By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
For the Birmingham Times
Before he was a first-round selection in the National Basketball Association (NBA) draft, before he dazzled fans as a flashy ball-handler at Birmingham’s Phillips High School, before he was a standout point guard for coach Wimp Sanderson at the University of Alabama, Ennis Whatley played basketball at the A.G. Gaston Boys Club.
“Coming from Fountain Heights, it gave us an outlet,” Whatley said in a telephone interview. “I didn’t know what it was all about, but when I got there it was a place, a haven for me where I found my identity. Through sports, I became something.”
Whatley, who turns 55 this year, was a blacktop legend in Birmingham, playing on various youth teams and Birmingham Police Athletic Team (PAT) squads. But the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame member’s hardwood journey began when the A.G. Gaston Boys Club opened in downtown Birmingham. Nowadays, the flagship club for boys and girls is located in West End—and it continues to develop young people and champions.
The A.G. Gaston Boys and Girls Club Inc. (AGGBGC) baseball team won back-to-back Dizzy Dean Alabama State and World Series titles in 2016 and 2017. The boys basketball team won Birmingham PAT and Southeast Regional PAT titles in 2017.
Whatley, now a motivational speaker in Silver Spring, Md., will never forget his first time on the court playing for A.G. Gaston.
“I was sitting on the sideline watching these guys play basketball,” he recalled. “The coach asked, ‘Do you want to play?’ They were playing against North Birmingham, a real tough team. I stepped on the court and scored about 12 points the first time I stepped out. It worked miracles for me.
“It was a game-changer and a lifesaver,” said Whatley, who takes part in basketball camps through the NBA’s Washington Wizard alumni group. “For me, if the Boys Club didn’t come along, man, I don’t think you’d be talking to me now, to be honest.”
According to retired AGGBGC Director George Washington, Whatley was not the only Birmingham sports legend who developed his skills at the club. He rattled off a who’s who of Birmingham sports products, including Heisman Trophy finalist David Palmer, from the University of Alabama, who played for the Ensley youth football program, and also played baseball and basketball for the AGGBGC.
“Then we had Gerald Crosby, who went to the University of Georgia,” Washington continued. “I’m sure there are a lot of them I can’t remember.”
Washington said the AGGBGC likely made its greatest reputation on the gridiron. Its teams annually represented their respective weight divisions in the Metro Football League’s Shug-Bear Bowl at Legion Field. And sometimes they’d go farther, including national football events in Daytona, Fla.
Nowadays, AGGBGC sports teams play in the Mid-State Youth Football Association, while playing basketball and baseball in the PAT leagues. There is also cheerleading, which largely boosts the football teams.
Willie Wedgeworth, a single mother, was a longtime volunteer with the club. Her sons played on sports teams, and she recalls seeing bonding between most of the boys and their sports coaches.
“More boys than not, who did not have a father in the home, were nurtured by their coaches,” she said. “They got that male bonding and nurturing. Football was the most prominent sport … the most hands on. I think the [AGGBGC] has numerous success stories.”
A.G. Gaston Boys and Girls Club Championships (Since 2000)
Shug Bear Bowl Champions: 2005, 2007, 2009
National Youth Football—National Division Champions: 2002, 2008; Central Conference Champions: 2001; National Conference Champions: 2000
National Youth Football Overall Champions: 2000
Birmingham Police Athletic Teams (PAT) Champions: 2017
Southeast Regional PAT Champions: 2017
Birmingham PAT Champions: 2013
Dizzy Dean Alabama State Champions: 2010, 2015, 2016, 2017
Dizzy Dean World Series Champions: 2016, 2017
Source: A.G. Gaston Boys and Girls Club