By Mark Naison
One of the reasons I am haunted by the death of Michael Brown is that I have worked with young people in highly charged settings and have seen what they can accomplish when people who command their respect guide them, challenge them, inspire them and love them. This is a story that will help you understand where I am coming from.
The year is 1994. The crack epidemic is still with us, hip hop has entered its golden age, and the city’s murder rate is three times what it is now. The neighborhood where I live, Park Slope, is starting to gentrify, but there are still pockets of poverty and the drug trade is alive and well. I am very active in the biggest neighborhood sports program, the 78th Precinct Youth Council, as a coach and league director and it is in that capacity that I am offered an assignment.
There is a basketball league for HS students at JHS 51, sponsored by the Youth Council, that is out of control The players are fighting with one another, parents are coming out of the stands to fight with the kids, coaches and referees, and neighborhood teenagers are coming to the games to join the brawls. The Council leaders ask me to come in and try to bring order to the league, threatening to shut it down if I fail.
The first day the league meet, I size up the players. Half are Black and Latino, mostly from Bed Stuy, Prospect Heights, Sunset Park and Red Hook, all pretty tough neighborhoods; the white kids are almost evenly divided between middle class Park Slope and working class Windsor Terrace It is a pretty tough group, but with one thing in common-they all want to play ball and use this experience to get them ready for their high school teams I also take stock of the coaches Two thirds are Black- two of them are police officers, the rest teachers. The referees, both friends of mine are big strong guys who are great athletes. I take stock of the people and decide we can make this work if we take the right approach.
So here is what I did. I called the players together and told them what my rules would be. Anyone who throws a punch, for any reason, is thrown out of the league; any parent who leaves the stands will be escorted out of the gym. Showing disrespect for me, the coaches, or the referees results in automatic suspension. After I tell them the rules, I call up the six toughest kids in the group and announce that I am hiring them as security guards and people who keep the book. I tell them that everybody wants to close the league, but that I am determined to make this work along with the coaches and referees “You follow the program, and we are your protection” I tell them. “We are not going to let anyone hurt you when you are in here- not your parents, not the police, not neighborhood drug dealers. This is a safe zone for all of us, a safe zone for the neighborhood. Together, we can make this work.”
What happened was nothing short of amazing. One league director, two referees, six coaches working together to help kids create a space where they could play top flight basketball without having to worry about defending their reputation or defending themselves form assault. There were no fights. No one threw a punch. No brawls involving parents or by standers Every time something was stolen from the gym, or the school, the security guards investigated and the stolen property was returned. Games were amazing, played before up to 300 spectators. Local drug dealers came to the games and caused no beefs.
What made it work was giving kids everyone was afraid of real responsibility and decent pay; coaches who took kids home with them when they were in trouble and helped them with problems ranging from failed tests to school suspensions; and an environment where strong physically confident adults commanded respect from young people and made them feel safe.
It was also a place where class and privilege were temporarily erased- I brought wads of dollar bills to every game and made sure that if anyone had pizza, everyone had pizza. And what happened, with order, and discipline, and predicability and love is that kids from every conceivable background were able to enjoy their love of basketball and showcase their skills before appreciative crowds. At least half of the players in the league, including several girls, ended up playing high school basketball, and a few ended up playing in college- one of those who became a starting point guard at Fordham.
For four years we held the league together without a single fight, or a single brawl though there were a few near misses It was physically and emotionally exhausting, for the referees and coaches as well a the kids, but we showed that young people who many people feared, who in some cases were huge disciplinary problems for schools and for their parents, could be part of an incredible group experience without every losing control.
The experience left a lasting impact on me. Every time I see a shooting death of a young person like Mike Brown, I think of how many young people in our league fit that profile and how with the right combination of firmness understanding and respect, those young people blossomed. It is also why I am reluctant to write off or give up on any young person.
I have seen what is possible and find it hard to accept anything less.
Originally published in With a Brooklyn Accent.