With the morning sun still hanging low in the sky, a teenage boy in a bright yellow T-shirt stands at the crossroads of Mission Road and Southwest Boulevard, setting up a tent full of fireworks and other explosives.
It’s only 7 a.m., but the teenager is preparing for a fireworks sale leading up to the Fourth of July.
These are the kind of kids that Michael Loney looks for. This annual fireworks sale is his fundraiser.
Loney, 33, is the executive director of Freedom Hoops, a Kansas City-based organization that uses basketball as a vehicle to engage and disciple urban youth. Its faith-based mission is to counter societal problems that typically plague urban communities: among them, a lack of male role models and a general hopelessness.
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"My whole goal is not coaching, my whole goal is to play basketball, get a workout in and share Christ," Loney said.
A former teacher, Loney spent nine years in classrooms from Branson to Kansas City. He spent his final three at Eisenhower Middle School in Kansas City, Kan., and five before that at Kansas City Christian School.
During his stint at Eisenhower, Loney learned what it was like to teach kids in KC's urban core — what they’re good at, their struggles, how they learn. He also spent time playing basketball at local community centers, engaging with kids there, too.
A man of faith, Loney began sharing his beliefs with the young kids he'd play with. Simply playing basketball turned into basketball and bible study. That turned into basketball and bible study on Saturdays, which then led to basketball, bible study and memorizing of scripture on Thursdays.
"If kids aren't receptive to the gospel, we don't force it down their throat,” Loney said. “We make them aware of it — sometimes people might ask about that, but in general, kids don't mind praying; they don't mind having bible lessons.”
Freedom Hoops was launched in the spring of 2014. Four years later, some 25 kids are playing in the organization, enough for two competitive teams and a dedicated coaching staff.
The teams make appearances at competitions and showcase tournaments, such as the Hardwood Classic in Lawrence, Kan., or the Powerade Platform Nationals in Augusta, Ga.
As a former teacher, Loney emphasizes education and improving the futures of the kids he coaches through job-shadow opportunities and service projects. Job shadow participants have included individuals at Microsoft and Northwestern Mutual and Wyandotte County District Attorney Mark Dupree.
Similar to other Kansas City sports organizations created to empower urban youth, Freedom Hoops also keeps an eye on the schoolwork and grades of the kids in its ranks.
"If they're not passing (their classes), then they cannot play," Loney said. "That doesn't mean that they cannot practice, it just means they can't play in tournaments. And actually, I'd rather them sit down and do their homework than practice.”
At the end of the day, while Loney loves playing basketball, he says his program is really about cultivating faith in generations to come.
“I want young men to know Christ, and to live for Him — live for something greater than themselves," Loney said. “And to really have a generational impact that they will be disciple makers, going out and discipling young men who will then disciple others to follow Christ. So that's really the greatest impact that we could have."