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’Equal Shot’ lights up the Matchbox

David Adlerstein
The Apalach Times
The Apalach Times

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.”

Escobar starred in high school and college

JT Escobar, with family in both Tallahassee and Apalachicola, is a former Big Bend Player of the Year and Parade All-American during his days playing at Maclay School and FAMU High School.

In high school he had a career high 62 points against Oak Hill Academy, and earned Parade All-America and first team All-State as a prep senior.

He averaged 30 points per game en route to claiming Big Bend Player of the Year honors, and was named second-team All-State as both a junior and sophomore.

He went on to play collegiate basketball for the University of Mississippi an then the University of North Florida where he scored over 1,000 points and helped lead UNF to a 2019-20 ASUN regular season championship.

This past season he played in 32 games for UNF, averaged 11 points and 1.2 assists a game, 1.7 rebounds a game, and shot 40 percent from the field, as well as from the three-point arc. He shot nearly 85 percent from the free throw line.

While at UNF, he was ASUN Scholar-Athlete of the Year in 2018-19, ASUN All-Academic ifrom 2017 though 2019, and the winner of the Arthur Ashe Jr. Award, Basketball and Male Runner-Up in 2018-19.

In 2018-19, he was ranked third in the conference in shooting treys, leading his team with 76. including a dozen games with three or more treys. He averaged 10 points a game, and posted double digits in 13 games including four with 20-plus.

He matched his career high with 28 points against Florida International University.

In 2017-18, he was third in the league for 3-pointers made as he averaged 11.5 points per game. He shot nearly 88 percent from the free throw line including a span with 18 consecutive makes.