The Matchbox at the former Apalachicola High School will be bustling all summer long, thanks to the efforts of a former college basketball star.
J.T. Escobar, the son of Matchbox director Helen Ausley Willis, is directing Equal Shot, a program in partnership with Tallahassee’s New Rules Basketball Academy, which he co-owns with former Florida State basketball player, and now pastor, Adrian Crawford.
Crawford ran Game Speed a few years ago at the Matchbox, and Escobar has evolved the concept into Equal Shot, which he defines as “an elite youth program that goes beyond the scope of basketball.
“We develop the authentic athlete by empowering under-resourced youth through athletics, purpose development, and skill acquisition,” reads the mission statement. “We partner with New Rules with a commitment to developing the authentic athlete through a holistic approach to training to develop the totality of the person and athlete.”
In other words, Escobar is dedicated to dribbling into tip-top shape the talents and the characters of Franklin County kids with a twice-weekly program.
After earning his bachelor’s in 2018 from University of North Florida, with a major in sociology and a minor in leadership, Escobar recently finished a UNF masters in criminal justice. And so with those social service skills, and a stellar college basketball career (see sidebar) he’s excited about Equal Shots.
“One of the main things is that a very, very small percentage of kids ever go on to play on the college level,” he said. “We can offer help with different life skills, work ethic and teamwork that we can build with kids so they can be successful.
“And give them an opportunity to have fun,” he said.
Equal Shots aims “to see the lives of each child impacted and enhanced through the intentionality of our program. We believe each child has a unique calling and our goal is to empower the youth of Franklin County to see their full potential on and off the court!” reads the promotional pamphlet.
The program, which is completely free to all participants, got off to a brisk start last Friday, and has steadily upped its game.
“His heart is behind what he’s doing,” said his proud mom.
Equal Shots, which is offered on Tuesdays and Friday, has three sessions each day, for different age groups.
For first through fifth graders, the program is from 10 to 11:30 a.m., with that session attracting about a dozen kids, including two girls.
“Basketball-wise we really work on the basics, ball handling and basic shooting. We have a theme every day that we stress. The first day was Value, and today was Unity,” Escobar said. “More than anything we want to connect with them and have fun.”
From noon to 130 p.m. it’s time for sixth through ninth graders, and that’s now attracting 18 young players, including two girls, to the sessions.
“We have some players who are pretty good, there’s a wide skill range,” Escobar said. “We want to create an environment where a child is not embarrassed to be new at it, and cultivate a love for the game.
“With middle schoolers, the level of skill we work on is a little bit higher,” he said. “We tailor the drills so no one feels embarrassed or uncomfortable. It’s the same approach, to adjust the difficulty level with what you’re doing.”
Equal Shots has added a third session, for freshmen through seniors, held from 2 to 3:30 p.m. also on Fridays and Tuesdays.
Helping out with Equal Shots is Seahawks coach Kam Ashabranner, as well as former Lady Seahawks coach Tydron Wynn. In addition Escobar has the assistance of former Seahawk players Ayden Pearson and Kelsey Jones.
“Coaches can be a positive influence, and help teach them characteristics that can help them in life,” Escobar said. “That’s really the bigger picture.”
Drop ins are welcome anytime throughout the program, with registration at the door beginning 30 minutes before each session. The program will run through the end of August.
On Tuesday and Fridays, Escobar begins his day at 5:45 a.m., driving in from Tallahassee. During the 14-hour day, he also finds time to work with former Seahawks and now college player Simon Brathwaite and Daijon Penamon, and current Seahawks Eden Brathwaite and Owen Poloronis.
To help fund the program, “we’ve had several people and businesses be very generous. It’s coming from a mixture of some businesses,” Escobar said. “We kind of started without the funding fully there and we’re working on a couple large donations. We said ‘We’ll go and figure it out along the way.’ And people have been great.”