- Walter Novak
- "If you're looking for someone, you're gonna find them here," says coach Ryan Johnson.
It's a hot night, so he quickly runs out of soda. More kids approach, brandishing their allowances, but the Candyman has to turn them away.
He's not crying about the loss of income. He's got a basketball game to watch, "the most anticipated game of the summer." The undefeated city boys from Cleveland's Glenville neighborhood are playing the undefeated suburban boys from Independence. They're the cream of the Glenville Summer Basketball Tournament, a Christian-based league that's no vacation Bible school.
"These cats are good," the Candyman remarks, balancing himself atop a concrete planter and craning his neck to see. "No joke. There's nothing but talent down here."
Judging from the throng of spectators, the rest of Glenville seems to agree. The independent league, which runs from June through mid-August, caught fire in its first season. Now, 10 summers later, it's become the axis around which the neighborhood spins.
"Every year, everybody waits for this," says Ryan Johnson, an assistant coach who plays with the "old-timers" in the over-30 division. "If you're looking for someone, you're gonna find them here."
Since its inception, about 1,000 players have come through the league. Most teams are from the neighborhood and named after local businesses: Good Times (a bar), The Millionaires (a barber shop), and Strictly Business (a pager company).
Outsiders can enter a team, but the games are always held at Glenview Park. Organizers worried about racial tension when the mostly white Independence squad joined last year. But now that team even gets some cheers from the all-black crowd.
On Sundays, things really pick up around 7 p.m., when the 20-and-over "prime-time" players hit the court. As the hour approaches, Christian hip-hop music spills from a speaker system as big as a walk-in closet. Tough guys cram their just-buffed street rods into the parking lot, alongside families bearing folding chairs and picnic dinners. On the lawn, kids play made-up games, and teenagers hold babies or basketballs, or both.
This communal grove is a far cry from the desolate park Glenville residents once knew. In the 1980s, it seemed the only activities offered here were drinking and drug dealing.
"There was nothing going on that was positive," says Diana Reid. "The positive things that people were doing, they were going out of the neighborhood to do."
Hoping to turn things around, the city installed some tennis courts. But unfortunately, few people in Glenville played tennis, or even knew how. So the newly laid concrete sparkled futilely in the sun, used only as a bull's-eye for rocks and bottles.
A Glenville lifer, Diana decided that the neighborhood was suffocating under the weight of its own inertia. Somebody needed to do something about that. And she knew just the man for the job: her husband. Born and raised in the Bronx, Ray Reid plays a mean game of street basketball. As an adult, he organized outdoor leagues in Providence, Rhode Island.
"She said, 'God's given you a gift; why don't you really share it?'" Ray, now 46, recalls. He was reluctant at first, because he knew how much time he'd have to share, too. But his wife's ardor prevailed. Pretty soon, they were spending their quality couple time at the park, installing new nets and repainting faded foul lines. A videographer for the United Church of Christ by day, Ray drummed up initial interest in the league just through word of mouth on the streets.
Through the years, the league has always had three big rules: No swearing. No fighting. And, win or lose, the players from both teams must pray together after the game. They gather in a circle and join hands on the court, some eagerly, some sluggishly.
Whether they pray or just stand there, the circle "is very important," says Ray, a relatively small man whose raised eyebrow is worth a thousand words. "It shows a sense of humility, if you lose and then come back to the circle."
For the prime-time players, this is no neighborhood pickup game. Fists clench, brows knot, and the MFs and FUs still fly in fits of passion. Off-duty cops, hired as security, help keep the peace.
"Some of these guys, this league is the only thing they have to hold onto," says assistant coach Mark Hatcher. "We know tempers flare, so we give 'em reminders. At some point, it's like 'Okay, fellows, this is getting bad.'"
"A lot of times, we have difficulty in that these guys are not used to following rules," Ray adds. But he's had to expel only 10 or 15 people in 10 years. Even the hardest hearts usually fall in line after a stern reproach, because "They don't want to leave the league."
Guilt can work wonders, too. Like the time a guy was shooting off his mouth around a bunch of kids. "I just turned around and said, 'Listen here,'" Ray recalls. "'Could you stop swearing, please. Just take a look around. Look at all these kids.' He looked down, and all these innocent little faces just stared up at him. He got real quiet and disappeared. But he came back later and apologized to me.
"A lot of these guys, a lot of people are scared of them. But once you get to know them, they're just as harmless as anybody else. They just need somebody to give 'em some attitude, take an interest in them."
Boys and girls in the 14- to 19-year-old division are required to show coaches their report cards. If they get any D's or F's, they're not allowed to play. "We try to hold onto them as long as we can," says Ray. "We lose some of them along the way. But we always keep the door open. These kids don't forget. They remember. They remember people taking time with them."
William Woods, a single dad from East Cleveland, comes to all his three boys' games. They can play with some of the best players in the city here, he says, watching his boys practice shooting as he talks.
"I let 'em know, while you're out here having fun, that's fine, but the goal is for them to win a scholarship to college. It'll be free. If I gotta do it, they won't be able to go. We don't have the money. And they've got good minds."
When he was in high school, Woods strayed a bit. "These streets played a part in it," he says. "Most of the guys I ran with, they rubbed off on me to a certain extent. I don't wanna see my kids be a part of that. I truly believe it's my belief in God that saved me. Although I wasn't a saint, there were some lines I didn't cross."
Kids that have been swallowed by the streets keep Ray up at night. One of his most promising young athletes led his team to three championships, only to be banished from the league when he started dealing drugs.
"The beginning of last year, he got shot, and his leg had to be amputated," says Ray. "I know he's ashamed of his situation." When the young man was in the hospital, Ray express-mailed him a tournament T-shirt "so he would know we were thinking of him."
Now, during games, the young man drives slowly past the park, checking to see who's there, but never stopping. "He drove by today," says Ray. "I tried to get him to come out of the car, but he wouldn't. I asked him, would he speak at the closing program this season? He said he'd consider it.
"He got with that lifestyle, and with that lifestyle comes violence. He could have been dead. God put him here for a reason."
At the season finale, the circle takes on a life of its own. "Have you ever been to a Baptist church?" asks Ray. "You know how, toward the end of the service, anybody who wants to can come up to the altar to be prayed over? We do that on the court. Ask 'em to come up, if they need help, and we pray for them in a circle.
"Some people come up and say their problems. Some might ask for help finding a job. These guys seem like they're so hard. For them to come down and admit they've got a problem, that's big."