Goodman league and basketball provide an oasis for residents of D.C.’s Barry Farm

June 29, 2011

The sizzle and pop of frying chicken and fish mix with the sounds from DJ Unique’s speakers, the squeak of sneakers on asphalt and the rat-a-tat of a half-dozen bouncing basketballs.

Spectators unfold lawn chairs and cover both baselines. Kids barely old enough to walk in a straight line waddle around the court.

Along the fence, food cooks on a family-size grill. Vendors walk between the steel bleachers, selling Gatorade, water and frozen snowballs for relief from the relentless sun.

“Oh yeah, that’s my team,” one kid shouts and points as Face Mob and the DMV Hoopers approach center court for tipoff.

It’s another summer evening of basketball on the crown jewel of the Barry Farm Dwellings, a fenced court in the Southeast Washington community where George Goodman Basketball League games are played.

The Goodman league, in its 36th year, features pros, street ball legends, college players and neighborhood talent. It is also the one place in the housing project, located in one of the city’s roughest neighborhoods, where an informal truce is strictly observed.

“This is where you come and get a peace of mind,” said Curtis Howard, who grew up in the Parkchester apartments, a block from the court, and played in the league growing up. “One thing you won’t see is no drama. They don’t bring it here. People look forward to the summer coming around just for this league. It’s the best thing that’s happened to Barry Farm.”

In the 19th century, “The Farm” was a tobacco plantation before it became a community for freed slaves. Today, the court’s 12-foot fences surround one of the few places where the neighborhood’s 2,729 residents can escape the harsh realities of life. The court was refurbished not long ago with a $50,000 donation from Nike.

A reduction in crime

Neighborhood leaders believe the league’s two-month schedule helps reduce crime during the summer. Over the last year, according to police, 165 crimes — from car thefts to assaults with deadly weapons — have been reported within 1,000 feet of the basketball court. No crimes have been reported within 100 feet of the court over the same time period.

On a hot June evening, six police officers in bulletproof vests huddle in the alley that divides the neighborhood’s worn duplexes from the court. Large orange traffic cones block the alley off Firth Sterling Avenue.

One of the poorest neighborhoods in D.C., with a median household income of $18,500, Barry Farm hosts basketball stars — from Kevin Durant to Gilbert Arenas to AND 1 streetball favorite Hugh “Baby Shaq” Jones — at no cost to the public. During the games, it is a place where Arenas, the former Washington Wizards star, could park his Maybach at the end of the alley and walk 20 paces to the court. No posse. Just Arenas and the Barry Farm community.

Eighteen teams are competing for the league title this summer. Professional players who show up for a game or two are assigned to a team by Commissioner Miles Rawls, based on what he believes will provide an even matchup.

The pros and others stick around the court afterwards for a postgame meal with local residents or to sign autographs, briefly acting as male role models for young boys and men in a community where 74 percent of the households are headed by women.

“We have our ups and downs, but still no matter what, people are positive about things,” said Linda Miller, who heads the local neighborhood commission. “It’s not always bad. There are good things out here, too.”

George Goodman worked at the Barry Farm Recreation Center as a counselor and often served as a father figure to children from the neighborhood. From his home, Goodman could see them in the rec center, on the basketball court and in the swimming pool.

The residents of Barry Farm were stunned by the 31-year-old Goodman’s murder in 1984. No one in their right mind could want to kill Goodman. No one. “The majority of the neighborhood looked up to him,” Rawls said.

Rawls renamed the Barry Farms Community Basketball League in honor of Goodman in 2000. “I know he’s smiling down on us and seeing where we started and where we are today,” he said.

Talent in the house

Nowadays, high-profile NBA players are common “inside da gate,” a melting pot of various talent levels. Two-time NBA scoring champion Durant, a District native and member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, is a “Goodman league junkie,” Rawls said. Durant drew the largest crowd of the summer when he played on opening day.

The Goodman league is a rite of passage. Players who want to claim they’re the best in the area must prove themselves on Barry Farm’s court. Rawls wants John Wall, the Wizards’ star point guard, to “earn his stripes” in the league, as Arenas did.

“He doesn’t have to play for the entire summer, just once,” Rawls said.

The league doesn’t discriminate based on age, class or native roots, but talent is a must. According to “Baby Shaq,” players appreciate the Barry Farm brand of basketball where, he said, referees don’t protect NBA stars by calling minor fouls, as they sometimes do in New York’s Rucker Park or Los Angeles’ Drew League.

“New York and L.A., they think that they have the best outdoor league, but I go there and I let them know that D.C. got ballers too,” said Baby Shaq, who scored 41 points in the Roc Boys’ 117-113 win over Drama on June 20. “You can’t compare the Goodman league to neither one of them. Those leagues bring the NBA players out, but the Goodman league brings out talent from the neighborhoods.”

As play-by-play announcer, Rawls has called out the nicknames of most of D.C. street ball’s recent luminaries, including “The Grim Leaper,” “The Spongebob,” “D-Nice,” and “Midnight.” Rawls’s commentary booms through the microphone over the crowd’s conversations as he sits at half court beside the scorer’s table, where the scorekeeper holds burning incense to repel mosquitoes.

“I don’t know where he gets his genes from,” Rawls bellows over the speakers after “Iceman” makes a layup and earns a trip to the free throw line. “Because his father cannot do it.”

Anyone can fall victim to Rawls’s trash talk. During another game, a player dives for a loose ball inches from Miles. “Fall over here again and I’m gonna kick you in that . . . head,” Rawls warns him. The crowd erupts in laughter and the player can’t help but smile.

‘People love the product’

Off the court, leashed pit bulls and Yorkie puppies pace around the standing-room-only crowd. When a pit bull’s bark becomes threatening, Rawls calls a time out.

“Stop the game, stop the game. Hey,” Miles yells through his mic to a kid on the far side of the gate. “Them dogs on the inside or outside?”

Spectators pause their conversations and turn their attention to a teenage dog owner wearing a tank top, jeans and plaid boxers while both teams take advantage of the free timeout.

“Take those dogs outside the gate!”

Rawls says the league attracts players, coaches and spectators alike with a simple approach symbolized by its motto: “Peace. Love. Basketball.”

“People love the product,” Rawls said. “When you got a good product and a good environment, no matter what, the people are going to come out. . . Some are the same for the last six or seven years. Some are the same people since I’ve been running it since ’97. But there are new faces every year.”

The Goodman league may face a new challenge in coming years when the city carries out reconstruction at Barry Farm that currently calls for new housing to be built where the basketball court is located.

But John Stokes, chief of staff at the Department of Parks and Recreation, says officials realize the summer league’s place in the community.

“We have a Plan A, B and C to make sure we have the league preserved somewhere near that location,” Stokes said. “We can’t say where [now], but we’re committed to that.”

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