A Tale of Two Basketball Games

photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Inquirer


No, this is not about March Madness (although I will admit my disappointment on missing out on seeing a team have a perfect season).

This post is about two basketball games that took place in Philadelphia over the past month, and were both written about in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer.

The first game took place about a month ago, and was a championship match between two teams from a local neighborhood. The game was the culmination of a four-team tournament that had been organized completely by the team members themselves.

The District Attorney’s Gun Violence Task Force, along with representatives from the antigang initiative Focused Deterrence, had met with the young men from the Seventh Street neighborhood and offered to fund a basketball tournament for them. The funding would include uniforms, trophies, a DJ, food, and Chick-fil-A gift certificates for the MVPs .

The DA’s office had a couple of stipulations. First, the tournament had to be organized by the payers themselves, and second, if any one of the players got arrested, or if anyone picked up a gun, then their entire team would be disqualified.

A lot of guys who played on the four teams had been at war with rivals from a neighboring street for years, the Seventh Street crew versus the Fifth Street crew.  It’s a war that has taken a toll over the years. Since 2011 seven people have been killed in the feud and 14 others wounded.

The Focused Deterrence effort has been operating in Philadelphia for almost two years and tries to address such feuds from two perspectives. First, there is the enforcement side. As with the basketball contract, if one person squeezes a trigger, then police and prosecutors come down on that person’s entire crew.

Second, there is the help side. As tough as they may be when enforcement is needed, they also work to connect these kids with jobs and the social services they need. They do not want to send them to prison, they tell them. They value them. They want them to live.

The basketball tournament was a way to build relationships and trust between the players and those who were trying to help them, to make the other side appear human.

The tournament was a success. The bleachers were crowded, with people from the neighborhood coming out to support what the teams were attempting to do. The championship game even went into overtime. The players later recalled how much fun they had, and what a good feeling it was to take a break from the ongoing feud and enjoy each other’s company.

A beautiful example of the power of sports to unite, to allow us to forget our differences.

Unfortunately, that’s not the way it always works. On the very next page of the paper was a story about a basketball game that took place last night between two neighborhood teams, featuring 14-16 year old players.

One of the coaches, a 26-year old man, was getting upset as his team began to fall behind and he began arguing with members of the crowd. The opposing coach, a 45-year old man, tried to intervene, and at that point the 26-year old coach pulled out a gun and fired at the older coach.

There are so many things wrong with that previous paragraph I’m not sure where to begin.

First, the younger coach had to be aware of the possibility that his team may not win. Is that how he reacts when things don’t go his way, by escalating such a situation to a potentially deadly level?

Second, what kind of example does this set for the players? Sports are an opportunity to teach the players how to win and lose gracefully, how to perform under pressure, how to be part of a team, and how to work hard to achieve a goal. But if a coach acts like this, what lessons are the players learning.

Third, what is this guy doing with a gun at a teenage basketball game? Beyond my strong opinion that guns should be completely outlawed, I can’t imagine any scenario under which even a proponent of gun rights could say that such an action is permissible (and not just the action of actually shooting the gun, but simply the act of bringing a gun to such an event.)

Finally, how about showing some respect for someone older than you who is trying to help you behave in a more responsible, adult way? You respond by trying to shoot such an individual?

So there you have it, a tale of two basketball games. One that shows the beauty and potential of sports to make us better people. The other that shows the ugly side, and brings out the worst in people.

I certainly believe that the good aspects of sports far outweigh the bad aspects. And oftentimes it is the players who best understand the value of why they are competing and it is the “adults” who create the problems.

So while it may be true that youth is wasted on the young, it’s not always the case that being older makes us wiser.

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