Since 1988, the nonprofit group Black Men Who Care has organized a summer basketball tournament for kids throughout New York City. For the weeks that school is out, boys and girls practice and meet on weekends to play against each other in city parks. Teams are organized and many of the players pay little, if anything, to participate.
Last Saturday, the tournament was held at Potomac Playground in Bedford-Stuyvesant. But the instruction wasn’t just on how to run a give-and-go or set a proper screen. It also covered how coaches can protect players from gun violence—which sometimes spills blood in the same places where kids play ball.
“We realized last year that there were 35 shootings in parks and six people died,” says James McDougal, the president of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network’s (NAN) Southern Brooklyn Chapter, which sponsored the violence-awareness event, called Hold the Ball. “That is a lot. I think one is too much.”
Richard Jones, known as Coach Jones on the court, is commissioner of the basketball tournament and is revered by some as a local hero.
“In their own little way they’ve all been affected by it,” he says about his players and gun violence.
The coach’s son Khaliko Jones, 13, who plays basketball with his father, says that a few years ago his friend’s cousin was shot and paralyzed from the waist down. “That kind of affected all of us, and it was sad because his cousin always hung out with us,” he says.
Spurred by Obama
The idea for Hold the Ball stemmed from a strategy session held by NAN. McDougal explained that earlier this year he participated in a conference call the White House held with NAN and other civil rights organizations. The White House asked NAN and other organizations to see what action could be taken in their communities to reduce gun violence. So members of NAN got together to decide what could be done about the problem in Southern Brooklyn.
“Barack can only do so much in the White House when it comes to laws and legislation. But we’re going to do some practical things out here with our kids,” says McDougal.
The Department of Parks and Recreation referred questions about the level of gun violence in parks to the NYPD, who did not respond to a request for statistics. McDougal says that very often, the violence that happens on basketball courts consists of revenge shootings that just happen to occur in parks.
“It’s not necessarily that the gun violence is associated with basketball tournaments. Violence goes where violence goes. It has nothing to do with basketball, but the thing is you have a lot of kids that play all over and sometimes people target the basketball areas because they know everybody show up for the game,” Jones adds.
So, coaches need to talk to their players about gang- and gun violence, McDougal says. “Some of these teams may come from different areas of Brooklyn or even New York City. One may be Blood one may be Crips and you don’t want that to happen. We want them [the players] to identify or point out, let the coach know if there are issues—they call if beef—with the other teams.”
Cops are allies
McDougal says he encourages coaches to “hold the ball” and reevaluate the situation if they hear that there is the potential for violence during one of their games. Coach Jones says that he talks to people in the community and the parents of players about violence associated with the park. Before there is bloodshed, there are often warning signs. “When something like that comes to my attention, I get on the phone right away and call up the precinct. I have police officers who are out here all the time walking around. And I let them know what’s going on,” he says, adding that he has a good working relationship with the local precinct.
He doesn’t always cancel a game because of a threat of violence. Nine out of 10 times, he says, nothing will happen. Especially when there is a police presence, large crowds that might otherwise gather instead disperse.
The Hold the Ball weekend program offered fitness and nutritional information, briefings on legal rights in stop-and-frisk encounters, poetry, live performances, sessions on cross training and yoga and a four-minute meditation for Trayvon Martin. Ebony Tay, the producer of the event, sees basketball as a social tool. “What we want to do is take it beyond the basketball,” she said.
Kobe Byer, 11, who participated in the tournament with Jones, says that basketball helps kids stay out of trouble. “I think that it takes all that garbage off the streets. We’re just into the game so much. We just focus on playing the game and having fun and like try to get better. We just want to be competitive and, like, play with our friends.”