The resounding thumps and metallic twangs of basketballs smacking into backboards and recoiling off hoops create a percussive symphony on summer Saturdays on the courts behind Dunbar High School in Northwest. Ten teams of kids 14 and younger face off weekly in the New York Avenue Classic, part of the Metropolitan Basketball League.
The organization, which also has an adult league in Fort Stanton and an under-19 league in Barry Farm, drew more than 800 participants and several hundred spectators last year, said Terrance Judge, its president and founder. Supported by the D.C. police department, the games ease tension in neighborhoods with historically high levels of violence, Judge said.
"In the past, some of these neighborhoods couldn't play together," said Kevin "Moose" Jones, 34, the league's vice president.
A legacy of violence and tacit rules of association prevented kids from one block from competing on the basketball court against kids from another block, Jones said. Now, six years after the games started, teams are no longer organized by neighborhood.
"Somehow everyone just started playing together," said Loren MacKall, 14, a forward. At the beginning of every summer, "everybody's pretty hyped about it," he added. Loren has been playing at the New York Avenue courts since he was 5 and hopes to play basketball in college.
In past years, Judge has taken the best players to tournaments outside the District, and many have earned scholarships at junior or four-year colleges, he said. Coaches also serve as mentors and father figures: Jones, who coaches a team, gets calls year-round asking for small amounts of money and for help with serious family problems, he said.
Patrick Owens, 21, who played on the courts while growing up, is a rising sophomore studying business at Howard University on a basketball scholarship. He also coaches a youth team. "I remember the times I was playing just like them not too long ago," he said.
Judge would like to continue to take kids to larger competitions and hopes to expand the league's educational component to include tutoring, mentoring, and video and journalism training so they can post game coverage on the Web. He also wants to unite all the city leagues to crown one champion.
But he is struggling to keep the league afloat -- not for lack of interest from children, but for lack of funding.
Judge spends his summer nights and weekends running the league without pay on top of his job with the Federal Communications Commission. He said he has spent $1,500 of his own money and is still facing a $1,400 deficit due to the cost of jerseys, trophies and referees for the New York Avenue league.
He has reduced the league from 28 teams to 10, cutting out the older kids and adults. Kenyetta Taylor, 21, the league's scorekeeper, often searches for used basketball shoes and extra balls for the children, she said.
But the league continues with enthusiasm. On the court, a shoe flew into the air, but its owner finished the play in a sock. One kid too young to play stood on the sidelines screaming, "Go, go," exploding with joy when his team scored.
Judge noticed him in amusement. "In a couple years . . . " he said, trailing off as the basketball prospect spun around in glee while yet another ball swished through the net.