Ozanam Summer League celebrates 55 years of big-time basketball, important life lessons

Friday, July 14, 2023 | 8:39 PM

Karen Hall, a former basketball player at UNLV, is the assistant executive director and notable graduate of the Ozanam summer basketball league in the Hill District. She has also coached at Northeastern Illinois and North Carolina A&T.

Hall made it known that the Ozanam league would not be around today without its late founder.

“Without Mr. Carl Kohlman, there is no Ozanam,” Hall said.

This year marks the 55th anniversary of Kohlman starting the league, and a slate of championship games is scheduled for Saturday. It’s a league top hoopers in the Pittsburgh region have come to to showcase their skills for decades, and it’s a safe space designated for more than basketball.

Kohlman was the heart and soul of the league. He made it a priority to include academic help within the program to make the league greater than basketball.

“We do homework help, after school programming, tutoring and the African Legend Program, where kids walk around the Hill District and learn about the history,” Hall said.

Kohlman died at age 63 in 2004, leaving his legacy for the next generation to uphold.

Former Pitt women’s basketball star Jennifer Bruce saw Kohlman’s impact on her life at a young age.

“I never flew on a plane before playing for Ozanam. Thanks to Mr. Kohlman, it gave me the opportunity to expand, be diverse, to meet a lot of new people and play basketball,” Bruce said.

Bruce had the opportunity to travel for nationals and out of state tournaments with Kohlman during her time in Ozanam.

The Ozanam league is remembered by many notable alumni as Pittsburgh’s version of Rucker Park — a place for summer ball where jerseys are retired, physical competition is intense and the temperature rises as young players are trying to make a name for themselves.

Former Northeastern basketball standout Mark Halsel remembers Ozanam very well.

Halsel is the only Northeastern player to record over 1,000 points (1,651) and 1,000 rebounds (1,115) and he’s a member of the school’s hall of fame.

Hansel played professional basketball all around the world for seven seasons after leaving Northeastern and was a 1984 NBA draft pick of the Chicago Bulls in the fourth round.

Hansel described his Ozanam experience as something special.

“When I got done playing up under the lights in Ozanam, it didn’t matter what arena I walked into. From the states, Turkey, Argentina, Belgium and England, wherever I played, I brought it because I played in Ozanam, and I knew I could compete with anyone,” Hansel said.

Hansel remembers Kohlman bringing in international players to compete against at Pitt’s Fitzgerald Field House.

“We were 16 going up against grown men,” Hansel said.

Ozanam was the pinnacle for many hoopers in Pittsburgh.

Ozanam alumnus Priest Ryan remembered vividly his first time being exposed to the league.

Ryan is a Coppin State commit and is coming off a state championship win against the George School in his final season at the Perkiomen School. Ryan averaged 20 points, 10 rebounds and four assists per game in his senior campaign.

Ryan started playing in Ozanam in the seventh grade and began to develop as a player at a high level.

“I remember the first time I was introduced to the real hard nose and gritty brand of Pittsburgh basketball. However, I wasn’t equipped for this brand of basketball yet. I was still learning, but I knew I had to fight every time I stepped foot in the gym,” Ryan said.

Former Pitt basketball star Darrelle Porter is the executive director and program director for Ozanam. Porter is also the former head coach at Duquesne. His jersey is one of many hanging in the Ammon Recreation Center in the Hill District.

“We have had a lot of guys play in the NBA and overseas. We have a lot of success stories from Ozanam. It’s a blessing to be able to help so many people.” Porter said.

“It was always more than just basketball in there,” Ryan said. “You really felt the sense of love and respect for not only the game but everyone there. They helped me become a man. As years progressed, it became a melting pot full of talent where I watched myself grow to become a high level Division 1 player.”

Ozanam helped make many connections for younger athletes and gave them the space to learn to work through adversity within the gym.

“I went through a lot of my trials and tribulations within that gym and so did many others, like NBA draft pick Jalen Hood-Schifino,” Ryan said. “Without the experience and the connections bridged at the Ozanam, it’s hard to say any of us would be able to play basketball at such a high level.”

Hood-Schifino, a notable Ozanam alumnus and 2023 first-round NBA Draft pick by the Los Angeles Lakers, attended Indiana University his freshman season, averaging 13 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists before declaring for the draft.

Ozanam has remained a positive beacon of hope, providing girls and boys educational opportunities through sports and consistently developing self-confidence within participants.

“There’s no place like home, and for a lot of Pittsburgh hoopers, Ozanham was definitely like a home.” Ryan said.

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