If ever there were a moment to cry and break pandemic social distancing norms with a hug, this was it.
It happened in the homemade pie section of Jeff Brown’s ShopRite on Island Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia.
Nile Swim Club president Anthony Patterson choked back tears a few days before Thanksgiving and grocer-philanthropist Jeff Brown responded with a bear hug. All of this because of a basketball court. But so much more, really.
One stranger had given the other stranger $30,000 after reading a news story. Both men working to improve life in their communities.
“I can’t begin to tell you how ... wonderful,” Patterson said as he began to get emotional in front of Brown. “It almost brings tears to my eyes.”
Brown, whose national reputation precedes him for having plunked supermarkets down in formerly written-off Black communities, responded with the kind of heart-on-your-sleeve impulse you’d expect from a guy like him: He threw his arms around Patterson. The two men who had never before met in person had a moment then and there.
“We do this stuff because we think it’s important to the communities we serve,” Brown said as Patterson wiped his eyes.
Brown employs thousands in low-income communities while selling groceries. Patterson is the Yeadon native-turned-real-estate-guy who, like a man on a mission, is doing all he can to breathe new life into a generations-old swim club founded by Black families during the Jim Crow era of segregation over the city line in Yeadon, Delaware County.
“Society, when it works, is not that complex,” Brown said. “You have to have something positive to do so you don’t end up doing something negative.”
A customer accidentally knocked baked goods off a nearby display table and Brown stepped away to pick them up.
I’m telling you. This was a good way to spend part of a day off during this hellish year.
I had asked the men to meet there because the donation, I had learned, was a result of a column of mine earlier this year. In July I wrote about how the Nile, founded by Black people whose families were denied entry to all-white clubs in Yeadon in 1958, was at a crossroads.
Would it survive the coronavirus? Memberships were down, pandemic fears were up, and the Nile had only just skirted economic collapse a few years earlier. Patterson had stepped in to help the club’s board stabilize the place he fondly remembered as a child. But the club was not yet on pace for even the 200 family memberships needed to cover overhead. Would kids have somewhere to go during the summer of quarantine if the Nile could not make it?
Brown read the piece, which included a detail that I had slipped into the column: “... basketball courts whose wooden, hand-painted backboards date to the 1970s.”
Brown contacted the Nile.
“What do you need?” he asked Patterson by phone. “I’ll send my team out there.”
Soon after, Brown’s people were on site, and they all agreed: A new basketball court was in order.
The grocer, who disburses $500,000 annually in donations, committed $30,000 through a cosponsorship with Pepsi. It was exactly what the nonprofit club needed to overhaul the dilapidated, 50-year-old court.
There were no press releases or phone calls to trumpet this. I found out about it sort of accidentally, in October. I had phoned Patterson to hear about 1,000 free food boxes the club was now doling out every Saturday at 10 a.m. to anyone who shows up.
He mentioned the court reconstruction project. That Brown had shelled out $30,000. How this had blown Patterson away.
“It happened because of your article,” he told me.
I already knew some of what had changed since my column: Memberships soared to 1,000; the pools were renovated; and even an elderly white woman drove up one day to personally hand over $100.
The gift from Brown was staggering.
I immediately called the grocer to be sure that I had heard Patterson correctly.
“You’re a big part of this story,” Brown told me.
As I processed those words, my mind went back to the summer, when I spent time with Brown documenting the looting and rebuilding of two of his city stores. Both were hit following racial justice demonstrations over the death of George Floyd at the hands of police. His are beloved stores. This latest gift only further illustrates why.
Patterson told me the nets were going up right before Election Day. So the Thursday before The Election With No End, I drove to the Nile.
As the sun was setting I stood on fresh blacktop and watched as Patterson and other men who grew up at the Nile with him joined with the contractors who had rebuilt the court. Together, they lifted two new posts off the ground and bolted them upright. It was like watching a flag planted on sacred ground.
“They have been so ecstatic and helpful,” Axiom Construction owner Dave Stein said of the Nile guys. Soon enough, I heard a few of them joking about whether the hoop was “too low” for one of them to dunk on with any sense of self-respect.
“I think it’s beautiful,” said Stacey Scott, a Nile member. “Anthony’s doing a great job. Doing a great job.”
Board member Leon Howard walked me to a perimeter fence. He showed me adjacent borough basketball courts. He said the Yeadon Athletic Association, which he runs, would open that fence and use the Nile court, too, to expand capacity and bring more kids into the league.
“It’s more than a court,” Howard said. “It’s more than just a game. It’s life skills. One of my coaches says it’s a reflection of life.”
At the ShopRite weeks later, I watched as the two strangers behind it all met for the first time. And embraced over doing good by doing right.