Noah Fleischman, Sports Editor
His life changed forever because of three things: God, his mother and the gift of being able to play basketball. Thanks to those factors, Lionel Bacon was able to go to college.
Growing up, Bacon was the youngest of 12 children — six brothers and five sisters — living in the projects of Louisville, Kentucky. Bacon, who played basketball at VCU from 1986-1990, said he was inspired by the way he grew up in Kentucky to help others in similar situations. For the past two decades, he’s made helping others into a career.
“There were a lot of my friends who if only they had had someone to talk them through just life and experiences, things could have turned out very different for them,” Bacon said. “I enjoy being that person for other people.”
After earning his bachelor’s degree, Bacon went straight to graduate school at VCU and earned a master’s degree in athletic administration. Then he worked for the YMCA for 20 years, helping others in Richmond as well as Cleveland and Houston.
Bacon worked in the VCU Athletics department for three years after leaving the YMCA. He then returned to the Virginia Home for Boys and Girls to help others as the vice president for philanthropy.
The Virginia Home for Boys and Girls is a nonprofit organization that helps children in crisis, providing transitional living services, specialized education and therapeutic resources.
“I’ve always enjoyed feeling like I was impacting somebody else’s life positively,” Bacon said. “Especially someone who might be in a similar situation or just needed help.”
Bacon never let basketball go after his career in Richmond was over. He was asked to coach his son’s AAU basketball team, and he quickly realized that the practices were being held all over Richmond in different gyms — some in Chesterfield and others in Richmond. Then he thought of a solution to the issue: his workplace.
Bacon realized he could use the Virginia Home for Boys and Girls’ gym to help not only the AAU team but any kid who wanted to excel at basketball. The gym, marked by painted white and blue walls, provides a way for children to train with others and improve their basketball skills individually.
At first, it was just Bacon and his three sons training with him, but the program grew quickly. They invited their friends, who invited more friends, and soon afterward Bacon was running full practices for free with more kids than he envisioned. At any given practice, there are anywhere from 15-30 kids, Bacon said.
TJ Gwynn, who played basketball at VCU from 2006-2009, has helped Bacon run the clinics since May. Before helping with the practices, Gwynn took his son to them and watched from the bleachers. That’s when Bacon approached him and asked him to help out. Ever since, Gywnn has been a staple at the clinic assisting Bacon.
Gwynn was impressed with Bacon and how he’s given back to the basketball community with the free clinics.
“Everybody’s not built for that. It takes a really special human being to want to do the things that Lionel is doing,” Gwynn said. “You see how Lionel is working with the kids, but he’s not charging the kids. He’s just doing it out of the kindness of his heart.”
The free clinics occur twice a week for kids who want to improve their basketball skills. Although the sessions are free, Bacon said the players owe him three things before they can touch a basketball: a handshake for each coach, eye contact and telling them their full names.
The clinics breed competition between every player, no matter the age. While they’re mainly for those between the ages of six and 12 years old, Bacon’s youngest son, Logan, who is 3 years old, participates in all of the drills as well.
“Some of the drills, I try to make them fun, yet competitive at the same time with a little bit of pressure,” Bacon said. “It’s almost like a relay race, but they’ve got to get through cones because anybody can stand still and dribble a ball.”
The drills have paid off, and Gywnn was impressed by the progress some of the kids have made from attending the clinics each week. He said he’s seen kids go from not being able to dribble two basketballs at the same time to crossing over two basketballs.
Gwynn’s goal is to teach the kids to build relationships and friendships through the sport, which he said was the most important piece of the game for him.
“I love the game of basketball, I guess it’s just hard for me to not teach the kids the right way of basketball,” Gwynn said. “From my eyes, that’s what I want to give to the kids. I want to touch a kid from the eyes of playing the right way.”
During any drill at the clinics, Bacon’s smile is contagious, spreading throughout the gym and onto the faces of the children. High-fives are passed around throughout the workouts between him and the children.
“I can get my sons in there anytime,” Bacon said. “But it’s helping so many other kids learn the game that changed my life.”