With eight minutes to go in the half, 15-year-old Evan Denny found his sweet spot, the far right corner just past the three-point line.
Denny was one of the smaller guys on the court, but he’s known for his shooting accuracy and quick release.
Michael Demo maneuvered around a couple of defenders and zipped a pass to Denny, who turned and fired. Denny didn’t even bother to watch as the ball snapped the net, putting Little Earth up by 5.
A dozen little girls in the packed stands at East Phillips Cultural and Community Center screamed. Jolene Jones shot out of her seat and began to yell. “Defense! Get your hands up!”
It has been more than a decade since this kind of excitement rippled through Little Earth of United Tribes, a housing development in the Cedar and Franklin neighborhood serving the urban American Indian population. The basketball program has largely been dormant, a victim of disinterest, video games and changing priorities.
But this year Little Earth has fielded three teams of different ages. The one playing Wednesday night was the oldest group, ages 13-16. They practice at a makeshift Little Earth gym, which is so small that the free-throw arcs practically bump up against each other. The baskets are different heights and are bolted into the wall, so players doing layups often glance off the concrete blocks.
Muckwa Roberts is a security guard at Little Earth by day and lives in the complex. He coaches the older team at night and two of his sons play. He said they had just two practices before they played their first game, against established programs. They lost the first two games, then went 3-1, beating one team by 25 points.
“They couldn’t find a coach, so I’m doing it for my kids and the other kids,” said Roberts. He uses social media to keep track of them and remind them of practices and games.
Doug Limon, an artist and elder of the Oneida Tribe, coaches one of the younger teams.
“You could tell some of them had never played before,” said Limon. “In the first practice I was teaching them how to line up for free throws and check into games.”
But the effort the kids are putting into the teams is energizing the community, said Nathan Ratner, the athletic director, who said home games (played at Elliot Park) draw up to 60 people.
“I had someone from the community say to me after a game, ‘That’s the most excitement I’ve felt here in a long time,’ ” said Ratner. “There is a lot of hope and joy.”
“Some of these kids don’t have a lot of opportunities in life to set goals and feel like they are winning,” said Ratner. “One of the younger teams didn’t expect to win, ever. So when they won their first game, they were jumping up and down. They were delirious.”
“I think basketball is giving the kids a sense of responsibility,” said Ratner. “I’m seeing a sense of confidence and accomplishment.”
One of the players who exudes absolute joy on the court is Justin Brown, who is only 15 but is well over 6 feet tall.
Before the game he shook hands with little kids in the crowd: “These are my fans,” he said.
“Look at this picture of me,” said Brown, pulling out his cellphone. The photo showed an obese teen who looked nothing like Brown. Asked how he lost so much weight, he said: “I got addicted to basketball.”
Jones is one of the Little Earth members who come regularly to the games. Several of her nephews play on the team.
“They get us all out of the house to support them,” said Jones. “They’ve got great team spirit.”
During one practice, one of the players grabbed my hand. “You know we’re good kids, right?”
Coach Roberts explained: “Sometimes they get stereotyped because of the neighborhood.”
Cassandra Holmes’ son, Trinidad, is the trainer for the team. He has an enlarged heart and recently had a surgical implant to correct it, so he can’t play. But he loyally logs statistics, and during practices it’s his job to keep track of anyone who cusses so they can be dealt with later.
Little Earth ended up losing Wednesday in a tight game, but the crowd was entertained.
“All the kids are really great,” said Holmes. “They’ve got a great attitude and are good role models for the little kids. That’s why I made my little son get away from his games and come to watch them play. We’re really proud of them.”
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