Number 15 of the Blues and number 15 of the Greens could have run afoul of the cops—if they had been hanging around the streets instead of the basketball court.
The game, featuring the talents of John Pittman (Green 15) and Jeron Belin (Blue 15), were surrounded by their neighborhood’s cops and outreach workers as they played in a hard fought championship basketball game in the Save Our Youth basketball league.
The action unfolded Wednesday night in two tense 20-minute halves watched by more than 75 spectators and fellow players at the Ross/Woodward School gymnasium in the Quinnipiac Meadows/Bishop Woods neighborhood.
It was the culmination of a 10-week competition convened by the police department, New Haven Family Alliance’s street outreach workers, the housing authority, and the city’s parks and rec department. They decided to open up a school in a part of town with young people at risk of getting shot or committing violence, and invited them and their friends and family in for a communal meal and weekly basketball contest. The effort was in response to an east-side shooting that took the life of Common Ground High School student Javier Martinez in December. Click here for a story about the emotional community meeting to “keep our schools open till midnight” that followed and the launch of the league, for young people between 16 and 22, which was one of the city’s responses.
The winners Wednesday night were not only the Green team, but the broader experiment.
“This was community policing at its best,” said Shirley Ellis-West, who runs the street outreach program. The community got to know the cops over the 10 weeks, and both sides gained trust in each other.
Wednesday night, the 7-0 undefeated Greens had to work hard to keep down a challenge by the 6-1 Blues. Standout players for the Greens, including Pittman, Spencer Smith, and Dontae Harris, played steady ball. They answered each challenge of the Blues, especially the aggressive second-shot work around the basket by six-foot-seven Belin, with their own timely layups and monster arcing shots from the three-point line.
By the end of the first half, the score was close, 32 to 28, with the Greens’ perfect season severely challenged.
Among the spectators were middle-schoolers seeing their own dreams of dunking glory in the action, as well as players in their early 20s like Lee Chandler (pictured). He was with the Whites, one of the half dozen other teams, whose 5-2 record didn’t get him to Wednesday’s championship game.
Chandler praised the league for its high level of competition and camaraderie.
“I met a lot of cool new guys from around New Haven,” he said.
Several similar competitive basketball leagues take place in the Hill and Dixwell during the year and in the summer, like Street Outreach Worker Omar Ryan’s Hoopin’ Not Shootin in the Hill. The east side of town has been largely left out of the action.
In the second half of Wednesday night’s contest, with the tension increasing, the players went to to the foul line more often. But the game never became ragged. It was still decided by the accuracy and drive of the shooting guards, Smith and Pittman.
With those two pressing, the Blues laid on a closer man-to-man defense. Belin batted the ball away and drove, was fouled, and made two shots.
Still Harris answered with a long shot from the three-point-line that seemed to stay in the air for three minutes before it swished through.
On their next run, the Greens’ Number 10, Mark Brown, found an opening in the Blues’ defense and drove for a lay-up. Tevon Jones added another beautiful arcing shot. The made the score 51 to 44, the Blues down seven points with five minutes left.
Belin and Cam Outlaw of the Blues kept it close with their jumpers. Chris Cagle added two points with a huge dunk with 30 seconds left. Still Pittman, Harris, and Smith led the way down the stretch, with a final score of 64 to 57 making for a perfect season for the Green team.
A trophy presentation followed, then a big meal. The players, spectators, and anyone else in the gym were all fed after the games throughout the season, mainly with pizza and salad on other nights.
The championship meal was huge: chicken both fried and stewed, pork, yellow and white rice and peas, prepared by Will Hernandez (in the lime T-shirt at far right of photo), the uncle of Dave Morales, one of the street outreach workers in attendance.
The east side turned quieter, with less crime, during the 10-week series, said outreach workers’ coordinator Ellis-West. Her workers staffed the games.
The games drew a half-dozen teams of ten players each and sometimes nearly 100 spectators. “We reached out and engaged young people who needed something to do, and if giving them something to do kept them from being mischievous, we met our goal,” Ellis-West said.
“A lot of [my] friends were out on the street, but they came in to watch,” said Pittman.
Officials hope to have a summer version of the Save Our Youth league in the same part of town, though plans remain inchoate. “Let’s see if we can keep it going. Maybe [at the playground] out on Middletown Avenue,” said recreation Supervisor Felicia Shashinka.
Next up: The winners have challenged the cops to a hoops match.