Cal Sparks founder and director Elbert Kinnebrew led the charge to a crown in Chicago in July despite an ongoing fight against cancer.
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Because it was not possible to be in Orange County and Nevada at the same time for the annual Cal-Hi Sports Girls of Summer tour, we were unable to see the Etiwanda duo of State Junior of the Year Kennedy Smith and State Sophomore of the Year Aliyahna “Puff” Morris, or any of the other Cal Sparks Gold 17U EYBL stars in action at the Ballin in the Ballroom at the Westin Lake Las Vegas in Henderson.
We do, however, want to give a shout out to the players of the Nike EYBL national champion Cal Sparks 17U EYBL, and its founder and Ballin in the Ballroom tournament director Elbert Kinnebrew.
Cal Sparks has had some very talented players since Kinnebrew founded the club in 1996, and they have been one of the top teams since joining the Nike EYBL (Elite Youth Basketball League) circuit 11 years ago. However, this was the first EYBL national championship for the club, and came as a reward not only for the players, but Kinnebrew as well.
Joining Smith and Morris as starters at the national championships in Chicago in the first half of the viewing period were Tajianna Avant-Roberts, a 2024 and All-State First Team Juniors selection last season from La Jolla Country Day, Jenessa Cotton, a 2024 post from Mater Dei (Santa Ana), who was also an All-State First Team Juniors last season, and Ryann Bennett, a 2024 from Long Beach St. Anthony.
The remaining Cal Sparks players that competed in Chicago were Taylor Gerard, a 2025 from Windward of Los Angeles; Grace Knox, a 2025 from Centennial of Las Vegas; Bella Harmon, a 2026 from Buena Park, and Alana White, a 2026 from Buena Park.
According to Kinnebrew, the 17U team added Harmon and White for depth, but the starters “played a ton of minutes.”
It’s not a surprise that Smith was the big star. “If there was an MVP it would have been Kennedy,” Kinnebrew remarked.
To win the national championship, the Sparks had to beat the two other top teams in the field, All Iowa Attack, and the Cal Stars 17 EYBL. In fact, the Sparks beat All Iowa twice, 82-72, and then two days later they won the championship game over the Iowans, 68-55. Sandwiched in the middle was a 69-61 victory over the Cal Stars.
Kinnebrew has a great group of coaches, including James Anderson, who won back-to-back CIF state championship in 2000-01 at Harbor City Narbonne, Ray Bennett, the current head coach at St. Anthony, veterans William Hailey and Dominic Freeman, and Sparks alumni Caila Hailey and Candace Evans, but it’s Kinnebrew and his wife Karen Kinnebrew, who are the orchestrators, all the while with Elbert fighting cancer.
“I was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer in 2020 and my biopsy scale was 10, and 10 being the worst possible level,” Kinnebrew said. “So with my wife at my side at my first post biopsy the doctor told me to get my affairs in order. We thought my end was around the corner.”
Now, three years later, Kinnebrew is still fighting. After 40 years in Southern California he and Karen moved back to the Sacramento area where they both are from, initially because they wanted to be near family if Elbert’s days were numbered.
Because the cancer was not in his spine, doctors were able to treat him with surgeries, radiation and chemo and he went into remission, however in 2022 he was out of remission when the cancer moved into his rib cage.
“Now it is chemo in pill form and close watch on possible spread,” Kinnebrew said.
So why on earth does he still continue Cal Sparks given he’s also still a CPA with clients?
“Why do I keep going with Cal Sparks given my health status?”
“Karen and I love helping the girls via basketball,” answered Kinnebrew. “This is our fourth decade of service and we’ve helped over 300 girls attend college via the program and that’s gratifying given the importance of advanced education in their coming adult lives.”
“Now, every year it’s a renewal decision,” Kinnebrew continued. “We’ve decided we’ll be back for the 2024 club season. Lord knows when this will end but for now we don’t.”
On behalf of the girls basketball community, we can only hope Elbert wins the battle and he and Karen can help hundreds of more girls in the future.
Harold Abend is the associate editor of CalHiSports.com and the vice president of the California Prep Sportswriters Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter: @HaroldAbend