Aesah Benbow thought he was signing up for a basketball league. It wasn’t long until he found out he was involved in something bigger.
After attending Monday’s opening ceremonies with Rita R. Church Community Center’s summer camp, Benbow, 13, found out that he was participating in the first Charm City Games, an Olympic-style event that aims to bring kids from across Baltimore together in friendly competition.
He said he thinks it’s a good opportunity for him, for kids in Baltimore and for the city as a whole.
“A lot of good people are involved, and it’s one big step to make Baltimore an even better place,” Benbow said. “People have said horrible things about Baltimore. They have this idea that Baltimore is not necessarily safe and that no one cares, but all these people are out here making a program for [us].”
The Charm City Games officially kicked off Monday with the first set of basketball games played at Rita Church, C.C. Jackson and Edgewood-Lynhurst recreation centers, and parents, kids and officials believe the event can continue to make a positive impact in the Baltimore community.
Fourteen boys teams and six girls teams, representing their respective districts, competed Monday evening in the beginning of pool play, which runs through Thursday. Playoffs begin Friday, and the gold medal games will be held Saturday. The week-long schedule of events continues with track and soccer starting Tuesday and tennis beginning Wednesday.
“My administration is committed to providing educational, and in this case, recreational opportunities in our city,” Young said when he announced the event.
At Rita Church, parents, grandparents, siblings and friends came out to support the players. Robert Walker’s son Jaylen Walker, 13, played at 8 p.m., but he and his father showed up two hours early to watch more games.
Walker said he saw a lot of talent on the floor. He got his son involved because he thought it was a good chance to let kids showcase their talent, and in the two games he saw, they were doing just that.
There was good passing, good defense and some impressive shooting from beyond the arc, he said. The game before Jaylen’s went down to the last minute, which had the moms and grandmas sitting at the top of the bleachers cheering and yelling.
“They love this,” Sheryl Morsell, whose grandson was on the winning Bentalou Recreation Center team, said with a laugh.
All the boys on the Bentalou team knew each other, but they hadn’t all played on a team before, and the games gave the parents an opportunity to get out and cheer them on, she said.
“This is a chance for dialogue for people who are neighbors who may have never met,” Baltimore City councilman Robert Stokes Sr. said.
Before the games started, Recreation and Parks director Reginald Moore said he hoped the games would bring kids together, as well as communities as a whole, and Morsell said she could already see people starting to get to know each other around the city.
It started with the volunteers, Mark Bonitatibus, the area manager for Recreation and Parks, said. People who don’t usually get involved volunteered to help, and new kids started to come to the recreation centers.
That led to the opening ceremonies, where kids danced and sang and the torch was lit, and carried over to the games, where parents and kids, like the Walkers, came out to watch other teams play.
“It just shows you can cross neighborhood lines and still get along with people, and everyone can work together and have a good time,” Bonitatibus said.
The friendly competition the Charm City Games officials were aiming for seems to be permeating so far. Van Williams, a Baltimore City official who refereed the first few games, said everything’s been pretty calm. Some of the parents were hassling him during the game, but they greeted him with a smile and a handshake at the end.
Williams, who was assigned to work the games through Board #290 of the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials, said he’s been an official for over 20 years, and when he was a kid in Baltimore, basketball provided a chance for him to stay out of trouble.
“It would probably be a good idea to keep it going,” Williams said.
Morsell is in full support of the Charm City Games continuing — she said she wishes they could extend it to a whole month. Her grandson was more than willing to participate, but if he weren’t, he’d be playing video games, she said.
The games are meant to get kids active, as well as provide a place for them to spend their free time. Jaylen Walker and Benbow both said they’d probably be spending their summer playing sports anyway, but that’s not the case for everyone, and, as a parent, Walker said he thinks the games are a good alternative for other activities.
“It’s a lot of kids [involved], so it keeps kids from doing mischievous things,” Walker said. “It lets them build on talent, so they can be successful in the future rather than not having a place to go and doing things that they shouldn’t be doing.”
Bonitatibus said they intend to expand the Charm City Games to other ages and sports, but they started with ages 12-14 because the kids are old enough to compete and young enough to continue to be involved in local events.
Benbow said it’s important for kids his age to have this event because some don’t yet have jobs to occupy their time. As teenagers, they’re going through a lot of changes. This keeps them occupied and engaged in positive activities with other kids their age.
“I’d rather see a lot of colored young men in here playing basketball rather than out in the streets doing things that are illegal,” Benbow said. “I feel like it’s good to be influenced positively not only by people who look like them, but people who are of age to understand better.”