Readers jump in to rescue basketball league for NE youths

Shortly after organizing a basketball league, a homeless man disappeared. That hasn't stopped the league from playing.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 20, 2010

First came the anger -- at James Russell, a homeless man who promised a new basketball league and collected more than $1,000 from local teenagers, then promptly disappeared.

Then came the rally to save the league. One of the league's coaches, Wade Simmons, who was once homeless himself, stepped up and promised the teens that he'd try every way possible to keep the summer games going, even without funding.

And now comes some help.

After a story in The Washington Post this month, detailing the troubles of a youth league that uses a basketball court at First Street and Florida Avenue NW, dozens of readers offered to help, including leaders of the Central Union Mission, a men's shelter in Northwest.

"It was a rotten situation that's turned into something more," said Simmons, who is spearheading the effort to keep the league alive for young residents of a Northeast neighborhood on Florida Avenue.

"God is good," Simmons said. "There's over 130 phone calls I still have to return and more than 200 e-mails and letters. People really want to help, so we're trying to get this thing off the ground now and make it a permanent thing that can help the kids and get them off the street."

Several dozen youths had paid Russell a $50 fee, for a total of more than $1,000, in return for his promises of professional referees, uniforms and several weeks of a tournament-style league play. Most didn't know that he was homeless, but those who did said Russell told them his goal was to create a basketball league, run by the homeless, to keep teens out of trouble.

Simmons, a recovering addict who had met Russell a few months earlier when both were homeless and eating at soup kitchens, bought into that vision whole-heartedly, which made his disappointment and anger even greater when Russell suddenly left town without telling anyone.

Simmons said he and others trying to organize the league have received about $7,000 in donations.

Some of the most significant help has come from the Central Union Mission, which is providing water for the outdoor games, administrative staff, and computers and printers for Simmons to use.

"Our goal as a mission is to help men," said David Treadwell, director of the homeless shelter. "The thinking is that we can get involved and help the young boys, get them off the street and on a positive track, so that we never have to see them here later as adults."

The mission has agreed to sponsor a team and has designated a homeless man from the shelter and a staff worker to be its coach and assistant coach. The mission is also helping Simmons raise money to keep the league running past summer.

"We're working on getting teams for a fall league and trying to find an indoor spot for winter games," Simmons said.

Some of the anger at Russell has faded, and Simmons said the coaches, parents and players are mainly focused on getting the league going, rather than on pressing charges.

"The important thing now," Simmons said, "is keeping this thing going and making it something that can really help the kids."

For details on how to help the league, contact the Central Union Mission at

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