Kenny Holdsman Finds His Calling

Kenny Holdsman (Courtesy of Isaiah Nathaniel of MadOptics Productions and Nahijee Cross of Philadelphia Youth Basketball)

In the 1990s, Kenny Holdsman was working as a lawyer at Ballard Spahr, a Philadelphia firm that represented “institutional clients,” as he put it.

Since Holdsman was a graduate of Temple University’s James E. Beasley School of Law, the job made sense. But the young lawyer felt unfulfilled. He didn’t really think he was a lawyer.

Then one night, the chairman of the firm’s litigation department, Arthur Makadon, walked into Holdsman’s office and told him as much. The well-known Philadelphia “insider,” who introduced Ed Rendell to his future chief of staff David L. Cohen, said to the young litigator that his talents, values and passions would serve him better in another line of work.

“He was by no means firing me,” Holdsman said. “But he was giving me a piece of advice.”

It went on to shape the rest of his life.

Holdsman, a member of Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia, pivoted to the nonprofit sector and embarked on a multi-decade journey to where he is today. The 54-year-old is the president, CEO and founding board member of Philadelphia Youth Basketball, a nonprofit organization that runs out-of-school basketball, study and leadership programs for children from underprivileged backgrounds.

PYB serves about 800 kids at a time, according to the CEO’s LinkedIn profile. But in September of 2023, it will open the Alan Horwitz ‘Sixth Man’ Center in Philadelphia’s Nicetown neighborhood, a $25-million, 100,000-square-foot facility with a stadium court, five classrooms and a multi-media lab, among other amenities. Once the facility opens, PYB will be able to help more than 5,000 students.

“This is the thing that he was born to do,” said Amy Holdsman, Kenny’s wife of 28 years.

U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania Bob Casey, right, visits Kenny Holdsman at his Philadelphia Youth Basketball facility. (Courtesy of Isaiah Nathaniel of MadOptics Productions and Nahijee Cross of Philadelphia Youth Basketball)

But the nonprofit leader did not get here overnight. In fact, he did not even start PYB until 2015.

The Philadelphia resident worked for several other organizations before he created his own.

After leaving Ballard Spahr, he spent five years at the Philadelphia School District as the director of service learning and youth leadership. Then he became the senior program officer and director for the youth engagement team at the Academy of Educational Development, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. Finally, from 2009-2015, Holdsman served as president and CEO of Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis and Education.

At each stop, the Jewish leader got a little closer to his ultimate destination.

With the Philly schools, he led an expansion of summer service programs to 22 different institutions across the city. During those years, he was primarily helping Black students, so he learned how to approach working in the Black community without the benefit of personal experience.

“Through a lot of reading and conversation and feedback,” Holdsman said. “Learn how to allow others who are more culturally connected to the work to be more visible and influential than myself.”

In his next position, with the Academy of Educational Development, Holdsman worked remotely on an initiative to use funding from center-left foundations, like the Carnegie Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to develop programs to give young people “voice, value and visibility,” as he described it. The projects got students involved in philanthropy and community governance, among other civic arenas.

It was through that work that Holdsman recognized “the thread of my career,” he said. “Creating ways for young people, especially those from lower-income communities of color, to be fully visible and valued with authentic voice.”

But during those years, Holdsman was also coaching his own sons, Greg and Danny, in basketball, baseball and soccer. He probably spent 25 hours a week building teams with his sons, their friends and their neighbors in northwest Philadelphia.

Kenny Holdsman, center, and the Philadelphia Youth Basketball organization hosted NBA legend Kobe Bryant for a visit. (Courtesy of Isaiah Nathaniel of MadOptics Productions and Nahijee Cross of Philadelphia Youth Basketball)

Holdsman saw that sports could develop self-esteem, resilience and an ability to fit into a team dynamic. The experience inspired him to take the job with the Arthur Ashe organization, which used tennis in a similar way that PYB now uses basketball: as a foundation to develop well-rounded people.

As he guided the Philadelphia-based organization, Holdsman started to receive visitors interested in studying his programs. They included Doug Young, Kobe Bryant’s teammate at Lower Merion High School and later a Lower Merion assistant coach; Bill Ellerbee, the former coach at Simon Gratz High School; and Alvin Williams and Jason Lawson, who both played for Villanova University in the 1990s, with Williams going on to a career in the NBA.

They all left Holdsman with a similar message. If he wanted to help as many young people as possible, he should focus on basketball.

“I was convinced that basketball could be the single best door-opener for thousands of kids in Philadelphia,” he said.

Now, when the new facility opens, it really might be. JE

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