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Hoops in the ’hood

Anti-crime groups team up to clean up D.C.’s mean streets

(Published February 25, 2002)

By BRIAN BRADFORD

Staff Writer

Several youth crime prevention groups have teamed up to sponsor basketball tournaments that have cleaned up some of the District’s meanest streets.

The weekly tournaments play host to 15 teams from neighborhoods that statistics note as crime-riddled communities, and they have offered young men and women ages 16-26 a distraction through the hoops. An additional team is composed of police officers.

Every participant is required to attend workshops facilitated by educators and service providers. The workshops cover subjects such as life skills, job training and placement, mentoring and healthcare. Service providers and job recruiters are on hand at every game.

"Handing out flyers won’t do it," said Officer James "Hammer" Thomas. "Some of the guys can’t read. So we have people here to sign them up for GED classes, if they need them, or show them how to get health coverage for their children."

The games are a small part of the plan. The games are a setting for these young people to meet and interact in a positive atmosphere.

"This helps squash the grudges and prevent the beefs that may turn violent in the go-gos or in the street," added Thomas.

The police also get an opportunity to interact with the young men of these neighborhoods and be seen as friends of and assets to the community, instead of being viewed as the enemy.

"Officer Thomas and the people who work with him came to every ’hood and talked to all of us on the corner, and convinced us," said Curtis Mozie, 36, coach of the Shaw team. "You could see in his eyes that he cared. I can tell a fake. Officer Thomas really wants to help these brothers in a big way – and I do, too."

The Shaw team has been together for 12 years now. The team has developed a reputation as one of the better street ballclubs in the area and has fielded challenges from across the city.

"We have been winning street ball championships and playing pickup games against different neighborhoods for years now," Mozie said.

This tournament is the first time Mozie has sat down with leaders of other high-risk communities and planned an organized basketball event.

"All of the ’hoods were in one little room. We were all joking and sharing life experiences with the so-called ‘bad guys’ of D.C. After talking to them I realized they were just nice human beings," he said.

"We haven’t had one problem yet. After the games guys are shaking hands, talking and having fun. I wonder what took them so long to do this thing," Mozie said, laughing.

The teams are limited to 10 players each. Most neighborhoods have more men wanting to join than are allowed to suit up. Kevin Gray coaches the Kenilworth team and says he always takes a few extra players to game sites.

"The young men take turns playing," he said "Ten might play this week, next week some other guys get to take advantage of the opportunities.

"A lot of my guys are unemployed, and one of the sponsors helps men get job placement, so even if a guy doesn’t get to play that night, he may leave with a job lead," Gray said.

David Venable met Thomas when Venable was a student athlete at Ballou Senior High School. Venable stayed in touch with his old school police officer as he matriculated through college, and he jumped at the chance to help out when Thomas asked him to put together a team.

"My basketball game is basically gone," Venable said with a laugh. "I just want to talk to the guys and encourage them."

Venable, who grew up in Barry Farms and Condon Terrace, will graduate this spring and said he hopes to return to the District as a teacher.

"A lot of these guys played basketball and dropped out of college, some because of money and some because of adjustment problems," he added. "I want to encourage them to go back to school."

Participating teams are from Shaw, Barry Farms, Good Hope Road, Potomac Gardens, Edgewood, Condon Terrace, Oak Park, Stone Ridge, Congress Heights, Paradise, Kenilworth, Brookland, Benning Heights, Mayfair and East Capitol.

Sponsors are the Metropolitan Police Department’s Office of Youth Violence, Shiloh Family Life Center, East of the River Clergy-Police-Community Partnership, Metropolitan Police Boys and Girls Club, National Capital Police Fund, Alliance for Concerned Black Men, D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation Roving Leaders, and East Capitol Center for Change-Violence Free Zones.

The four-week tournaments are played on Wednesday and Thursday nights from 6 to 11p.m. and from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturdays. The games are held at Metropolitan Police Boys and Girls Clubs in the city.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator