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Hoop Dreams and Hard Realities


My husband took the basketball hoop down last night. We had seen it coming for a long time. The boys from our Pen Lucy neighborhood kept hanging on the rim, bending the metal until the backboard tilted over precariously and threatened the fall on their heads. We asked them repeatedly not to hang on the rim, told them rim-hangers would be kicked off the court, that the backboard would eventually break and then no one would be able to play anymore. But they wouldn't listen, couldn't or wouldn't control themselves. Their heroes, Charles and Shaq and Magic, all hang on the rim, swinging like happy toddlers on a jungle gym.

Perhaps it was doomed from the start. My husband pastors a church in our urban neighborhood, and we know how scarce recreational space is in the inner city. Once a week, he takes a vanload of youths to a gym several miles outside our neighborhood. It's a great time to build relationships, to meet on common ground, to invest in the lives of young men in the hope that some of them will be encouraged in the right direction. "We really need a gym," he says wistfully almost every week, wishing that our church had the resources to build such a treasure. But church finances are stretched tight with no gym money in sight.

So we built a half court in our back yard. Two summers ago, with our home still half renovated, we took money that should have gone toward putting in a back door or paying our children's tuition and bought a dump truck load of concrete. My husband laid out the court himself, measuring and digging and laying down rebar. They trundled the concrete in wheelbarrows into the back yard, and a neighbor smoothed it carefully. My husband put up an adjustable backboard so that our young son and other small boys could know the thrill of making baskets.

There were problems from the start. We would look outside and see 10 or 15 older guys --most of whom we had never met -- playing while the younger boys from our block sat idled on the picnic table. They would hang on the rim, leave candy wrappers and soda cans lying around, trample the few lonely flowers I had planted. Careless, but not malicious.

But someone broke the sump pump line that juts out of our basement, jumping up and down on the PVC pipe until it shattered. Twice. So my husband had to spend two more Saturday mornings fixing that. They were loud and boisterous, and we wondered how much our neighbors could take. We would shut the gate to the backyard and they would climb over it. We bought a lock and chained the gate shut but they would run through the neighbors' yard and climb over the fence. We would return from work or from an outing to the endless slapping of leather on concrete, of leather banging against the rim.

We posted hours: "Basketball from 4:00 to 6:00" read the hand-lettered signs on the fence. The signs were torn down and everyone professed ignorance. In desperation, my husband built a new gate, wooden and 10 feet high, with no latch on the outside. They just climbed over the fence and unlocked it. When confronted, the story was the same, "We didn't open it; there was guys already here when we got here."

We fluctuated between frustration, anger, resentment, resignation and hope. We watched one older youth, who came often to play, leave off playing ball and fall in with the drug dealers who occupy the corner house. Joe now sat on his porch, front door open and stereo blasting, getting high. "Joe, come play some ball," I would invite. It was better to put up with the inconvenience, the noise, try to build relationships, hope that some of these guys would be influenced for good.

We remembered some of the young men who grew up in our church youth group, playing ball with youth-group leaders, who had become Christians. They graduated from high school, got jobs, became husbands and fathers even though they hadn't known their own fathers. It would be worth it to see just one boy go right.

But our basketballs wore out or disappeared. The rim started hanging, and yesterday, we looked outside to see it propped up with a long board the kids found behind the house. "Chris was hanging on the rim and broke it," the younger boys said. We found Chris, and he maintained his ignorance; the little boys had done it. Well, it's done now, I told him. Now no one can play. His face was blank, feigning indifference.

Last night, my husband dragged out the stepladder and took the ailing backboard off. The pole remains, jutting upward out of a sea concrete like an impotent mast. The back yard is quiet.

An hour later, we heard the familiar sound of gunshots from the corner. My children called me from their beds. My 8-year-old son, swaddled in blankets on the floor near his sister's bed, grumped, "We hear gunshots almost every night. And the police never come." But the police did come, and we could see the red lights flashing rhythmically against our neighbor's house.

I couldn't help thinking about our basketball court. Maybe if there were more recreational areas, where boys could work off steam. Maybe if there were more fathers, like our neighbor Cornell Pierce, who came occasionally with his boys to play. His sons were respectful, delightful, the obvious fruit of a strong father's investment. Maybe if our church had more money to hire youth workers to spend time with vulnerable kids. Maybe if I didn't have to work two part-time jobs to pay tuitions so that my children could escape the sinking ship of urban public schools. Maybe if they hadn't destroyed the court. Maybe.

Maria Garriott writes from Baltimore.

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