The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This summer basketball league is a D.C. staple. Gun violence might end it.

“The league, it means everything to the area and to the city,” says Miles Rawls, organizer of the Goodman League. “Keeps the kids out of trouble. Gives the people something to do all summer, five, six days out the week. It is a safe haven.” (Terrance Williams for The Washington Post)

Miles Rawls’s booming voice roared inside the gates of the Barry Farm Dwellings basketball courts as three police cars sat parked at the end of a nearby dirt road.

On this early June night, the Goodman League, the outdoor summer basketball league in Southeast Washington that is open to anyone from professional players to high schoolers, was doing its best to operate as it has since 1975. Spectators set up folding chairs around the main court in front of metal bleachers as gusts of wind spread flecks of ash from a nearby grill into the crowd.

Rawls, the league’s commissioner, stood at midcourt, throwing out jokes, jabs and play-by-play commentary. It’s a spot he has occupied for the past 23 years but one that is in danger of disappearing.

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The Goodman League has long been a cornerstone in the Washington area, but with its home court in the heart of a neighborhood grappling with gentrification and violence, this year’s circuit came with heightened concerns. For now, the league is hanging on, backed by a community hopeful for its continuance but uncertain about its future.

“The league, it means everything to the area and to the city,” said Rawls, 57. “Keeps the kids out of trouble. Gives the people something to do all summer, five, six days out the week. It is a safe haven.”

Over Memorial Day weekend, there was a surge of violence that included fatal shootings in Southeast and five people wounded by gunfire at an entrance to the recreation center pool in Barry Farm, a public housing complex around the corner from the Goodman League courts. And Maurice Scott, a 15-year-old honor roll ­student, was killed in a shooting in front of a convenience store in Congress Heights.

In the aftermath of the shootings, Rawls posted a message on Facebook saying he was unsure whether the league could continue beyond this year. Rawls reevaluates the league each summer for several reasons. The Goodman League courts always have been a place where an informal truce is strictly observed, but with shootings so close, there is worry that the violence could seep inside the gates.

Beyond that, Barry Farm is being razed as part of D.C.'s “New Communities Initiative,” an effort to redevelop troubled areas by replacing public housing with mixed-use and mixed-income developments. It is in one of the poorest parts of the city, where residents have lamented the lack of amenities and investment but also fear that development will price them out.

There is concern among some that demolition of the houses has paved a path for more violence because there are no longer families and residents in the homes. Rawls also said the area has been a “little wilder” in recent years and that those born in the 1990s and 2000s don’t observe the same restrictions on avoiding violence in specific areas that their predecessors did. This year more than ever, it’s Rawls’s job to play peacemaker and protector.

“Miles has had about eight different hoods in here, and throughout the games they are looking at each other, but it’s like you can’t do nothing inside the gates,” said Geno Williams, who has been playing in and attending Goodman League games for the past 20 years. “And for [Rawls] to feel like he doesn’t have that power anymore kind of hurts me.”

As he grappled with the decision to continue operating the league this year and in the future, Rawls reached out to D.C. police to ask for additional officers at games to keep the community at ease, and the department obliged. Chief Peter Newsham said he only remembers brief fights happening inside the 12-foot gates and nothing more serious. Through two weeks of the Goodman League this summer, there were no incidents, Rawls said.

While police do not have exact data, it is widely acknowledged that the league has helped keep crime down during summer nights when games are held. And in recent years, D.C. has attempted to curb violence through its Summer Crime Prevention Initiative, which boosts patrols and other services in certain areas.

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“We police ourselves in here, but now it’s a different breed. The neighborhood beefs and all that stuff, I can’t have that pour into the games,” Rawls said. “Sometimes I get frustrated, but I got to keep pushing.”

On the first Tuesday of June, the opening night of the Goodman League, eager fans streamed through the gates as throwback music blasted from speakers; the smell of hot dogs, roasted chicken and marijuana smoke filled the air; and bottles clacked against the concrete. Young children dribbled basketballs around the side court while a pit bull puppy slept in the arms of its owner. Rawls sat back in his chair, letting out a long sigh as he observed the scene, which included the crowd spilling onto the edges of the court as the prime-time game was about to begin.

Goodman League teams are mixed with Southeast natives and outsiders. It’s a group that has included, at times, NBA players such as Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley, Gilbert Arenas and Bradley Beal. Durant is famous for his 62-point game in 2008.

Nowadays, old-timers complain that the young players don’t have the same edge they once did and that the competition has been watered down. But for some, that edge is still there. Take Preston Ross III, a 26-year-old from Fayetteville, N.C., playing in the league for a second year. He lit up the court on opening night by making 6 of 8 three-point attempts.

Then there’s 29-year-old Jimmie Jenkins, who works in the office of Ward 8 council member Trayon White Sr. (D) and has been playing in the Goodman League for the past 10 years. Gun violence has affected his family, and he coached Scott, the teenager who died in the shooting over Memorial Day weekend.

“Folks look forward to coming inside the gates,” Jenkins said. “You know, if you look around on the outskirts with what is going on with the redevelopment and everything, people in Barry Farm need something like this in these trying times. . . . As you get older and you get more involved in the community, what makes it special is bringing the community together with all that goes on."

Changes to the neighborhood are noticeable in the demolition of rows of houses that used to be across from the court. Now it’s a flat patch of dirt, with a rocky, dusty road running along the courts from Firth Sterling Avenue.

“It’s hard to look back there sometimes,” Williams said. “I actually knew a lot of the people that were there. You would see them sitting in their houses, watching the games, barbecuing and stuff like that. It is going to be a hard year for some people.”

But even with all the changes outside the gates, inside them the league is still trying to hold its own. As the final game wound down on that early June night, the crowd started to disperse. Even with less than a minute left in a two-point game, spectators threw folding chairs over shoulders and cups in garbage bags as car lights from the nearby grassy space began to turn on. It was a hasty and unspoken group exit as the clock ticked closer to 10 p.m.

“Going to get out of here before something dumb happens,” a middle-aged man said as he went to the exits.

Police officers lingered at the end of the dirt road as the fans went their separate ways. The court, filled by Rawls’s voice throughout the evening, fell silent. One night of the Goodman League was down, and the rest of summer awaited.

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