Trent Butler gathered the young men on the court around him.
“We’re here to show you some love,” he said. “There have been shootings. You guys need some love.”
“We just ask that you respect us and let us into your family. If you got some homeboys and they want to bullshit, leave them on the block.”
Butler (at left in above photo with player Dennis Martinez, a team captain) is a New Haven street outreach worker. That means he works with young people in places like the Eastern Street public-housing development who are in trouble or in danger of getting into trouble.
As of this past week, he also runs a nightly basketball league at Ross/Woodward School in the Quinnipiac Meadows/Bishop Woods. One where those young people can not only work hard on the court, but also work out some potential problems off the court.
Some 60 basketball devotees showed up to the organizational session for the league at Ross/Woodward.
The league doesn’t have a name yet. It does have a mission: youth outreach mixed with serious basketball in an often overlooked area of town on the eastern border.
Organizers began the league at the request of the police department after the shooting of Common Ground High School student Javier Martinez and a rash of other violent episodes in the area, said Dave Morales, one of the street outreach workers staffing the league along with volunteer coaches and refs. Click here for a story about the community meeting in early January held in the wake of the Martinez’s death, where residents called for the “schools to be open till midnight,” and other measures to provide alternatives to the street.
The league without a name is one of the responses.
“Chief [Dean] Esserman brought us together” with the parks department and the schools to come up with the plan, said Shirley Ellis-West, who runs the street outreach program. The parks department is paying for the gym, the T-shirts and the refs. The street outreach workers will raise money to “feed the kids” and conduct programs.
During a break in pre-season practice games this past Wednesday evening, Butler said the league will have jerseys, trophies, meals organized with players’ family members, and an eight-week season, culminating in championship games in the spring. There may be trips to college or professional games. The focus is to draw participants ages 16 to 21, he said, although a good number of the players Wednesday night were older.
Street outreach workers (part of a program run by the New Haven Family Alliance in close contact with city cops) have launched basketball leagues in other parts of town before over the past seven years. This is the first to include an additional layer of wrap-around services. It will feature a series of speakers and tutorials on conflict mediation, health, and employment, said Omar Ryan, another of the outreach workers. During the summer Ryan organizes the “Hoopin, Not Shootin” League in West River.
On Wednesday night players of all ages were shooting the ball, eying the competition, and selecting teammates from a pool of players, mainly from the Bishop Woods and nearby Fair Haven neighborhoods.
Over recent years many of these players have been regulars at the spacious well-lit gym at Ross/Woodward. The Board of Ed and parks department keep the facility open Monday through Friday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. for informal games.
Shantel Thompson was a varsity point guard at Cross for all her four years there. She and 16-year-old Stephon Green, a current Wilbur Cross student, said they have been coming religiously to the Ross/Woodward gym five nights a week for two or three hours each night. Thompson is the only female in the league so far.
Those games have been more pick-up than organized play. There were no coaching and supervision, or non-players serving as refs. There was certainly no talk about non-violent ways to resolve conflict before, during, or after the games.
A hard-fought basketball game is an ideal laboratory for conflict mediators to show their wares and to demonstrate what they preach, in Butler’s view.
“It’s all about peace, showing love, and getting love,” said Butler, who also manages a nightly recreational basketball program for kids and adults at the King/Robinson School.
From the sidelines, where she was yelling to a friend “ball, ball, ball!” Thompson said she was looking forward to the league. Not so much the mediation and other services, but the competition.
The need to find a job has weighed on her mind, she said. She sticks with the games despite an injury because when she plays she feels free, and her anger dissipates, she said.
“They treat me like I’m one of them,” she said of the males in the league.