Basketball Campers Become Champions

Photo by Randy Whetstone Jr.

Photo by Randy Whetstone Jr.

Each summer, Kendall Rensenbrink travels 11 hours and 16 minutes (approximately 765.4 miles) from Milaca, Minnesota to Louisville to be a part of the Camp of Champions. There is nothing else more important on this 16-year-old’s summer break than to get the chance to be in close proximity to her greatest basketball inspiration, Russ Smith.

“I am a huge fan of his,” says Rensenbrink. “He not only changes my perspective on the game of basketball, but his love for basketball has affected me and how I live my everyday life. He was going through a lot with the NBA, so I take from that that things aren’t easy and you have to work hard. I do that when I play basketball, when I run track and when I just live my everyday life.”

This was Kendall’s third visit to the annual Camp of Champions basketball clinic, instructed by former UofL players Russ Smith and Peyton Siva. June 21-23, kids ages 6-10 and 11-16 gathered from all around to better their basketball skills.

Russ Smith with camper Kendall Rensenbrink. Photo by Randy Whetstone Jr.

Russ Smith with camper Kendall Rensenbrink. Photo by Randy Whetstone Jr.

This year brought some new flavor. Former Card Terry Rozier, who now plays for the Boston Celtics, was the special addition to the summer camp.

Tim Barnett, who has built a solid rapport with UofL players over the years, has been the cornerstone to Camp of Champions being a success. His vision was to provide an opportunity that the city hasn’t had.

When kids walk away from the three-day camp, they’ve built a relationship with UofL players whom they’ve adored over the years and become one step closer to being champions both on and off the court.

“We want them to use this game and not let the game use them,” Barnett says. “Use this game to communicate, use this game to help you be a good teammate, use this game to help you understand how to work with others and use this game to help you with punctuality – being at practice on time – and accountability. There are so many life skills that you can learn during games, so we feel like if they learn that, they have the ability to learn something special.”

It also means a lot to Smith and Siva to be able to give back to a community that gave so much love and support to them.

“My main message for the kids is to have fun and enjoy the game,” Siva relates. “At the end of the day, it is just a game, but it is a game that can take you a long way. For me, I want them to have fun and enjoy life. Life is bigger than basketball, but it is a fun game to play. I tell the kids to not take it so seriously as far as pouting and crying but rather to just have fun with it.”

For Smith, he doesn’t take it for granted being able to touch the life of someone like Kendall. When he was a teenager, he attended former NBA guard Stephon Marbury’s basketball camp, and it played an integral part in his becoming the player he is today.

“It means a lot,” asserts Smith. “It will mean more to them down the road than it does at this moment. They get used to playing against different people, different styles of basketball. They’re growing, and the most important thing to do is to play ball.

“We are helping them with ball handling, triple threat and moving without the ball – all the normal stuff and also being aggressive. I teach that to the guys to be aggressive and always have confidence.”

And while every young camper’s dream is to one day be like Stephen Curry and shoot nearly half-court jump shots, Smith looks back on his own NBA journey and reminds them that to turn that dream into a reality, they must put in the hard work.

“There were times I was in the gym and just in there to stay competitive, and I was working hard,” he recounts. “Then I ended up making it, and it is just really cool.”

It’s just as cool for Kendall to see one of her idols each summer. She didn’t get the chance to participate athletically this year due to an injury, but she says when she goes back to Minnesota, she will still have a lot to share with friends and family.

“The mentality of the game of basketball is what I learned,” she describes. “When you’re younger, you never know how mentally tough you actually need to be to play. I struggled with that by not being able to play and coming here, but I learned how to be mentally tough. That’s what I will take back with me.” VT