Shaquan and his two friends stand over six feet tall, so it’s little surprise they boast about being the dunk masters of the Brownsville Recreation Center (BRC) where they practice their high-flying basketball skills every day. Like most players, these three have nicknames—the 18-year-olds Shaquan and Aaron have anointed themselves “Carmelo” and “Lebron,” and the 21-year-old Mike goes by “Air Jamaica.” It’s a Saturday morning in March, which means the courts—with their prized fiberglass backboards—are reserved for a basketball clinic for elementary and junior high kids, followed by a junior high tournament.
The towering trio take some shots during the changeover, then they wait for their 16-year-old friend Melissa to finish her class in the computer lab, a Microsoft-sponsored pilot program teaching entrepreneurial skills. BRC’s manager Greg “Jocko” Jackson walks by, wearing one of his sharp FUBU tracksuits and black baseball hat that says “Brownsville.” Shaquan points to him, saying, “He’s a legend of the gym.” And when the lanky 6’4’’ Fly Williams soon follows, Shaquan says, “When you think of Brooklyn, you think of Fly.”
Brownsville-natives Jocko and Fly are two reasons why Shaquan has been a regular at BRC since he was 7 years old. In the early 1970s, the now 52-year-old Jocko played for the New York Knicks and then the Phoenix Suns, while the now 50-year-old Fly dazzled the ABA. (Fly is currently part of Nike’s “street legend” campaign, featured in a commercial with Lebron James.) “I take all their game, what they learned in the NBA, and put it into my own game,” says Shaquan. The BRC is “the place to show your talent,” he says. And if you don’t have the talent, “You get it. You learn the game.”
Shaquan and his friends prefer coming to BRC than other Brooklyn courts like Hoopland in East Flatbush, where people pay $10 in order to get through the doors. Although the latter has “mad courts,” BRC, says Shaquan, “is about community.” It’s clear that one of BRC’s mottoes on the courts—“You get what you give”—is also taken seriously when the shot clock stops. An extended family-oriented spirit indeed seeps into every nook and cranny of the center, helping both anchor as well as regenerate the Brownsville community.
BRC is free, which is one of the “benefits” of being in a poverty zone and considered a community development center. Big-ticket items like exercise equipment are provided by federal grants, but Jocko says the “ambience”—the large illuminated fish tanks that greet members when they walk through the doors (instead of metal detectors), the planetarium painted in one of the hallways, the portraits of rap stars, the Play Stations in the game room, the T-shirts for basketball tournaments—comes from donations by the BRC community. Many coaches in the basketball leagues are volunteers.
If they weren’t hanging out at BRC, Shaquan says, he and the rest of the players probably would be “out on the streets.” The center keeps them busy, away from trouble. Shaquan mentions his peers that are in jail. He and his friend Melissa say that growing up, they learned that it was not cool to rob or do drugs. And all the little kids playing around in the gym will now “learn from us,” says Shaquan.
Some of these boys and girls in the Saturday morning clinic—ranging in age from 5 to 13—have never passed or dribbled before, while others have been at it for years. Daryl Glenn, BRC’s recreation supervisor who conducts the Saturday basketball clinic, and who looks like a shorter version of David “the Admiral” Robinson, stands in front of the enraptured audience of almost 100 kids sitting cross-legged around the perimeter of the blue and orange floor. The 42-year-old Glenn looks around the gym and says, “Every staff person in this building is going to take care of you like you’re their own.”
Glenn stresses that the kids will be learning from each other, saying, “Each one teach one.” He emphasizes the importance of being drug free: “You take care of your body, your body takes care of you.” And he shouts, “Keep that dream alive. Keep that book and your mind open!” Playing basketball is just one part of the education that he says will help the kids learn the teamwork and leadership skills they need to become whatever they choose: lawyers, doctors, teachers, police officers, and so on.
Glenn’s positive message is one that kids growing up in or around Brownsville may sometimes forget. Brownsville notoriously has some bleak census statistics—43 percent of local residents live in poverty and over 20 percent are unemployed. Although there has been a dip in crime in Brownsville (part of a citywide trend), the neighborhood still has one of the highest homicide rates in the city, and locals still live in fear of violence. In a song titled “Life” produced in one of BRC’s two state-of-the-art recording studios, a 10-year-old girl writes, “Do I always have to look over my shoulder day and night? Why can’t my life be just right?…I want life to be easy, not hard. I don’t want to be surrounded by guards.”
BRC, though, is considered a safe haven. The austere, boxy orange brick building faces the whizzing traffic on Linden Boulevard, bookended by a conflagration of housing projects and rickety auto body storefronts. But there are also new two-story attached homes nearby, transforming long-time empty lots and abandoned buildings into symbols of regeneration. (A less hopeful sign among the other recent construction, however, is a youth detention center.)
Brownsville had its “downslide,” says Jocko, and now things are turning around. One place people point to in spawning the area’s rebirth is the BRC, which underwent a $10 million renovation in the early 1990s. Jocko, though, says that Brownsville has always been great, producing such illustrious athletes as boxing champs Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Tarrick Bowe, and Mike Tyson. Other basketball legends include World B. Free, who played in the NBA for 13 seasons, and playground legend Earl “the Goat” Manigault. Although the mythic quality of BRC’s sports past certainly helps form a sense of community, Jocko knows that it takes more than just big names. It also takes imagination—a quality all of BRC’s staff have in abundance. Who else would think of putting a baby grand piano in the corner of an exercise room?
“I have so many talented kids,” says Jocko. “How many of them have a piano in their homes?” Soon, while people are sweating on one of the center’s 17 new treadmills in the exercise room—which is set to open on April 10, and christened the Dorothy L. Rice Fitness Center, in honor of Jocko’s mother—they can hear the start of a young piano player’s career. They can also watch one of the donated televisions suspended from the ceiling. Jocko is able to get people to help out because he’s clearly respected at BRC, and many credit him for keeping it going. He’s been there since 1985, and has been manager since 1997.
When the center was built in 1953, housing the Brownsville Boys Club, the neighborhood was a mix of Jews and blacks. Jocko cites a string of events that led Jews to move out en masse: the blackout in 1965; the riots in 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.; and, most directly, the ’68 Ocean Hill-Brownsville fight between the mostly black community members and mostly white teachers union. According to Jocko, the Jewish residents who fled the area took with them bakeries, delis, and movie theaters; and, he says, when a lot of teachers left, they also took away a particular type of discipline.
Jocko remembers his teachers knocking on his apartment door to report any school troubles or fights, and he wants to reintroduce this tight-knit community spirit at the BRC. He talks about the lessons he’s given one of his nine children, Greg, Jr., a former basketball player in overseas leagues, who currently teaches elementary school in Bedford-Stuyvesant (where, Jocko proudly adds, Greg, Jr. makes home visits to parents, and where his students have 100 percent attendance). Jocko says that he tells his son, “You’ve got to be a father, mother, priest—everything—to these kids.”
Jocko practices what he preaches, and he has passed on his gospel to dedicated disciples like his son and to Daryl Glenn, whom Jocko practically raised as well. Glenn tells the kids in the clinic, “I’m on call 24 hours a day, not for the Parks Department, but for you, if any of you have a problem.” These kids may not realize what kind of mentorship Glenn is offering, as Glenn explains that he didn’t realize how important it was to have someone in his life like Jocko until he started heading off course. One of Jocko’s criteria for playing ball was, and remains, maintaining a minimum GPA of 75. (He also demands that all tournament players come to the courts in a shirt and tie.) Glenn had stopped attending classes at Thomas Jefferson High School, and when Jocko discovered Glenn’s failing grades, he sent Glenn to Laurinburg Prep in North Carolina—a lifesaving move, Glenn says.
“Growing up in this neighborhood,” says BRC staff member Antoine Smith, “the odds are against you; odds are you’ll end up selling drugs, in jail, dead, or playing sports.” The 30-year-old says he chose sports. He adds that, “If you can survive here [in Brownsville], you can survive anywhere.” Smith remembers how much rougher the neighborhood used to be—drugs destroyed whole families when he was a kid. He never got high or drank, and he’s pleased to see the neighborhood turning for the better. He says this started to happen about six years ago, when active leaders in the community began going to the apartments of drug dealers to talk to their parents.
Violence hasn’t been completely swept away from the streets of Brownville. Some young people in the Crips or Bloods hang out at BRC, but Smith explains that the center is neutral territory. “In here [kids] can’t disrespect,” says Smith, “because we make the rules” and because “these kids know we care about them.”
Because of this outpouring of attention, teenagers like Shaquan call BRC “the place to be.” He adds, “When I get rich, I’m going to come to BRC and give back to the community.” If Shaquan doesn’t make his fortune in the N.B.A., he says he’ll become a veterinarian.