Love & basketball
Lieutenant Stephen Mayes stands 7 feet tall and played college basketball. So it was natural for him to hang out in the gym at the Manhattan Citadel in East Harlem.
When Mayes was the Citadel’s assistant corps officer, he would play in pickup games with many young men. They begged him to organize a basketball league at the corps, but he was hesitant at first. Because the players were persistent, he finally relented.
“I walked into the gym and picked four guys at random,” Mayes recalls. “I didn’t know where they lived or their history. I just picked four guys and I asked, ‘Can you bring a team?’ ”
Today, “The Tournament,” which evolved from the lieutenant’s question, has become a Thursday night basketball league for young men 18 and older and is well into its third season. This league has helped to reduce the tensions between rival neighborhood gangs and has shown these competitors that, if they can get along on a basketball court, they can also get along in the community.
Says Captain Antonio Rosamilia, corps officer, “They enjoy the basketball program. For some reason, it’s the talk of the neighborhood. They go around wearing their shirts and they’re very proud that they won the championship.”
Calling a truce
The social effects of the league were immediate. Shortly after the league started, Mayes confided in Carta Rogers Wright, a young man who grew up in the area, played in the league, and is now its “commissioner.”
Mayes says, “One day, I asked Carta, ‘How many guns are in my gym right now?’ ”
Mayes, who is now the corps officer in Staten Island, N.Y. (Stapleton), will forever remember Wright’s answer.
“He said, ‘Right now? There’s probably just one.’ ”
Wright explained that a member of a new team, who was still learning to trust the other teams, might be carrying a gun for protection. The rest of the teams were unarmed.
“Wright said, ‘Pastor, do you realize what you’ve done? Without even knowing it, you picked four guys from four different gangs, and asked each guy to bring his own team to the league. They’re also from four different housing projects!’ ”
A new day
Mayes says, “Carta told me, ‘All we ever did was fight with one another. Then we started playing ball together.’ I believe there is transformative power in sports.”
Wright said some of the “elders” from the neighborhood had a “sit–down” where they declared The Salvation Army “a safe haven.”
“Basically, it was a neutral zone. So nothing could happen inside The Salvation Army as far as rivalries or anger or whatever the case may be,” he says. “That rule was established long before we had ‘The Tournament.’
“From that point, our trust on the court spilled into the neighborhoods and we just started hanging out again. For the most part, the feuds and the rivalries ceased. Everyone came to peace … and, for the most part, it’s been peaceful ever since. I would say ‘The Tournament’ is the sole reason behind most of the peace,” Wright says.
Hearing God’s Word
Wright has been attending the corps and is being discipled by Rosamilia, who was in charge three and a half years ago when The Tournament started.
“We believe it’s changing lives, but we don’t settle only for peace among gang members,” says Rosamilia. “We want to continue to pursue eternal salvation and redemption in each one of their lives.”
On a recent Thursday night, The Tournament drew about 100 people inside the hot, noisy corps gym to watch a children’s game prior to the adults taking the court.
Rosamilia and Lieutenant Paula Aguilera, assistant corps officer who has taken over the basketball program, both delivered short devotionals. Draped over the court was a banner reading, “Come Holy Spirit.”
As Rosamilia spoke about Jesus’ command to love your neighbor as yourself, a quiet reverence was evident.
“Let’s love each other and respect each other,” he says.
Since the league’s inception, Rosamilia has insisted that prayer and a devotional be a part of it. He tries to keep them practical and simple.
“I just speak the word of God. I believe when you’re true to the word of God, no matter what you’re talking about, we believe it’s powerful.”
When Aguilera, who hails from Spain, came to the corps a year and a half ago, the game of basketball was totally new to her. But although she is a novice, as well as a woman, she is respected by the men and calls the league the highlight of her week at the corps.
“It really has been a great experience,” she says. “They listen. They really pay attention. Sometimes they say, ‘Thank you for your word.’ ”
Making a difference
Aguilera said her devotionals emphasize respect and that God has a plan for each player.
“I ask them to give God a chance to do something in their lives,” she says.
Wright says the men reflect on and discuss the devotionals.
“I’ve had guys mention to me something that was said during the devotion,” he says. “They’ll maybe talk about it later on during the week. They do listen for the most part and it does sink in. I can vouch for that.”
Rosamilia credited Aguilera for starting a children’s league, which happens before the adults play.
“She really has taken the league to another level,” Rosamilia says.
Aguilera, after a successful summer league, helped increase the number of teams this fall from six to eight. She also added a popular All–Star game.
United we stand
Linzell Vaughn, a referee, calls the league “beautiful” and said it reminds him of when he was younger. He would go to church and then later play basketball.
Vaughn says of the devotional, “We bring calmness and love and the young guys feed off it—especially with the word of the day. After a while, they see how we respond to the Word and they let their guards down and it sinks in. It’s very effective—if they allow it to be effective.
“This helps them to learn that they can stand in the same circumference and be OK with each other.”
Sam Hollins, the head of referees, is a big believer in the league.
“Prior to this, we had communities that normally didn’t get along together,” he says. “Now, they are coexisting in the same space. Thus far, we’ve managed to keep the peace.”
A new start
Randy Parsons, a ballplayer, said everyone in the league plays “all for the love of basketball, for the kids, and for the families.”
“The Tournament united the neighborhood,” he says. “Before, there were a lot of gangs. But now, everybody that’s in here has found common ground, which is basketball, and we left the streets alone.”
Darnelle Nixon, a soldier at the corps, sells food and snacks during the games and is another fan of the league’s effectiveness.
“The league has been a great help in the community,” he says. “They play basketball instead of picking up guns and knives. And afterwards, they shake hands.
“It’s a blessing. When they come together, they respect our church and they know this is a house of God. They leave the guns and the knives at home and they just come and play basketball.
“Through this program, we have had plenty of people come into our church service. So it’s working. People change their lives here.”
As successful as the league has been, Rosamilia said he is looking for new digs. In the next two to three years, The Manhattan Citadel Corps will be demolished and rebuilt. Some 200 senior apartments will be built above the new corps building.
While the rebuilding takes place, the corps will move down the block and above a McDonald’s restaurant. And Rosamilia will need to find another gym.
“We would love to continue this program,” he says. “That is the challenge we are facing right now. We are knocking on doors of schools, churches, and community centers, and hoping we can keep it going.
“In East Harlem, this is the only basketball league that is run for ‘whosoever.’ This is for everyday players.”
Rosamilia said the league has far surpassed his expectations.
Just playing ball
“We were just looking to run a healthy, Christian basketball program,” he says. “We were shocked at the results.”
Aguilera said it warms her heart to see the familial nature of the league.
“They come as families,” Auguilera says. “They bring their wives and their children and they come to watch the games and cheer them on.
“The players come and play together and they learn to respect each other and they learn they’re not that different.”
by Robert Mitchell