Hype. Sports.

Inside Eric Devendorf’s plan to keep kids off their phones and on the court

It’s still chilly in Syracuse, New York, in early April, so Eric Devendorf is dressed in gray sweatpants and a black hoodie. The former star point guard for the Syracuse Orange is at a park near his house, palming a basketball in the far corner of a concrete patio, a stone wall to his left and trees and mulch behind him.

He dribbles, knees bent, body low. A thump-thump rhythm with his right hand, a quick switch over to the left, and another perfectly timed thump-thump. The tempo builds, the thump-thumps coming quicker. A pair of squirrels dance in the background.

“Don’t worry about losing the ball,” Devendorf says. “Challenge yourself. Get better with it.”

The video was posted to his Twitter account on April 5. It’s 38 seconds long. It’s just him dribbling and talking to the camera.

Two days later, there’s another video beneath Devendorf’s lesson. A girl in a Pikachu sweatshirt, maybe 7 or 8, has the rhythm down. Thump-thump, switch.

A day after that, another girl re-enacts the dribble in her driveway, a sedan and a pickup truck parked a few feet behind her.

Scroll down a little further and there’s praise from Syracuse fans and high school coaches.

Devendorf’s original video now has nearly 17,000 views. It’s one of dozens he has posted since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered gyms around the country, and as he has seen from the replies, his drills have been a godsend to anxious parents everywhere.

“When they send those videos out or send me a DM, it means so much to know I helped parents and kids through this tough time,” said Devendorf, who lives in Syracuse with his two daughters, 9 and 11, after a year as an assistant basketball coach at Detroit Mercy. “I’m just trying to share the knowledge that was given down to me.”

The videos were a result of the same boredom that has set thousands of ovens baking, sewing machines swooshing and hedge trimmers buzzing throughout the country. Devendorf was stuck in his house, eager for a little fresh air and a project to occupy his time during the quarantine. So he hit the court.

After a few days, he got to thinking: Why not record the sessions? He had been working some coaching clinics and camps before the pandemic hit, and he knew with gyms closed and large gatherings on hiatus that a few teaching drills might be a blessing for his social media followers.

“I did a couple of them, and it got a good response,” Devendorf said. “So I stuck to it. It was just me trying to keep the kids engaged and give them something to do besides being on their phones all day.”

In all, he has posted close to 30 videos since late March. With each new video, responses will pour in from parents thrilled to see their kids outside, mimicking Devendorf’s moves — “definitely into what [Devendorf] has to say way more than what Dad has to say,” wrote one mom — and coaches wondering if he is free for a quick Zoom study session with the team.

Derek Lyons is the head girls’ basketball coach at Fulton High School outside Syracuse, and he met Devendorf a few years back at a Jim Boeheim fantasy camp. Devendorf was working as an instructor the first year, but then he competed with the attendees in subsequent camps to get ready for The Basketball Tournament (TBT), where he teams up with other Syracuse alums as part of Boeheim’s Army.

Lyons was a fan when Devendorf played for the Orange from 2005 to 2009, but he didn’t figure the guy would be very personable. “I thought he was a punk, but I loved him,” Lyons recalled. Turns out, the two hit it off almost instantly. So when Lyons came across one of Devendorf’s training videos on Instagram last month, he figured he would reach out for some additional tips he could share with his team.

“We wanted to give our girls something to do to stay focused and move forward,” Lyons said. “So I asked him to do some Zoom training for kids.”

Devendorf wasn’t sure. He liked teaching, but Zoom was hardly the ideal venue. But Lyons said he was happy for his team to serve as the guinea pigs in this grand experiment, and Devendorf decided to give it a try. A few days later, they had their first Zoom practice. The girls loved it. They’re nearly two months into the weekly sessions now, with more than 30 girls joining in.

“He’s an unbelievable teacher,” Lyons said. “We’re 35 miles away from him. We’re on a cell phone or a computer. And he can teach and instruct, and these girls buy in.”

That’s no surprise to Boeheim, the longtime Syracuse coach, whose own son, Buddy, has been a Devendorf disciple over the years. The younger Boeheim arrived at Syracuse as a dangerous shooter, but he wasn’t always comfortable setting up his own shot or driving the lane. That’s where Devendorf excels.

“He’s really one of the better individual guys I’ve ever been around as a good teacher,” Jim Boeheim said. “Getting a shot, using your body to get shots, protecting the ball, getting in the lane — he’s a really good teacher of those skills. He’s really patient and a really good motivator. There aren’t many guys who are that good at teaching those skills.”

It’s apparent in Devendorf’s videos, which marry nuanced skills with an encouraging approach designed for kids of all skill levels to follow. A few of the kids devouring the videos are students he was already coaching at local clinics, Devendorf said, but he has been thrilled to see their younger siblings following right along.

Sean Broderick, the Fulton boys’ basketball coach, has done a handful of Zoom sessions with Devendorf too, and he said he is amazed at how observant the former Syracuse guard is. A few dozen windows are live on one screen, but Devendorf manages to have real feedback for every kid.

That’s also true of the social media videos. For each video he has posted, Devendorf has added dozens more follow-ups, interacting with nearly every fan who has responded.

It’s been a nice way of feeling connected, Devendorf said, even in a time of social distancing, and Boeheim is thrilled to see his former player representing the school so well during the quarantine.

Devendorf said he wants to get back into coaching at some point, and the videos might serve as a nice sales pitch. But he also is enjoying the time home with his girls, and he isn’t sure he wants to leave Syracuse any time soon. The real joy of the videos, he said, is just getting to share the same lessons coaches once taught him.

“It feels really good to help people who aren’t in a position to help themselves,” Devendorf said. “And they realize they just needed that little extra push to get over the hump.”

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