Anyone who has been raised in the inner city or has lived in its confines for a significant amount of time is well aware of the cultural importance of playground basketball, which through exhaustive commercialization over the past decade is today commonly referred to as streetball.
In New York City, numerous leagues and tournaments are held during the summer for both youth and adults. Traditionally, many of them, such as Citywide, Holcombe Rucker and the Kingdome Classic have been tightly interwoven into the fabric of the communities in which they are conducted.
This past Sunday, the Daily News ran a compelling story on the history of Kingdome and its current struggles. Held inside the Martin Luther King Jr. Tower housing projects and played on a court located on 115th Street between Lennox (co-named Malcolm X Boulevard in 1987) and Fifth Avenues, the tournament is hoping to celebrate its 25th anniversary this summer.
Although the Kingdome Classic is approaching 25, the King Towers tournament, as those of us who have deep roots in playground hoops knows, has been going on for much longer. Over three decades ago, as the starting point guard, yours truly, along with my backcourt mate, Elombe Brath, son of the great scholar of the same name, led the Riverside Church Hawks to the finals in the biddy division.
But the Classic is in peril like so many other long-standing institutions whether they are summer basketball leagues, small businesses or powerful financial firms as a result of a crippling recession that has had devastating effects on a global scale.
The Classic’s founder and director, Terry “Honcho” Cooper is desperately seeking sponsorship of roughly $50,000 to ensure that Kingdome will not cease providing an entertaining gathering place for both local residents and foreign tourists alike who come to watch and mingle with NBA stars, college standouts and rising high school talent.
I sincerely hope that Cooper meets his goal. The school safety officer at Samuel Gompers High School has made great personal sacrifices, including going into debt to fund his endeavor, so that a huge void is not left in Harlem.
As someone who has covered sports professionally as a journalist since 1988 and has the fortune of regularly sitting courtside at Madison Square Garden, I understand that summer ball is when basketball fanatics who will never experience the thrill of securing a front row seat at the Garden have the occasion to interact with a steady stream of hoop stars who consistently pass through the concrete coliseum that is Kingdome, in addtion to courts like Rucker Park, Gun Hill and UDC in the Bronx. Truth be told, the crowd is as much a part of the show as the players.
But to read quotes from the Daily News story attributed to athletes such as Ron Artest and residents of King Towers who warn of an imminent crime spree and a rash of violence that will be a byproduct of the tournament not taking place is at once alarming and disturbing.
It speaks to the profound issues plaguing black communities across the country including low goals and expectations, single parent households, failing educational systems, the crumbling economy and the ruin of the once indomitable family structure that was the backbone of our survival and triumphs.
The piece infers that basketball is all that young black men and boys have to occupy their time during the sweltering summer months and that the alternative is terrorizing their neighborhoods. This premise blurs the line between playground basketball and personal responsibility.
To suggest that basketball is the end all forwards a negative stereotype and reinforces a false notion perpetuated by the very same group that has fallen victim to the misconception that urban youth have limited options.
On the contrary, they have far more choices than joining gangs, standing on street corners or just chillin’ on park benches engaging in illegal activities like drug dealing while waiting for a powder keg in the form of shootouts to explode.
I recently overheard a conversation between two women that are mothers of teenage sons. One frustratingly said to the other regarding the young men’s potential summer plans “What are they supposed to do if they don’t get a job? There aint’ no jobs so what else is there for them to do but hang out on the streets?”
Her comments were ignorant in the broadest definition of the word but emblematic of misinformed and ill-equipped parents. Having vast knowledge and experience in youth services, I am well aware that last summer was the worst in over a half century for summer youth employment nationwide. This summer is expected to be equally distressing.
While the Department of Youth and Community Development provides thousands of New York City residents ages 14 to 24 with employment opportunities during the summer, countless more are denied due to funding constraints. Even more disheartening is that adults in their late twenties and beyond are now vigorously competing with youth for minimum wage openings that were once the province of teenagers.
Coupled with the dearth of available summer positions both in the public and private sector markets, jobs are undeniably scarce. But spending ones time idly or destructively should be the last option for out of work youth.
They can volunteer or become unpaid interns at for-profit companies and not-for-profits which often provide transportation and lunch stipends. All of these avenues can appreciably enhance youths social and networking skills, expand their college application profile and foster invaluable relationships that can lead to future employment opportunities.
Through their schools, community boards and or the offices of elected officials, youth can obtain information on programs such as the United States Court of Appeals for the Second District summer internship for high school and college students.
Youth that are academically challenged and lacking age appropriate social skills can particularly benefit from stepping out of their comfort zone. But they must be nurtured, encouraged, motivated and receive unwavering guidance from elders.
With that stated I am not marginalizing the complex dynamics of the inner-city or the special needs of a plethora of youth that are not being adequately addressed. And certainly the overwhelming issue of absentee fathers and unfit mothers are a formula for extremely virulent circumstances.
As the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” rings true, it also takes a village of leaders to help educate, inform and alter the attitudes of parents such as the aforementioned woman as well as those who have resigned themselves to the belief that the demise of a basketball tournament inevitably means youth are left with no positive outlets to pursue.