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
That's the idea: Too tuckered out to do anything but sleep.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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