Late-Night Basketball A Point in Hartford Teens' Favor

Armani took a second to think about his answer, his hands on his hips, his eyes on the court in front of him.

“There are a lot of guns out here,” the 15-year-old finally said. “This keeps up us off the streets.”

He spoke just before 9 p.m., in the middle of a late-night open gym, a program a Hartford cop designed for kids like Armani.

It’s an effort spearheaded by Sgt. Steve Austin, a homegrown officer who recognizes the restorative power of rubber on hardwood.

As of Dec. 8, Austin’s experiment had operated for 20 Fridays. Every week, he opens the doors of the two gyms at the Hartford Police Athletic League, inside the former Quirk Middle School on Williams Street, from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m.

“We have youth come in during these critical hours; we know it’s a tough time for us,” said Austin, a member of Hartford police’s special operations group. “We’re not chasing 14- and 15-year-olds around all night, breaking up their fights. We have them in one place, knowing what they’re up to and making a connection.”

It was a time when, on another night, kids like Armani might be in another environment. A more chaotic one, maybe. Not a gym, playing ball with his friends, with other kids his age.

“It’s a positive environment, it’s safe,” Armani said, adding that friends have lost their lives to street violence, including Keon Huff, killed in the spring by another teen. “Where else are you going to go at 9 at night and not have your parents worry about what you’re doing?”

He cut the interview off after that — there was a game to be played.

The Weaver High student is just one of the dozens of city youth who have become faithful, repeat customers in the late-night basketball program, sponsored by Project Longevity, a statewide initiative to reduce street violence. The only thing dividing the groups are age and skill level, Austin said.

There’s no membership or entrance fee, and the only rule is that you play until you lose. Austin started with about 60 kids on the first night, in the heat of July. The numbers doubled the second week, and have crept up consistently. Kids came from all over the city, their bikes piled up in a side room.

“We’re getting kids to come in, and they’re coming back and bringing friends,” Austin said. “The important thing is building trust. They have to see you repeatedly for you to break that barrier.”

The genesis for the program was simple: Through his work with Project Longevity, Austin saw men in their late teens and early 20s immerse themselves in violence and crime. He worked with them while they were in jail and after their release — as Project Longevity is designed to operate. But he wanted to make that connection earlier.

“These are the people who will grow into those adults,” Austin said. “If we can stop youth crime, the vandalism ,the hanging out, the being disruptive, and if they’ve changed their attitudes in their teens, you can reduce that more serious crime.”

A visit to the weekly sessions reveals a gallery of local figures milling about, interacting with the kids. City leaders like Council President Thomas “TJ” Clarke II and Police Chief James Rovella. Community organizers like Pastor Eli Mercado and the Rev. Ashley “AJ” Johnson, who laced up his sneakers and joined some of the older teens for a pickup game.

The long hours of play are punctuated by food breaks, pizza or sandwiches delivered to the gym, or home-cooked meals made and served by moms interested in lending a hand.

“Everyone is able to work on that mission with the youth because we have them here,” Austin said. “That’s how you change the footprint and the narrative.”

He started the program by word of mouth, casting invitations to kids he’d met in his work throughout Hartford. These were not “honor students,” as he put.

They were “diamonds in the rough,” kids who were passed over by other programs. “They curse, they’re violent, they have bad conflict resolution skills,” he said.

“But what do you do? Discard them? Wait until they grow up? We want them to see positive role models, to feel like they’re part of society.”

Basketball unites them. The neighborhood rivalries that plague the North End vanish at the door. The only fights in here are debates over scores. Nothing else is tolerated

“These kids want direction, we’re seeing that,” Austin said. “Previously, they had none; it was ‘anything goes.’ The carrot is basketball, so to speak, but we’re expanding on life.”

Part of that includes providing more variety to the Friday night sessions, beyond basketball. Variety like “Developing the Future,” a youth literacy program started by Terrence Blue, a behavioral specialist at Achievement First Global Academy, across the courtyard from the PAL gym.

On a recent Friday, Blue walked his students through personal writing exercises, asking them introspective questions about life and its meaning.

“Coming here helped me figure out I could do more with my head than my hands,” said Andrew, one of the teens in Blue’s program. “I can express myself through literature; I was never able to do that before.”

As Austin predicted, the prospect of an all-night open gym was the metaphorical carrot for Andrew. But he started taking the literature lessons seriously, asking his mom for a laptop so he could write in his free time.

“It helped me realize that there’s more to life than basketball,” he said. “I used to think that sports was the only way out of where I’m living.”

Messages like that hearten Austin. Down the line, with the proper bandwidth, he hopes to franchise the program to more locations throughout the city — or to open up shop in another city entirely.

“Law enforcement can’t address all of these issues, but it takes someone in law enforcement to see what the issues are and look to address them,” he said. “But this is changing the narrative about policing. It’s having these kids see us as more than just cops, but as community servants.”


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