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Richmond Times Dispatch (Virginia)

 

'We just wanted to help the city heal'

A basketball league pitting teams from rival public housing communities against one another on the court rather than in the streets seems to have reduced crime in the those neighborhoods, according to organizers and Richmond's police chief.

On July 11, the RVA League for Safer Streets tipped off at the Hotchkiss Field Community Center in North Richmond. Mosby, Whitcomb, Creighton and Fairfield courts all fielded teams - Mosby and Whitcomb had so many interested players that they broke into two teams each.

"We got neighborhoods that usually feud with one another that are out here on this hardwood every Tuesday religiously playing ball," said Paul Taylor, one of the league's organizers. "Basketball is really just the bait. It's in these workshops right here."

Before games, there are hourlong workshops with topics including job skills, substance abuse, anger management and post-traumatic stress disorder. The championship game was Tuesday.

Taylor, formerly of Newport News, and Jawad Abdu, of Richmond, met in the Nottoway Correctional Center, where they were both serving time for murder. In 2007, they started brainstorming ideas that would make a positive impact when they were released.

"We just wanted to help the city heal," Abdu said. "Through the violence and all the misunderstanding that was going on in the communities."

Just a month in, it's already having an impact, he said.

"When they're on these courts, you've got neighborhoods like Creighton and Mosby, sworn enemies not just today but from years past," Taylor said. "But today, they are playing ball together with no conflict. So when they see each other on the streets, there's no mean mugging or acting crazy."

Respect has begun to form where once there was only animosity, the organizers said.

"The issues that these guys had on the street are the issues that you're seeing on the news," Abdu said. "But ever since this league started, July 11, there hasn't been - with these specific guys - there haven't been gunshots in these communities where we have teams."

Richmond Police Chief Alfred Durham agrees there has been a reduction in crime, though he didn't cite specific numbers. He said he hopes to look at the statistics when the league wraps up this week to see its impact and present it to the City Council.

"We just haven't been seeing the same violence we did in the beginning of the year," Durham said.

Violent crime rose 3 percent across the city during the first half of 2017, but Durham said it centered largely around Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority properties, including Mosby, Gilpin and Whitcomb courts, along with some concentrated areas of poverty in South Richmond.

Many of the shootings and homicides earlier this year were retaliatory crimes back-and-forth between these long-feuding neighborhoods, Durham said.

"I think this is a start," Durham said. "This is something that could work - keeping our people occupied. This is not just about basketball."

Durham, who has worked in law enforcement for 30 years, said this is the first time he's been approached by someone returning from prison looking to help the police clean up the streets.

"I have never seen it," he said.

Abdu and Taylor bring more credibility than Durham, or anyone with a badge, among the players, many of whom have served time as well.

"We owe," Taylor said. "For a lot of these kids, we were the men that they were following. So to see our transformation, seeing that you can still be the person you are, you can still be a cool guy. Being on the side of right ain't so bad after all. It's just minus the jail, it's minus the prison, it's minus the back of a police car. Just showing it's a different way. We're still who we are, we're just on the side of right."

The league serves ages 17 to 24, but it's become a family affair. The players bring their significant others and children, who cheer from the stands or play on the court outside the gym.

Demond Hicks, known as "Little Mosby," brought his son to the game Thursday. Hicks, who coaches a Mosby Court team, is well-known in the neighborhood.

"I thought it was a good idea," he said, "to bring people from different neighborhoods who used to feud. You've got people talking to each other that never talked before, but they beefed."

Hicks said these communities need more programs, especially for children.

"If they're around violence all day, that's all they know," Hicks said. "I came a long way. I used to be the one running things."

Abdu and Taylor hope to expand the league to South Richmond for the winter season, starting in September, but need support first. They're also planning several other programs aimed at young women.

"Richmond is the brain of the central nervous system of this commonwealth. It has to start here," Taylor said. He came to Richmond after his release because of the strong support system here. "My neighborhood is also suffering. I need this to work in Richmond. So I can also take it back home and make a difference in my own community."

arockett@timesdispatch.com(804) 649-6527Twitter: @AliRockettRTD

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