Are You Wolf Enough to Play Basketball?

Natalia and Penko are two young optimists who believe they can do something for their country. Because they wanted to invest their efforts where they could really make a difference, they spent the last few years figuring out what that something should be. What they did for a living—Natalia worked at a communications agency in Sofia, and Penko was a government employee—was not it.

Part of the answer came from what they saw in their everyday lives in Sofia: children who are secure and driven to succeed in both physical and intellectual challenges and for whom nothing seems impossible. Natalia and Penko jotted down these kids’ well-being at least in part to the wealth of extracurricular opportunities and avenues of self-expression available to them. They wanted the same for children in their hometown, Razgrad. Penko’s experience as a basketball player and coach, Natalia’s communication skills, and their shared love of children provided the rest of the answer: the something they could do was start a basketball club for children in Razgrad.

To do this, they had to move back to Razgrad. When they started bringing up the idea, their friends were skeptical. Despite this, Natalia and Penko kept taking trips there and having conversations with local educators, parents, and former athletes. “We didn’t think it would work at first,” Natalia admits. The battered baskets and badly kept flooring in the city’s basketball courts as well as the ubiquitous smartphones and video games made them doubt that they could compete for the kids’ attention. However, they had both been raised by supportive adults who taught them to believe in themselves and not stop at challenges.

“We wanted children in Razgrad to develop this mentality as well, to believe in themselves, to believe they could do everything,” Natalia says. She and Penko also knew that a sport like basketball was uniquely placed to help them achieve their goal. Basketball helps you develop stamina and a healthy attitude toward food, but it also builds up your confidence. If you’ve ever slam-dunked after perfectly coordinated team play, you probably know that the adrenaline rush you get is a lasting empowering feeling. Last but not least, Razgrad has a proud basketball history, one they believed they could tap into in motivating young players. (Established in 1945, Razgrad’s basketball school is one of the first in the country and has nurtured some of Bulgaria’s best athletes over the years.)

Their project was launched with a kickoff event last September featuring a streetball tournament and open tryouts. More than 200 people came and probably had more fun than they had expected. (The women’s streetball game is still talked about.) Team Penko and Natalia had expanded to include a local attorney, Marin Kinov, a former basketball player himself. Wolves Razgrad Basketball Club was born.

And it was a slam dunk from there on.

The team’s vision and dedication were recognized all around, attracting the support of the local community, institutions, educators, and businesses. The Razgrad Community Fund provided funding for the club’s activities thanks to a 150,000-lev donation by the America for Bulgaria Foundation for the city’s development. An early supporter of the Wolves was Lyubomir Lozanov, an ABF board member and executive director of Ameta, Bulgaria’s biggest poultry producer and the biggest employer in the region.  

Today, almost 300 students grade 1–7 attend regular practice sessions. The club has just as many girls as boy members. Penko is the head coach, and Natalia is responsible for communicating with parents and the media.

Every child who wants to play basketball is welcome to join the Wolves. “This is not a club for the most talented or tallest individuals,” Natalia explains. “Our goal is to make the sport accessible to as many children as possible so they can enjoy a healthy and fun pastime.”

To be able to work with everyone interested, they set up school teams and hired four more coaches. The more advanced players play in the four representative teams, who represent the Wolves at regional and national tournaments. Regular competitions are also held between schools in Razgrad to keep everyone in the club motivated and in shape. “It turns into a true basketball celebration,” Natalia said. She is convinced that by having fun and celebrating children’s achievements, Razgrad will return to the basketball hall of fame.

Strengthening the relationship between children and parents through basketball is one of the Wolves’ important missions. This is why Natalia constantly seeks feedback and contact with parents and informs them about their children’s progress as well as the club’s goals and educational methods. She encourages them to attend their children’s practice sessions and talk to each other. This year, Wolves fans have been the most boisterous and numerous on the basketball tournament circuit, with the best posters and banners.

Communication with the kids in the club goes beyond basketball. Both Penko and Natalia insist on fair play—no insults and attacks—and a positive attitude both on and off the court. Sports activities don’t come at the expense of academics, and they both make a point of asking how players are doing at school.

Learning English is Natalia’s personal cause. She often posts in English on social media to help club members practice the language. When ABF’s board of directors visited the club in April 2019, Natalia took the opportunity to remind them that English is important wherever they are and no matter what futures they choose for themselves.

Penko would like to teach club members to recycle and throw their garbage away only at designated locations; he thinks we show our fellow citizens respect this way. No form of disrespect is tolerated on the court, but Penko uses time-outs only as a last resort. He encourages thoughtfulness and consideration and emphasizes every child’s strengths. The message both he and Natalia want to drive home is that every child is capable, regardless of where they were born, their parents’ financial status, their height, or the number of shots they missed.

Recently, Natalia and Penko started working with children with special needs. Next year, they hope to expand the club to include teenagers, because at this age people need the most understanding and support. “The club is for everyone. If you don’t believe in yourself or no one else does, know that we believe in you,” Natalia says.

Go, go, Wolves!

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