Ben Keeler reports from a boys’ basketball camp for middle schoolers that’s bridging the divides of race and class.
“Don’t just walk over there and get your ball. . . C’mon man, talk to the white kids, talk to the white kids. . . Fuck.”
So says Mike Evans under his breath to me. He’s the founder and CEO of Full Court Peace, a non-profit based in Norwalk, Connecticut that has a mission to “unite, strengthen and educate local and global communities” through basketball. We became fast and loyal friends when we first met in grad school back in 2010.
We stand side-by-side, sipping our morning Dunkin’ Donuts, arms half-crossed, surveying the scene from a corner of the New Canaan High School gym. It’s a cavernous space on an impressive campus replete with fenced-in tennis courts, flawless outdoor track and even a Jumbotron on the football scoreboard. This may be a public high school, but like many wealthy suburbs of New York City, at first glance you’d swear you were at Williams or Bowdoin College.
As we sip our coffee, 11 and 12-year old boys trickle into the gym, some with scuffed up Jordans from five years ago and some wearing this year’s Lebron X’s. The former were bussed in from towns like Bridgeport and Stamford, two of the toughest areas in Connecticut. Bridgeport regularly averages violent crimes at three times the state average, and Stamford, while known as a corporate banking hub, still has double the crimes per square mile than the state as a whole. Other boys from nearby Ridgefield and New Canaan, sporting the deliberately unkempt haircut of the affluent millennial, are dropped off by their mothers in gleaming SUVs.
It’s day three of Camp United, Mike’s brainchild that grew out of his work in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Cuba and Juarez, Mexico. In Belfast, it was about bridging the divide of religion, Catholic vs. Protestant. In Cuba and Juarez, it’s about giving hope and positive outlets to kids in some of the most poverty-stricken and violent areas in the world. Here in Connecticut, he hopes, it will be about overcoming deep divisions of race and class.
The camp has a simple but ambitious aim: bring together boys from vastly different backgrounds and create bonds that last beyond the five-day experience, but only do it with the game itself. No forced “get to know you” activities, no explicit mention of why the adults set it up this way; just privileged, predominately white kids and poor, predominately Latino and black kids put together on the same teams, playing competitive basketball and seeing what happens. That’s the hypothesis, but will it work?
“Kids are smart,” says Mike. “If you try to get them to do simple things that aren’t relevant, they’re going to just pretend the whole way through. Let’s say you get in a huddle with a team, and there’s three rich kids and three poor kids, and you say (sing-songy voice) ‘Okay guys, we’re here to realize that we’re all the same person. So, I want everyone to say their favorite movie.’ And then when there’s a match, you say ‘Wow, you guys are from different areas and you like the same movie. Isn’t that so great?’ If you start with that, throw basketball out the window. You’re taking steps backwards.”
I ponder this as I prepare my camera and notepad for the first of my three days shadowing participants and absorbing what’s happening here. I had arrived just as the Trayvon Martin case was decided and its deeper implications began to seep into the national political discourse. This is a lot to ask of adults, let alone middle school boys. I don’t say this to Mike, but I can’t deny I’m skeptical.
Perhaps the posturing and emotional calcification of adult manhood is far enough off with middle schoolers that there’s some room for transformation. As the not-yet-men haphazardly shoot baskets to warm up, I notice they’re still young enough to be goofy with one another, allowing their innocence to peek out here and there. Having once spent eight years teaching middle schoolers, I’m not surprised. This age group may be annoying to most adults, but they live a lot more honestly than we give them credit for.
I missed the first two days of camp, and heard that Day One was like “Alabama in the 1950s” at lunchtime, with the white kids in the middle of the bleachers and the rest on the periphery. But a couple of honest, stern talks between Mike and the coaches (all 17 to 20 year olds from the same towns the campers come from) seems to have straightened things out. Maybe this will actually work.
The camp has some simple structural guidelines to facilitate the right kind of bonding: each of the eight teams must have an even split of kids from different areas; teams have two coaches, one from the suburbs and one from the inner city; all drills must be team-oriented and every day begins with “The Daily Dime,” a brief lesson on how to build team cohesion in game situations. You can’t build on successes if there aren’t any, so Mike also made the executive decision to eliminate potential behavioral problems from this year’s equation by limiting enrollment to boys who were nominated by their respective communities.
“Make them compete together against other people and they get along,” he says as he gets ready to blow the whistle and gather the boys in for today’s Daily Dime. Today’s lesson is about helping your teammates up off the floor when they fall. “Make their success dependent on their harmony together, and no matter whether they win or lose, that harmony stays after the fact. White guys fighting next to black guys in Vietnam who got rescued by them when their legs got blown off didn’t come back hating black people. Trick kids into forming a new mindset. . . Let the game do its thing.”
A lofty expectation, but one he’s learned he can count on. It worked beautifully in Belfast, even with boys older and more entrenched in their divisive mindsets, in a place the world has chosen to forget since the Good Friday Agreement of the late 90’s. There’s still concrete walls separating the Protestant and Catholic areas of the city, painted with murals depicting the slaughter of people from the other side. A European West Bank. And yet, the scariest, most respected Catholic kid eventually softened enough to guide his Protestant teammates through a throng of onlookers in the hallways of his school to the gym at the back of the building. A poignant, made-for-Hollywood moment that actually happened.
After the Daily Dime, the boys launch into their morning games, the routine of the camp now second-nature. I watch as little indicators of friendship begin to reveal themselves: acknowledging a great assist with a finger point, sharing swigs of Gatorade on the sidelines, inaudible discussion between teammates during breaks in the action.
What’s said in these small, spontaneous worlds created in passing moments among two or three boys? This is where I can’t really go, but it’s hopefully where the magic is happening. But is it enough to really change things forever?
Sherwood Taylor thinks so. A bear of a black man with a booming voice devoid of ridicule or anger, he first met Mike through his work coaching AAU basketball in some of the tougher areas of Connecticut. He’s been coming each day to help Mike and the coaches referee games and run drills.
“I believe they’re losing that ‘fear factor.’ They’ve played against these kids in local travel leagues, but now they’re playing on the same team, and there’s a human element now. They’re becoming friends and they don’t even know it.”
I play devil’s advocate and push him a bit. The hope is that the game itself is going to transform these kids. Is that enough?
“It’s not enough by itself, and I’d say you’re insane for even suggesting that. But Ryan over there?” He points to a diminutive white boy with curly brown hair. “He’s from the ‘haves,’ from New Canaan. My son, Q, who’s over there, goes later on to apply for a job, say 20 years from now. . . (He’ll think) ‘Oh, I remember you.’ There was a time I was out at a nightclub and two guys from Stamford and Bridgeport were getting a bit frisky, and I went up to one of them and said ‘Hey, I remember you. We played ball together.’ It kinda broke the ice and settled things down a bit. Had nothing to do with nothing! So the bonds that are being forged today? They will carry on.”
Clearly the adults know what’s supposed to be happening but were the kids getting it? Perhaps it’s hard to know right now, as Sherwood suggests. And we can’t forget how young these boys really are. Rising 7th graders aren’t even teenagers yet. Their innocence is sometimes striking to witness. Here’s an exchange I had with Zaire, a camper who came right up to me with benign boldness that made me smile, asking if he could be interviewed:
What would you say is something that surprised you? What did you expect coming in Monday that’s changed for you?
Well, I just expected. . . a camp!
No things you were expecting? Had you done camps before?
What would you say has been the most fun part of this camp?
(Pause) Um, Team Knockout.
And what about one thing that stuck in your mind, like, a single moment that was really surprising or intense.
I had my shot blocked. That was new.
Ok, so anything else you want to say? Imagine if Coach Evans was right here, what would you say to him?
Go Camp United!
In response to my repeated question about what they thought this camp was all about, there was a clear difference between what the campers from the city said compared to those from the suburbs. The city kids didn’t even mention the bigger purpose, perhaps afraid to go there, yet the suburban kids spoke like they were filling out college essays with their parents over their shoulder, papering over class disparities with euphemisms about being from “different towns.” Neither approach reassured me:
“I think it’s about having fun.” Alex, age 12, Bridgeport
“Hard work, teamwork, fundamentals of basketball, having fun.” Joseph, age 11, Bridgeport
“Meeting new people, playing basketball, having fun.” Wintrell, age 12, Bridgeport
“I think it’s to meet kids from different towns that don’t have what we do here. So, we might have differences but we can all connect with the sport that we love.” Matthew, age 12, New Canaan
“To bring people from different towns together and to work together and be friends, even though we don’t really know each other.” Will, age 12, New Canaan
I decide to take a more direct approach. Finally, some subtleties started to emerge:
Some kids here have never been to Bridgeport and you guys are in an environment where it’s a little tougher than for a lot of these kids from New Canaan. What do you think these guys are thinking about you as you play on the same team together?
Wintrell: They’re probably thinking, “Why are they here if they’re from Bridgeport?”
Do you think anything’s changed in their minds?
Joseph: Probably. They maybe hear that “somebody got shot in Bridgeport,” but it’s not all bad.
What are they seeing from you that they may not have seen otherwise?
Joseph: That we’ve got good attitudes.
Wintrell: They probably think we’re dirty because Bridgeport is a kinda dirty place but we’re actually clean.
What’s it look like for you to know you’re becoming friends with your teammates from New Canaan?
Wintrell: Well, I’m shy sometimes, but now we talk a lot.
If nothing else, this was the key theme for both campers and coaches. Things were evolving. The fear and tightness from the first day were giving way to relaxed, open conversation and playful ribbing:
“When we first played Knockout, no one was cheering, and now it’s like ‘Aw, you’re behind me?!’ or ‘I hope you’re in front of me!'” Willy, age 19, Bridgeport
“The first day, this kid on my team, Anthony, was just totally silent the entire time and did not look like he was buying into it at all. And just now, on the bench, I was sitting next to him, and he said ‘I wish this was all summer.'” Bo, age 17, New Canaan
“Well, our team, we didn’t even talk at the beginning, but now we’re talking all the time in games and patting each other on the backs and high-fiving and telling each other ‘Good play.'” Will, age 12, New Canaan
Progress was being made, even if in small doses, and both sides were learning things about the “other.” Willy, one of the coaches, is a 19 year-old Latino from Bridgeport. He comments on the kids from New Canaan: “In high school ball where I’m from, when you get (faked out) people talk junk, but these kids, when they do this, they just get up and laugh and shake hands. Before you even say, ‘Go shake hands,’ these kids are already lining up to shake hands.”
Yet even with these new insights bringing surprised smiles to their faces, there seemed to be an unspoken yearning from the older boys from the tough towns, a hope that their plight could finally be recognized for what it truly is by the boys who come from privilege. Greg, one of the coaches, is a 20-year old from Bridgeport. I asked him about what he hopes changes for the boys from New Canaan. “I think their outlook on having everything brought to them.. . Some kids from New Canaan who lost in games today, they see that everything isn’t so easy, and hopefully they’ll realize that whatever they have they should be grateful for.”
Bo, a 17 year-old coach from New Canaan, agrees with Greg, and hopes for the same thing: “It’s a lesson that I think every suburban kid should learn. You have to think about the opportunities you have and how it’s basically just pure luck that it’s happened to us rather than anyone else. . . I know I’ve gone to these other towns alone before, but playing with the kids and being friends with them, this will help us develop a sense of other people’s lives.”
Julio is a 21-year old coach from Stamford who saw his brother forcibly removed from school in handcuffs last year. He’s accumulated some serious wisdom from all he’s been through, and was handpicked by Mike to leverage his comfort and skill working with younger guys. The yearning was evident from him too:
What about the kids who are privileged? What do they need to come away from here thinking differently about?
They just need to start thinking about other peoples’ lives and be grateful for what they have because some people don’t have it the way they do. They need to just start thinking “If I can help somebody, then why not?”
So what is the greater purpose in all of this? Even if the campers didn’t understand why we want them to bond, are we, the adults, really clear about why this stuff is important? Some of these kids will be able to describe this experience on a college application and feel good about themselves, but what about the boys for whom college is a virtually impossible pipe dream?
Julio is 21, which means Connecticut Public Schools won’t let him continue anymore in high school, even though he’s still got some credits to complete. Willy, at 19 years old, just had his first child with his girlfriend. He’s working his ass off at Popeye’s doing double shifts so he can save up for his own apartment and move out of the craziness of his aunt’s house. Feel free to flippantly declare that these young men should have made better choices early on, but if you take the time to look hard enough and actually talk to them, things get way more complex. So what’s Camp United going to do for these kids?
This remains to be seen. Perhaps Sherwood’s right that, if nothing else, boys like Julio and Willy and the younger boys could at least have their path eased through the white man’s power structure, getting a job they otherwise wouldn’t have gotten. But even though we may have a hard time seeing if the seeds that were planted here have taken root, there’s many worse things these kids could have spent their time doing. The older boys, the coaches, who get what needs to happen here on a more visceral level, seem hopeful. “You can meet your best friend at any time, any day,” says Willy on the last day of the camp. “I think there’s a lot of kids who will talk after this camp is over.”
Sherwood speaks in even broader terms, hinting at what perhaps even us adults could learn from events like this: “I think Mike is a visionary in what he’s doing. You look at it from a global perspective, but we forget that we’ve got to think local. Everybody wants to vote for ‘national’ but nobody’s going to go out and vote for his local mayor or congressman anymore. We have to fix what’s right in front of our eyes before we can even consider doing anything else.”
As Day Five winds down, I walk around in the lazy chaos, feeling an unexpected lump form in my throat as I watch these boys from different worlds smiling, putting their arms around each other, sharing Instagram and Twitter and Facebook information. This was genuine ease I was witnessing, and if these boys have the self-discipline to hold tight to these memories and not let the social inertia back in their hometowns shake them of these feelings, then maybe Camp United really did do something profound. Here’s hoping it did.
Photos: Ben Keeler