March 19, 2015. 6:23 PM
Dan Cross was nearly flunking out of high school when he had an epiphany.
“I realized that, ‘Hey, I’m good at basketball, but the only way I can play is if I make good grades,’” said Cross, a former Florida basketball standout who played professionally overseas. “It made enough sense to me as an incentive. I was on the honor roll for the next three years.”
Cross had a tightknit family and neighborhood to help him with the skills he needed to get on the right track.
Some children don’t.
That’s why Cross started the Athlete Connections Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching children life skills through sports. The foundation, launched seven years ago, fields three Amateur Athletic Union boys basketball teams — for eighth-, ninth- and 11th-graders — that travel throughout Central Florida and Georgia from March to July.
Most of the players are from Orange, Seminole and Polk counties, and they compete in about 10 tournaments during the season, beginning with one this weekend in Tavares.
“All of our kids and all of our youth are at risk,” said Cross, who helped UF reach the 1994 Final Four in Charlotte, N.C. “Something is going on at home, between divorce rates and single mom and single dad and homelessness.
“There’s different dynamics in every family that puts kids at risk.”
The teams, all known as GameSpeed, practice twice a week at community gyms in Central Florida. They often have professional speakers, such as judges, lawyers, doctors and police officers, come to practice and sometimes skip practice to visit area businesses. The foundation offers tutoring for any of its athletes struggling in school.
Last season, Cross took teams to his office in downtown Orlando, where he works as the philanthropy director of the Faine House, a nonprofit for children aging out of foster care that is run by former NFL player Jeff Faine.
“We learn business, and he takes us to different jobs to learn new things,” said eighth-grader Carlos Machuca, whose brother, Adonys Henriquez, plays basketball at the University of Central Florida. “Dan said that if we don’t make it in basketball, we have other opportunities.”
During practice at the Downtown Recreation Complex on Parramore Avenue on Wednesday night, Cross, 41, stopped a scrimmage when three players fighting for the ball fell to the ground and no one helped them.
“Get back down,” he told them. “Somebody better come help them up!”
Later, Cross pulled Jelani Moreno, 13, from a drill for “catching an attitude.” He later told him that if he were disciplining him, it meant he cared.
“We learn more than basketball,” said Jelani, 13, who has played for the foundation for about three years. “We learn about life and respect and prayers and everything. He made us sit out because it was just about learning from our mistakes and doing the right thing next time.
“Half the stuff I know is because I’m with this program.”
Each athlete pays $350 to play, a significantly lower fee than many AAU teams charge. Additional funding comes from donations, raffles, an annual carwash and a celebrity golf tournament.
“Someone gave up the time to teach me values, to teach me how to listen, to work well with others,” said Cross, who was raised in Illinois. “Someone invested the time in me, so it’s my obligation to give back.”
Cross recounted the story of one former foundation athlete who had only two class credits his sophomore year of high school. Now, he is in private school and will graduate on time this spring.
“He was good enough to hopefully receive a free education somewhere,” Cross said. “That is up to him, but the most important part is, now he has a future.”
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