From a distance, across a grass field at East Fairmount Park, the surface of the renewed Strawberry Mansion Legacy Courts seemed to shimmer like a swimming pool.
Young men and boys shot at the hoops above the colorful court surface painted a mosaic of aqua, slate-gray, teal, and cool blue. The courts at 33rd and Oxford in North Philadelphia were refurbished as a project of rapper Meek Mill, a native son.
Mill, born Robert Rihmeek Williams, once lived across the street. He returned Saturday to dedicate the courts during a block party. As the crowd waited for Mill’s arrival, organizers of the event played his music over a sound system. A group of teens wore black T-shirts emblazoned with NOMO — a nonprofit called New Options, More Opportunities.
People lined up on the court as Mill, 32, arrived with his sons and his mother.
Mill thanked everybody for coming out, saying: “Let’s keep this short. It’s hot out here.”
Mill, dressed in a white Puma shirt, white shorts, and orange sneakers, then cut a ceremonial ribbon. Swarmed by the modest crowd, he made his way over to a corner and played basketball with his sons, Khazief “Pop” Hudgins, 13, and Rihmeek Williams, 8. His cousin, Za Campfield, 12, joined in.
A spokesperson said the project began when Mill wanted a way to give back to the community. He reached out to Puma, with whom he has a business relationship.
Puma reached out to Jimmy of Glossblack LLC, a Philly-based artist who uses Glossblack as his professional name. Glossblack connected with the Mural Arts Program. The Philadelphia Parks & Recreation Department and the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corp. joined in the project.
Adam Crawford was named lead painter. Crawford said the work began six weeks ago with help from young men on probation who are part of the Mural Arts’ Restorative Justice program.
Painting continued up into Saturday morning.
One of the men on probation, Anthony Cruz, 24, presented Mill with a portrait he had painted depicting the rap star in a pink suit. Nazeer Horner, 21, an intern with Mural Arts, also gave Mill a portrait he had painted.
City Council President Darrell L. Clarke, who spoke at the event, said, “A lot of people who make it come back for a minute, get a little camera, and then they’re gone."
Clarke commended Mill for giving back to the community. He called the court "unique.”
Mill’s mother, Kathy Williams, said she was not surprised her son wanted to do something for the neighborhood.
“We used to live right across the street over there,” Williams said, pointing toward 33rd Street. “He used to play on these courts when he was really small.”
She continued, “I used to tell him to never laugh at someone who is having an unfortunate time, because we’ll never know when we might have something unfortunate.”
Mill’s aunt, Annamarie Easley, also attended.
“I am so proud of him,” Easley said. “He’s had his own problems, but he’s now trying to help everybody,” she said, referring to his work advocating for criminal justice reform.
Just this month, a decision on whether Meek Mill will be retried in a 2007 drug and gun case was delayed after his lawyer asked a judge for more time. The rapper has been on probation most of his adult life over the teenage arrest. He has become an activist for criminal justice reform since he was sent back to prison in 2017 for technical violations he blamed on his erratic travel schedule. He spent five months locked up before an appeals court granted him bail.
Last month, a Pennsylvania appeals court overturned the conviction, saying new evidence undermines the credibility of the officer who testified against the rapper at his trial and makes it likely he would be acquitted if the case were retried.