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Saving Kids, One Game At A Time

COMMENTARY by Stan Simpson
July 13, 2005

It was 10:15 p.m. on a dimly lit outdoor basketball court next to a Hartford police substation on Albany Avenue. The sweat-soaked ballers were exchanging hand slaps and fist pounds as the games came to an end.

On the sideline, the Rev. Patrice Smith was concluding a day that for her began early in the morning. Tired, yes. But not complaining. Supervising a bunch of energetic young men sure beats officiating at their funerals.

Smith, 45, was born and reared in Hartford and lives on the corner of Albany Avenue and Vine Street. She doesn't have to wait for a police siren to alert her to trouble. Smith can just look out the window. Other times, all it takes is a phone call.

"It seems like every few minutes I'd be getting a phone call saying 'Reverend, can you do a funeral?" Smith said Monday night. "And it just started getting to me. I've buried so many kids. I can't close any more caskets. I said it's time for me to get out here and do more."

A month ago, Smith and Derryl Hanson, a former college basketball player who had stints with the Harlem Wizards and Harlem Magicians, started a summer night basketball league for the young men in North Hartford. The young guys have been getting a lot of attention in past months. A few bad apples and their inclination to shoot first when resolving conflicts have tarred the image of their peers. The majority want to make something of themselves and just want to have some good, clean, safe fun.

At Smith's "Heavenly Grounds" summer league, she's turning the blacktop into a sanctuary. She and Hanson volunteer their time and share a dream of nurturing, instead of nullifying, Hartford's next generation.

When the guys, ages 14 to 26, arrive at the fenced-in court, they know the rules - no cussing, smoking or fighting.

So far, no problems.

While Smith and I were talking Monday night, she noticed a young man on the far end of the court smoking a cigarette. She walked up to him, told him politely that smoking was not allowed. And even though he gave her some lip, he left peacefully.

"If people come in here drunk, smoking, cussing, they're more likely to cause problems," said Tyshawn Stroud, 17, a senior at Hartford Public High. He plans to play ball in college and wants to be an engineer. "A lot of the killing going on is for no reason. It's dumb. ... It's a lack of attention. They just have nothing to do to keep themselves occupied."

The basketball league is structured, yet informal. Anyone can show up. The other night Police Chief Patrick Harnett and Deputy Chief Andrew Rosenzweig drove up in sweats, looking for a game.

Sgt. Emory Hightower popped in Tuesday night. The league is helping in some small way to tear down the boundaries between the police and the young people in the community. It's also showing rival neighborhoods how silly block beefs can be.

"A lot of the violence is revolving because there's nothing to do in the neighborhoods," said Jamie Bryant, 20, a Hartford resident and Springfield College student. "If there was something in the neighborhoods 24-7, I don't think there'd be a lot of violence."

From 7 p.m. to past 10 p.m., four days a week, the summer league keeps about 30 young people occupied. I'm an advocate for the city enforcing curfews for underage kids out after dark. But you've also got to do something with the young adults looking for something constructive to do when the street lights go on.

Sports is just one solution. There are intellectual pursuits - computer, reading and chess clubs - and cultural arts programs that could also provide alternatives.

"I think that we as leaders need to get out here more," Smith says. "We as reverends need to get out there and show that we're leaders, and stop being so fearful. I ain't saying I'm Super Woman, but I don't let none of these young people out here put fear into me."

Smith left home at age 17, found refuge in the then-Stowe Village housing project and ran with gang members and hoodlums. She's seen people shot and been shot at.

"I ain't gonna say I was terrible," Smith says with a laugh. "But a lot of things they're doing, I've been there. And if it wasn't for God, I wouldn't be here today. I would be dead. And I let them know that." With her mother, Smith raised her only son, Cortell Olen, 29, a University of Hartford graduate who is now working at CIGNA.

Before the bewitching hour of 10 p.m., I asked young Tyshawn Stroud where his boys would be heading after the game.

"Hopefully, they'll go home and take a shower," he said.

That's the idea: Too tuckered out to do anything but sleep.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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