Ryan Vargas said that basketball has always been a sort of haven.

“It’s been my escape since I was a little kid,” the 31-year-old said. “When you’re on the court, nothing else matters.”

When Vargas was growing up in Jefferson, neighbors would ask his parents to get him to stop playing. They were sick of hearing him dribble the ball off the pavement.

The sport took on an even greater importance about 18 months ago, when his sister Ashley Pritt died after collapsing while playing basketball with her daughter, Avah Vargas, 12.

Ryan Vargas, a South Albany High School graduate, was living in California and working for Dutch Bros. But he decided to return to Oregon to his family. “My priorities, everything changed,” he said.

He starting coaching Avah, which his sister always wanted him to do. But Vargas was worried his niece would lose her love of basketball due to the nature of her mother’s tragic death. Instead, the sport has helped Avah carry on.

“You can find peace on a basketball court,” Vargas said.

He’s hoping to give many more children a chance to escape and find a bit of solace — or to grind and improve their game and uplift themselves.

About a year ago, Vargas created a new business, Clutch Time Hoops, where he serves as a basketball skills coach. He started with a handful of clients and taught them on blacktop courts in public parks.

But the business quickly grew. And on Oct. 1, Vargas opened up a gym for Clutch Time Hoops in an industrial area of Albany.

Clutch Time Hoops now has 60 children in the program and six traveling teams that play throughout Oregon. High school players also can come in and scrimmage at Clutch Time Hoops, which charges $5 per student for an open gym session. Vargas also offers private training sessions at the gym.

Youth clients can often do fundraising to cover their fees at the gym, so students can improve their basketball skills year-round, regardless of their family finances, Vargas said.

Vargas played basketball at both South Albany and for two seasons at Linn-Benton Community College, and he described himself as a shooter and lockdown defender for both the Rebels and Roadrunners, a “3 and D” guy.

His favorite thing was curling off screens in a half court set, the whole team working together to get him a wide-open look at the basket.

“100 percent, it’s a team sport,” he said. And at Clutch Time Hoops, his goal is to get adolescents to share the ball and be team-orientated. Sometimes that’s difficult. But he loves seeing kids get the concept.

Vargas is a die-hard Portland TrailBlazers fan, and his favorite player is Scottie Pippen. He loved how Pippen, when he was playing for the Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan, did anything his team needed.

“Pippen knew his role. Without him, that Bulls team wouldn’t have been nearly as successful,” Vargas said.

During a recent night at Clutch Time Hoops, Vargas worked on shooting drills with West Albany High School student D.J. Krider, then held a practice for a middle school team, most of whom will be going to South Albany.

Vargas ran the girls through various drills for dribbling, shooting and more. “Fake right, go left,” he instructed Ryleigh Parker, 12, a seventh-grader at Timber Ridge, before tossing her the ball at the top of the key and acting like he was closing out on defense.

Ryleigh jab-stepped to the right, moving Vargas that direction, and then surged past him on the left. Vargas collected her lay-up and passed the ball to the next student in line.

Matt Parker, Ryleigh’s dad, said that Vargas has helped Ryleigh improve “300 percent if not more.”

Ryleigh said that her ball-handling and her defense are the key areas she’s developed. “It’s lots of fun,” she added.

Krider said that Clutch Time Hoops was something Albany needed. “It gives a chance for young basketball players to get better,” he said.

Clutch Time Hoops, 2440 Ferry St. SW in Albany, is open by appointment. For more information, call 541-619-4821, email clutchtimehoops@gmail.com or go to www.clutchtimehoops. 

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Kyle Odegard can be reached at kyle.odegard@lee.net, 541-812-6077 or via Twitter @KyleOdegard.