It’s a muggy Tuesday evening in downtown Brooklyn. The temperature hovers around 90 degrees, with no wind or breeze to break the stifling heat. As I turn the corner onto Jackie Robinson Playground and feel the humidity engulf me, I’m convinced that pickup basketball is going to be a bust.
Man, was I wrong.
By the time I left the park an hour later, there was action on all six of the playable hoops, and I could barely muster enough energy to drag myself five blocks to the Franklin Avenue subway station. “Just a typical summer day in the park,” Chris Wise—a 23-year-old born and bred in the Ebbets Field community around the playground—tells me. Not quite what I had anticipated.
At Jackie Robinson Playground, I encountered an enthusiasm for basketball that even the most diehard ballers don’t see everyday. You literally could not get people off the court if you tried. I asked a high school kid how many days a week he plays in the park. “Every single day,” he said emphatically, “Sunday, after church. Every day.”
I guess the Tuesday I stopped by the playground was no different. In one game, three dudes were wearing flip-flops. When a pair of crocs nearly split in half, the owner simply tossed them to the side and proceeded to play barefoot, seemingly unfazed by the hot and tough concrete beneath him. He just wanted to keep playing.
That’s Brooklyn hoops, or at least in this community. Jackie Robinson Playground sits in the shadow of the Ebbets Field Apartments, a rent-stabilized complex that has been plagued with numerous code violations and dilapidating conditions. For basketball players, though, this is it. This is home away from home. According to Wise, there are no other accessible courts in the area, not even a community gymnasium. “This is what we have,” he says, scanning the playground he has cherished for years now.
As a result, you see a lot of the same faces in the park. Those faces form a close-knit family, bonded by a passion for the game of basketball. As I’m talking to Chris on a bench in the heart of the playground, he realizes that he forgot his ball shoes at home, so he calls out to a kid walking by.
“What size shoe you wear?” he asks.
“12,” the kid responds.
“Can you bring me a pair?”
“Alright, I got you.”
“Perfect example man,” Chris says, returning to our conversation. Virtually no one passes by our bench without stopping to acknowledge Chris, asking how he is and whether he’s playing ball today. Within fifteen minutes, I’ve realized it myself: this is a family.
While basketball dominates most of the park, there is also a jungle gym where young kids run around frenetically, diving through sprinklers and climbing little facades. It’s a fun, carefree environment that contrasts sharply with the often perilous and sometimes fatal environment that surrounds it.
On July 17, 2014, Chris was playing a routine game of 3-on-3 in the park when two shots went off in close proximity. “Imagine a stampede,” Chris says as he recalls the ensuing scene. Leaving everything behind, adults and young kids hastily cleared the park. According to Wise, shootings like this occur too frequently around Jackie Robinson Playground, and it’s time to do something about it.
That’s precisely why he founded the I AM PEACE 3-on-3 18U Basketball Tournament—a positive response to the gun violence that shakes the community. The one-day event was first held on August 9 of last year in Jackie Robinson Playground. “It was crazy standing in the same place [where] there was a shooting 3 weeks before,” Wise says, and “seeing nine different color T-shirts with this I Am Peace message on it.”
And that’s what makes this basketball mecca so special: the park is a safe haven—a place for youth to escape the drugs, gangs, crime, and violence of the Ebbets Field community. It is a place defined not by its shootings, but by its basketball.
This year’s I AM PEACE tournament is scheduled for August 8, 2015. Images provided by BlackMarketWares.