Community MVP: Farmington’s Amara

True power lies in knowing when to use it.  As league director for the Farmington Recreation Department’s first-through-fourth-grade co-ed basketball program, Frank Amara has the power and discretion to sometimes “bend” the rules.

When he sees a struggling player who hasn’t scored all season long, Amara steps in. It is called the phantom foul, says Geoff Porter, Farmington recreation coordinator, who has seen this scenario play out time and time again. The last game of the year in the waning moments is when Amara will make the call and send the youngster to the foul line. He or she will shoot until a free throw is made. If the player misses at first, well, someone has stepped over the line; if the shooter misses again, well, the lights in the gym flickered. Someone sneezed in the stands. A player’s shoelace was untied. And so on.

In the end, the player leaves the court no longer struggling but beaming and proud. Amara gets it. He knows what youth sports should be all about. Fun and smiles, while learning about teamwork and acquiring skills and getting exercise throughout it all.

“Somehow internally he knows who hasn’t scored. It ends up being a shot that player will remember for the rest of his life,” Porter said of the children who benefit from Amara’s generosity.

Amara, 70, who has lived in Farmington for 45 years, got involved with youth sports when his 33-year-old son, Frank Jr., or Francis, started out in Little League as an eight year old. The older Amara, who shares the same birthday as his son, recalls it vividly. This was before t-ball. and coaches tossed pitches to the young ball players. Amara coached Frank Jr. in basketball, too.

Amara was a teacher for 10 years then became a school administrator for 27½  years. He was assistant principal at Irving Robbins Middle School in Farmington and retired as principal at Keeney Street Elementary School in Manchester. He had less of the enriching one-on-one interaction with children when his career moved from the classroom to the office, and helping out with youth sports brought him back to that place where interpersonal connections can flourish and relationships develop.

One of his most recent foul-shot interventions remains fresh in his mind. When the player returned the following year as a fourth-grader, Amara saw quite the transformation. “It was unbelievable,” Amara said. “He was grabbing rebounds, making shots. He came back the next year a different player. He had confidence. All because we helped him there at the end of the year before.”

Porter reports that his office has gotten some flack from parents over the forced-scoring episodes. “Yes, but if it was there son or daughter, they’d think it was the greatest thing,” Porter said from the department’s offices earlier this month.

Town recreation department officials and Amara refer to the younger divisions of youth basketball in Farmington as a “Shoelace League.” If some player’s shoelace is untied, the action is stopped and an official, or coach, will tie the child’s lace before he or she trips and gets hurt. The “show must go on at all costs” attitude is not embraced here. That is a theme to the program Amara supervises.

Amara took over stewardship of the program near the turn of the century — starting his involvement in the early 1990s — and immediately began to fiddle with the rules already in place to make the league fit the model he envisioned. When coaches and rec officials began questioning his innovations, they asked him — good-naturedly, Amara claims — ‘Hey, who do you think you are? The commissioner?’ It became a standing joke and, hence, Amara has been nicknamed “The Commish.” He wears a ref’s top with “Commish” stitched on.

Amara, a native of Plainville, does not undervalue the role of fun and confidence play in keeping young players attracted to participating in sports. Without those in place, a child might become interested in different kinds of activities, perhaps of a sedentary nature. “If there’s too much pressure on a kid, and he doesn’t have too much skill, well, then it becomes not fun,” Amara said. “If the kids doesn’t have confidence, then it doesn’t have much fun.”

The younger divisions are mostly instruction-based at first, then game action and competition is woven in. Porter says Amara excels at teaching. Amara likes that aspect as he oversees the the players. Amara deflects the success of the league to the department administrators. “I’m doing a small part,” he said. He prefers games of 3-on-3 and 2-on-2 between the skills instruction, which he feels is the key piece to player participation, and the games on Saturdays. Amara has worked with high school coaches in town and uses players from Farmington High School as game referees.

“He can be compassionate,” Porter said. “He’s really trying to instruct and teach. He’s literally on his feet 10 hours a day, and I think he enjoys that.”

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