MS. REBECCA SHEIR
March Madness is just around the corner so many a sport fan has basketball on the brain right about now. But in this next story, we're not focusing on college athletes vying for national championship, no, the players we're going to meet are teens and 20 something's in Adams Morgan who've come to see the basketball court as a kind of haven from the dangers of street life. As Jessica Gould tells us, these individuals have become a kind of family, rife with stories of success and devastating loss.
MS. JESSICA GOULD
Aniekan Udofia says the sound of a basketball bouncing is like his heart beating faster and faster as he makes his way to the court.
MR. ANIEKAN UDOFIA
All of a sudden, you start walking faster, your heart starts beating and you're thinking, okay, what team do I play with tonight? I want to win games.
For years, a rectangle of cracked concrete at Walter Pierce Park has been the unofficial hub of the neighborhood. Udofia says it's a place where divisions from race and class to crew melt away in the heat of the game.
It's not just a basketball court. Like, it's a community center.
And Pierce Park regular, Gerard Allen, says the court is his home away from home.
MR. GERARD ALLEN
Like, I could talk about family issues, I could talk about females, I could talk about money. If it was a point where I couldn't go home, it's guaranteed, There's at least two or three people down there, I know I can go over their house.
Neighborhood activist, Bryan Weaver, began playing pickup games at Pierce Park more than a decade ago. He came for the basketball, but he stayed because of the friendships he formed, especially with kids who are struggling to stay out of trouble.
MR. BRYAN WEAVER
I'd spent some time in Central America and I really sort of viewed the life that a lot of kids were living here in D.C. were very similar to the lives that a lot of young folks in Guatemala were living in. Violence had touched every household, people were sort of looking for games to be an escape from day to day lives.
Weaver decided to bring a group of kids from the neighborhood to Guatemala and host a basketball camp for the locals. Clayton Mitchell was on that first trip.
MR. CLAYTON MITCHELL
And you see how they struggle, it makes you look back at D.C.'ers like, damn, we've taken a lot of things for granted.
Since then, Weaver has brought about 150 kids to Guatemala as part of the non-profit he started called Hoops Sagrado. And over the years, the annual trips have strengthened the comradery on the court, transforming a diverse group of pickup basketball players into a family.
I look around the table and I think I see the pallbearers at my funeral. I mean, it's just that kind of friendship that I think that we've sort of established.
Gerard Allen says he isn't sure where he'd be without the Hoops community.
It's a good chance I could've been locked up. There's a greater chance I could've even more tragic than that.
But not all the Pierce Park players have been so lucky. Drugs, violence, they call it the fast life and they say it's claimed several of their friends and relatives. In 2008, Clayton Mitchell lost his brother Durell (sp?) in a burst of gunfire.
He just had one of them type of personalities, like even if he was having a bad day, he could change your whole day with just a few words. He was just that type of person.
Then, in 2010, Hoops alum Jamal Coates, was gunned down on U Street. Aniekan Udofia painted a mural at the park as a tribute to Coates and the others.
The first panel has a kid blindfolded with an hourglass, but he's wearing a graduation hat and the hourglass is broken.
He says the mural represents the potential of the players and the things that stand in their way.
They have high aspirations and you see people who are trying to help push that high aspirations but then there's something in between that, which is originally the environment they grew up in.
Bryan Weaver says that combination of hope and struggle has deep roots in the neighborhood.
That court is built on a cemetery and it's a cemetery of freed slaves and of white abolitionists. And that, to me, is always sort of the sacred ground in the community.
But Sam Levy who grew up playing basketball at Pierce Park says the core group of players is getting older now. And jobs and families can make it difficult to get together the way they used to. Meanwhile, he says, gentrification is changing the community and the courts.
MR. SAM LEVY
People should know, people that use the park now and people that are moving into the neighborhood, they just can't really understand how important playing basketball that park was for everyone that used to play basketball there because whether or not this court saved you or not, it was there for you.
Udofia puts it this way...
To this group, basketball is not just a game, it's life.
And for them, the bounce of a basketball will always be the beating heart of the neighborhood. I'm Jessica Gould.
You can find more information about Hoops Sagrado and Walter Pierce Park on our website, metroconnection.org. After the break, Virginia gets into a political game over organized labor.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE 1
MWAA supposedly represents the District, Maryland and Virginia. It doesn't say anything about -- that it represents the union.
Plus, the mysterious virus that's been killing animals in Montgomery County.
MR. SCOTT FARNSWORTH
This is a pretty brutal disease. It actually affects multiple organs within their body and actually, kills off the tissue, the exhibit a lot of gapping behavior where they're trying to draw in air.
Stay tuned for that and more on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.
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