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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. "And you're thinking, 'what team am I going to play with tonight? I want to win games,'" he says.
For years, a rectangle of cracked concrete at Walter Pierce Park has been the unofficial hub of the Adams Morgan 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; it's a community center," he says.
Pierce Park regular Jerrod Allen says the court is his home away from home. "I could talk about family issues, female issues. I could talk about money. If I can't go home, there were at least two or three people up there I could stay with," he says.
Building lasting relationships on the court
Neighborhood activist Bryan Weaver began playing pick-up games at Pierce Park more than a decade ago. He says he came for the basketball, but he stayed because of the friendships he formed, especially with kids who were struggling to stay out of trouble.
"I had spent some time in Central America and I really sort of viewed the life the kids were living here in D.C. were similar to the lives kids in Guatemala were living," he says. "Violence had touched every household. People were looking for games to be an escape from their 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.
"As time went on and you see how they struggle, it makes you look back at D.C. as like, 'Damn. We take a lot of things for granted,'" says Clayton Mitchell, who was on that first trip.
Since then, Weaver has brought about 150 kids to Guatemala as part of a nonprofit he started, called Hoops Sagrado. And over the years, the annual trips have strengthened the camaraderie on the court, transforming a diverse group of pick-up basketball players into a family.
"I look around and see the pall bearers at my funeral," Weaver says of the Hoops alums. "That's the kind of relationships we established."
A community on and off the court
Allen says he isn't sure where he'd be without the Hoops community. "There's a good chance I'd be locked up. Greater chance it would be even more tragic than that," he says.
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, Mitchell lost his brother Derrell in a burst of gunfire. "He had one of those personalities that like, even if you were having a bad day he could change your whole day with a few words."
Then, in 2010, Hoops alum Jamal Coates was gunned down on U Street. Udofia painted a mural at the park as a tribute to Coates, and the others.
"The first panel has a kid blindfolded with an hour glass, but he's wearing a graduation hat and the hour glass is broken," he says, adding that 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 push those high aspirations. And then you see the environment which is hindering them," he says.
Weaver says that combination of hope and struggle has deep roots in the neighborhood.
"That court is built on a cemetery," he says. "And it's a cemetery of freed slaves and white abolitionists. That's always been sacred ground."
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.
"People should know, people that use the park now, and people moving into the neighborhood, they can't really understand how important it was to play basketball there," Levy says. "Whether or not this court saved you, 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.
[Music: "For Da Love of Da Game" by DJ Jazzy Jeff from For Da Love of Da Game]