Hooping It Up in Harlem

by Robert Mitchell

March Madness will soon be upon us as football season fades and basketball takes its turn on center stage. Meanwhile, the East Harlem Hoops program at The Salvation Army’s Manhattan Citadel is as strong as ever and making a huge difference in the community.

“We get all kinds of young men from the community here for basketball,” says Lieutenant Alvaro Velasquez, an officer at the corps.

East Harlem Hoops, which started several years ago under Captain Stephen Mayes, is now running its 2024 spring league. Eight teams of about 10 to 12 players each compete every Tuesday and Thursday night at the corps. The corps also hosts leagues in the spring and fall.

Each night begins with prayer and a short biblical devotional, Velasquez says. He often hears kind words from the players and fans as he runs a concession stand just outside the gym.

“I always have somebody strike up a conversation with me,” he says. “They tell me, ‘Thank you for the word’ or ‘Thank you for the prayer.’ It’s always a nice segue to remind them we’re a church and that we’re here for them and they can come to us if they have any questions. It becomes a nice friendship with this group.”

Velasquez says the players helped restore the gym after flood damage a few years ago and are invested in the program. Many have credited East Harlem Hoops with helping quell the gang problem in the neighborhood.

“There’s no safe space for a lot of people to just come and play sports and stuff like that,” Velasquez says. “It’s either this or kind of out in the street. It also is an activity for them to get involved in something. When people have nothing to do, they get into trouble.”

The Salvation Army has been building into the lives of young people for decades through sports and now through the Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Centers around the country. Among the NBA players who got their starts playing at Salvation Army facilities are Julius “Dr. J” Erving in Hempstead, N.Y., and LeBron James in Akron, Ohio. James went on to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.