth All American Winter Nationals tournament March 29-31 in Blacksburg, Va., at Virginia Tech. The NYAA hires scouts all across the nation to evaluate young elementary school students. The Strong Ballers sent in film of their kids to be evaluated, and that’s how Kyrese, Kobe and Malachi were selected.
Each member of Wayne Avenue’s big three is unique and brings their own special skillset to the table. Kyrese is the floor general and plays with a silent confidence, using his already deadly combination of speed and handles to take on opponents. Kobe is the flashy wing who loves to be in the spotlight, and has a good understanding of the game as the son of Strong Ballers fourth-grade coach Nate Plata. Malachi is the big man who likes to get on the boards and dominate the paint.
Not only are they a formidable trio on the court, but also best buds off the court. They all like to hang out at Kobe’s house, where coach Plata challenges them with different basketball tasks: using the left hand, improving ball handling or long-range shooting. And they love to turn everything into a competition.
“We love to pick on each other, like if someone misses a layup or if one of us scores on the other,” Kobe said. “But it’s all friendly. We like playing against each other because that’s how you get better, by playing against the best opponents.”
As much as they like competing against each other, they love to play together. They have great chemistry and understanding between the three of them, and they’re hoping they’ll have a chance to put that on display at Winter Nationals. There’s no guarantee they’ll all be on the same team, but even if they aren’t, they’re all excited for the opportunity.
“I want to play against the best,” Kyrese said. “That’s how you become the best.”
“I like to travel,” Malachi said. “It’ll be fun to be up there.”
The Harnett Strongballers started back in 2015. Dwain Ellis and Paul Cullen, the two main founders, were looking to provide their kids with an opportunity to play at a higher level. It started out as just one third-grade team that needed a couple of fourth-graders to join, forcing most of the team to compete an age up. But now the Strong Ballers have third-, fourth-, fifth-, sixth- and seventh-grade teams. And almost all of the kids are from Harnett County.
“We kind of thought that some kids would play with us for a couple of years and then find other teams to play for, which would have been fine,” Ellis said. “But it turns out they liked us a lot and they stayed ... . There’s so many teams that try to grab players from all over the place to stack their team up, but we really just wanted to give these kids from around here an opportunity to play.”
Ellis praised the three fourth-graders selected for the Winter Nationals.
“I’m proud of them,” Ellis said. “They’ve all had to work really hard to get where they are. They’re really good kids too, and I’m glad they’re ours.”