Washington Post Staff Writer David DuPree recently asked a number of professional athletes to recall their first experiences with organized sports and to discuss the value of children's competition.
Wes Unseld, Washington Bullets -- "The first time I ever played organized basketball was when I was in the fifth grade. I had a teacher named Mrs. Dickerson. The fifth grade was getting ready to play the sixth grade and she told me I was going to play. She didn't aske me, she told me. I didn't know what to do out there and the experience almost ruined me. I didn't play organized basketball again until the ninth grade.
"I want my kids to participate, both my son and my daughter. I don't care what sport it is, I just want them to participate.
"One thing I've noticed that I don't like is that often when a teacher finds out that a child has a well-known athlete for a parent, they expect that child to be a gifted athlete. They (the teachers) may force that child into something he or she doesn't want to be involved in."
Julius Erving Philadelphia 76ers -- "I started playing organized sports when I was 9 years old at the Salvation Army rec center in Hempstead, N.Y. I played baseball, flag football and basketball.
"My parents were supportive, but they never pushed me. They just gave me the opportunity to participate. The first thing I learned about sports was that if you don't get a good report card, you don't play because the coach at the rec center believed in that.
"I was always better in baseball and football than I was in basketball, but I didn't like the cold, so I went for the indoor sports like basketball. I wasn't that good because I wasn't coordinated, but I was big, I remember I had to shoot with two hands, though, because I couldn't hold the ball."
Ken Houston, Washington Redskins -- "I played slow-pitch softball when I was 11 or 12. I didn't play organized football until I was in the 10th grade. When I look back now I think that was the right age to start. When it comes to contact sports, I think a kid should be 14 or 15 because their bodies just aren't ready for that kind of abuse until then. I think that the fact, that I didn't subject my body to all of that punishment when I was young is one reason I've been able to play as long as I have.
"My mother didn't want us to play football because she was afraid of injuries, and even to this day I've never completely won her over.
"I don't have any kids, but I have a 5-year-old nephew, Stevie, and he has an excellent arm. Some guy wants him to play Little League baseball, but I say no. I don't want him messing around with curve balls at his age. Most little kids think coaches are gods and they'll do anything for them. Some of these coaches just aren't qualified to coach youngsters.
"Whenever Stevie talks to me about football, I hand him a golf club or a tennis racket. I tell him that if he wants to play football, play flag football. I feel all kids should play organized sports, just not organized contact sports. I don't think it's fair for a little kid to be told it's fun to go out and hit other little kids."
Pete Wysocki, Washington Redskins -- "I was always a rough and tumble kid. We used to water down parts of the yard and then run to the muddiest part and play football. We'd cut our skin all up and everything. From watching football on TV, I knew that dirt was part of the game, so I wanted to get dirty. I've always liked contact, too.
"I remember when I first started playing orgainized football, I wanted to play on the varsity, but you were supposed to weigh 110 pounds. I was nowhere near that weight, so I force-fed myslf to make the weight. I couldn't make it, though, so I had to play jayvee.
"I didn't know the plays so I had to play defense the first game and I got four unnecessary roughness penalties. I think my dad was proud of that.
"I didn't have that much natural ability and I think that if I hadn't started playing organized football at 8 years old, I wouldn't have become a pro. I have a 12-year-old son, though, and I don't want him to play football until he's 14 or 15. I just don't think it's necessary for a kid any younger than that to throw his body around recklessly. I also don't want him to be fodder for a guy who thinks he's Vince Lombardi. He wants to play desperately, but I've always managed to talk him out of it. The thing is that you're going to hurt if you play football, and I don't think a kid should have to play in pain."
Steve Stone, Baltimore Orioles -- "I started playing organized sports when I was 9. My father was the coach of the team. He read an article in the paper that said the easiest way to make it to the major leagues was to be a catcher, so I was a catcher for four years. Then one day we had a shortage of pitchers and since I had good control and could get the ball over the plate, I was tried there. I couldn't overpower anybody then and I can't now.
"I had a coach when I was 10 years old who took us out after every game. If we lost, we got a 35 cent ice cream soda. If we won, we got a 50 cent one. The incentive was to win, but we still got something if we didn't.
"Participation is the thing, and competition is important, too, but you have to have fun."
Ryan Walter, Washington Capitals -- "My first organized sporting experience was with hockey and I was 6. It was the Barnaby (B.C.) Minor Hockey Assoc. I don't remember much about the game, but I remember that the parents in the crowd almost got into a scuffle. My best friend's father was up there almost slugging someone.
"They were arguing about things like 'my kid should be playing more' and that sort of stuff. I remember thinking, 'Don't fight over us. We're just here to have fun.' It doesn't matter if you get one shift or 20.
"The next week some of the parents on our team got together and put up a big sign at the end of the rink that said, 'Hockey is for kids, let's keep it that way.'"