Local boys play basketball on the court at the Brownsville Recreation Center in Brooklyn in July. (Photo: Jesse Newman/The Brooklyn Ink)
Greg Jackson sat in the bleachers of the Brownsville Recreation Center on a Saturday in July, bouncing a grandson on one knee and squinting his eyes at the basketball game in progress before him. One by one, players rushed past, darting through the soft columns of afternoon light that flooded the Brooklyn gym, bathing the court in an ethereal glow and turning young men into silhouettes.
Smiling at the high-pitched shriek of sneakers and the shrill cry of the referee’s whistle, Jackson, a Brownsville native and manager of the rec center, pointed to the freshly painted court and bright gold uniforms flashing by. “You see,” he said. “Hope is back.”
Jackson, known simply as “Jocko” throughout Brownsville, was in 11th grade at Samuel J. Tilden High School when his guidance counselor suggested that he quit school and get a factory job. “You’re not gonna amount to much,” he remembers being told. That was over 40 years ago, before he graduated from college, played basketball for the NBA, married, raised nine children and helped rescue the rec center from near-ruin, turning it into a safe haven for young people in a neighborhood beset by violent crime.
In a city flush with pro basketball stars and legendary street ball courts, every neighborhood has its success story, and Brooklyn perhaps more than its fair share. Brownsville alone spawned a handful of famous players, including James “Fly” Williams, the mercurial darling of the American Basketball Association; World B. Free, known for his 44-inch vertical leaps and 360-degree dunks in the NBA; and Phil “The Thrill” Sellers, the six-foot-five-inch forward who led Rutgers University in its only undefeated regular season in 1976 and brought the Scarlet Knights to the Final Four that year.
But while some urban athletes rode their professional careers straight out of the ghetto, Jackson, a guard for the New York Knicks and Phoenix Suns, returned to Brownsville in time to see poverty, drugs and crime devouring his neighborhood. In 1997, then-City Council member Priscilla A. Wooten recruited Jackson to take over management of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation facility, which had struggled to keep its doors open amid the chaos.
Since then, Jackson’s mission has been to provide a safe place for kids to be just that — kids. From the outside, the rec center – known locally as the “Mecca of Brownsville” – is an unconvincing place, surrounded by a plethora of austere housing projects and ramshackle auto repair shops. But inside, brightly lit fish tanks and lush green plants line the walls and spray-painted portraits of African-American luminaries like Rosa Parks and Nat King Cole greet members at every turn.
During the week, children and teenagers begin streaming onto the center’s basketball courts as soon as school lets out and many stay well into the night. There are pick-up games, organized tournaments and an instructional clinic on Saturday mornings. In the summer, college players home for vacation dazzle youngsters with their flashy moves and Sundays are reserved for the 40-and-over crowd.
For Darren Moore, a rail-thin 12-year-old who lives nearby, the Brownsville Recreation Center is more than just a place to shoot hoops. It is a second home. “I come here every day except Sunday,” said Moore, as he rolled up the sleeves of his oversized t-shirt to reveal long arms of sinew and muscle. The young player attempted a crossover dribble. “I’m practicing my Kobe moves,” he said.
And that is just as Jackson would have it. Like the rest of New York City, Brownsville has grown safer in recent decades, but the neighborhood still has one of the highest crime rates, and its residents live in fear of violence. In the first quarter of 2011, there were 23 shootings with 26 victims in Brownsville, half of whom were under the age of 25.
“I used to stay out practicing my jump shot in the parks ‘til two, three o’clock in the morning,” said Jackson. “Kids can’t do that nowadays — it’s too dangerous. Either a gang will jump you or the police will stop you.”
Greg "Jocko" Jackson stands on the rooftop of the Brownsville Recreation Center in Brooklyn. (Photo: Jesse Newman/The Brooklyn Ink)
Over the past decade, the center has evolved its own kind of gang, albeit one that is all-inclusive and binds members through mutual respect instead of fear. The center’s staff is fiercely loyal to Jackson – many say he is like a father to them – and young members are devoted to them in return.
Tony Deese was 13-years-old and headed for trouble when Jackson tracked him down on the streets of Brownsville in 1976 and accused him of stealing his bicycle. By the time Deese reported to Jackson the following day, the older man had arranged for his first summer job — as a youth worker at a vocational training school in Bushwick. Now, years later, Deese is a basketball coach at the rec center and his two teenage sons are both promising players.
“Jocko saved my life,” said Deese. “He took me away from the streets and gave me a community.”
It is not an unusual claim. Nor is the idea that long after street basketball’s heyday in the city, the game still plays an invaluable role in impoverished minority neighborhoods. According to Randy Millard, a Brownsville native and basketball coach at the center, “Without basketball, a lot of these kids would be in graveyards.”
Jackson’s dedication to the center stems in part from memories of his own boyhood in Brownsville. The teenager was on the verge of dropping – or failing – out of high school when then-basketball coach Edolphus Towns noticed his skills on the court. Towns, who now represents part of Brooklyn in the House of Representatives, took Jackson under his wing and sent him to live with his mother in North Carolina. Jackson quickly became a star player and team captain at West Columbus High School; when his grades improved he was awarded a scholarship to play basketball at nearby Guilford College.
It was with the Congressman’s benevolence in the back of his mind that Jackson returned to Brownsville after a single season in the NBA. In 1985, when he joined the staff at the rec center, the building was in desperate need of repair and residents were afraid to walk the neighborhood’s streets to get there. Then, in the early 1990s, the center underwent a $10 million renovation. Jackson removed the 6-inch Plexiglas barrier and turnstile that guarded the center’s entrance and asked an exterminator friend to kill the rats that lived in the weight room.
Today, the center is equipped with a fitness room, pool and newly painted basketball courts; instructors offer classes like yoga, karate, tae kwon do and jujitsu. And Jackson’s mottos – “Whom did you help today?” and “Pay it forward” – are repeated like mantras by the center’s staff.
But sports are only part of the point at the Brownsville Recreation Center. Baron Germaine, a coach at the center, pointed to a top basketball player. “That kid is gonna get an education” he said. “Basketball is just a ticket to the amusement park. We want them to keep their hoop dreams — it’s the carrot we wave in front of them to get 75s and 80s in class.”
Darryl Glenn, recreation supervisor at the center, concurred. “Sports may bring you to me,” said Glenn, “but once I’ve got you, it’s not about basketball, it’s about life
A group of boys wait their turn to play basketball at the Brownsville Recreation Center in Brooklyn in July. (Photo: Jesse Newman/The Brooklyn Ink)
Young people in Brownsville have seen enough of life to understand the choices they face. Twelve-year-old Delor Scarboro described how coming to the center has kept him away from the violence that pervades everyday life in his housing project.
If he weren’t at the center, said Scarboro, he would probably be caught up “in the mix” at home. Gang members at Brownsville Houses regularly recruit young children to do favors for them like carry guns and assist in assault or robbery, he said.
“Once these streets get a kid, they don’t spit him back out, they devour him,” said Germaine. “I tell my kids all the time, you can’t be a basketball player and a gangster at the same time. They just don’t mix.”
Karrie Scarboro, Delor’s mother, walks a group of children from Brownsville Houses to the center and back on Friday nights. “A lot of kids would be lost if we didn’t have this place,” Scarboro said.
The game on a recent Saturday was a family affair. Jackson’s son, Greg Jr., was the referee and two other sons, plus a daughter and his wife sat beside the 60-year-old manager in the bleachers. Three of his eight grandchildren were there. Throughout the game, spectators filtered in and out of the gym, each stopping to greet Jackson, shake hands, or say goodbye.
“I had to come back to Brownsville,” said Jackson, dressed in his signature Nike tracksuit and grey tweed cap. “This is my neighborhood. This is where I got it from. You get all your strength right here.”
Jackson held out his hands, revealing crooked fingers bent by arthritis. “Besides,” he said, “I can still shoot.”