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Inside the North Philly basketball league for homeless men: ‘It helps me to realize who I really am’ | Mike Jensen

Hoops for Hope has blossomed this summer after raising $10,000 in seed money. The league helps its participants to “regain a sense of self-worth and self-esteem,” according to its founder, Tori Urban.

Players from the Outley House go up against Our Brothers' Place during a game at the Church of the Advocate in North Philly on Wednesday. Men from both shelters participate in a basketball league run by Hoops for Hope.
Players from the Outley House go up against Our Brothers' Place during a game at the Church of the Advocate in North Philly on Wednesday. Men from both shelters participate in a basketball league run by Hoops for Hope.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

This basketball game began with a bucket, right off the tipoff, and then a matching bucket, and another bucket. Finally, somebody missed.

Every Wednesday this summer, in a little gym just off a courtyard in the back of the historic Church of the Advocate at Diamond and Gratz Streets in North Philadelphia, there’s a men’s hoop league, the quality more or less the same as most any community league in Philadelphia.

Ian Murray, who officiates high school games in the winter, came in to referee the first week. He wasn’t sure what the quality would be. He was ready to let some things go.

“Some guy dunked on the layup line,” Murray said. “All bets were off.”

The surprise factor came because this Hoops for Hope League may be unique, in Philadelphia anyway. It’s the only one in the city specifically designed for homeless men. It’s shelter vs. shelter competition. You wouldn’t know any of that walking in, hearing a coach yell, “Kick the ball out, man.”

George Giles, 60, didn’t need instructions on how to play. Every rebound, opponents knew this literal graybeard was going to be right there, maybe grabbing the ball, maybe tipping it. And if he got it … a pivot master. Once, Giles head-faked a defender half his age right out of bounds, giving him an open lay-in.

Earlier this season, Giles said, he became the first in the league to score 20 points. How’d he do it?

“I”m telling you, I had this point guard, he played like Kyrie Irving," Giles said. “I could make a perfect cut, I got the ball. Shoot a little five-footer, 10-footer.”

Giles can tell you which court (Penrose) he played with Joe Bryant, Kobe’s dad, or where he was an All-Star with Lewis Lloyd in a playground league (48th and Brown.) He’ll also mention he won 14 championships in seven different prisons around the state.

The value of this league, Giles said, “it keeps my mind off the hardship," mentioning his recent divorce, and a long struggle with sobriety.

The league’s founder, Tori Urban, began it in 2015, an offshoot of her work as a substance-use coordinator in shelters. It was three teams then, maybe 20 guys.

They took a hiatus after that year, began it anew this summer, with six shelters participating. The city gave its official blessing, a GoFundMe page and fund-raiser producing $10,000 in seed money.

“I work out of eight different homeless shelters," Urban said, explaining what she sees as the goal of the league: “To assist these men to regain a sense of self-worth and self-esteem. Give them a sense of normalcy. A lot of them work.

"I actually surveyed the men in different shelters, what sport would they like to play? Basketball was the choice of an overwhelming majority. Seeing the addiction and the mental illness and the trauma, knowing the role a sport — particularly a team sport — how it can affect them, this made sense. We’ve been seeing smiles, and the spirit brightening — literally seeing the stress fall off the shoulders of these men.”

Each had to sign a waiver to play. They check in each week to make sure that waiver is on file. There’s water in the front hall. Leo Porth, a social worker who works as a program coordinator for this league, had a family member bring pretzels. He has also jumped in as a ref, brought in his friend Murray. There’s also pizza, donated by an East Falls shop.

“We started doing social media," said Dia Swan, who was put in charge of that effort.

Sharrod Gardner volunteers keeping score and working the clock. Two years ago, he was living in a shelter himself. Do the players know that?

“I don’t think they do," Gardner said.

J.R. — or “Eyez," he said — is all over the gym, helping the staff in the front, grabbing a slice of pizza, then joining in the second game, getting a few minutes playing time, grabbing an offensive rebound, setting screens, throwing inbounds passes.

“I’m not a basketball person," the 35-year-old said. “But I’m trying … I’m just having fun, for real.”

The shelters provide a little assistance, mainly trying to get a van to get players there, or getting them SEPTA day passes.

The basketball shoes on their feet came from the donations.

“I am a sucker for a sale and a coupon," said Urban, the league’s president. “When I heard Payless was going out of business, I jumped in my car. We got 30 pairs of shoes for five bucks a pop. Dia and Leo and myself, we all kind of split, went all over Philly.”

The first game he got new shoes, Giles said, was when he scored the 20 points.

“I feel like they’ve gone over the call of duty to organize this," said Bridgette Tobler, manager of homeless outreach services for the city’s Behavioral Health Department, which spearheads addiction and mental health services and treatment for Philadelphia. Her husband is a referee, he’s worked a game. Their friend Mike Gibson provided the basketballs as part of his 6th Man Project.

Tobler said she mentioned the league to her department commissioner, David T. Jones.

“His face lit up.”

Two games each Wednesday. Sometimes, players from the two shelters who have byes show up to see if they can get on another team. A couple of weeks back, there was torrential rain.

“There’s no one who is going to show up," Urban thought.

Everybody showed up. The commitment is mind-boggling.”

When there was the shooting of police officers a little farther uptown, shutting down the Broad Street line that some players were planning to use, payment was arranged for an Uber from one of the shelters.

“This is a transient population,” Urban said. “But from the beginning, it’s been consistent.”

All involved say providing transportation is key.

“Historically, transportation is definitely a barrier for our homeless," Tobler said. “If this program continues, it would be an opportunity for people to help.”

It’s clear to all, this will continue. Urban has applied to make this an official nonprofit. There already is a Hoops for Hope Facebook page.

The head of one shelter brought her dog Wednesday to watch. The young son of one player was there on a bench in a corner. What you notice is that while the competitiveness is front-burner, it never boiled over into anger. Murray, the ref, said he takes more guff at a CYO game than with this group.

Victoria thinks back to a man named Abdul who helped out with a video back in 2015.

“To play in this league is a pleasure," Abdul said. “It keeps me out of trouble. It keeps me positive. It keeps me in shape. It helps me to realize who I really am.”

Abdul died five months later, Urban said. He’d struggled with addiction. Nobody is deluding themselves into thinking this league can solve all the city’s problems.

“The name, Hoops for Hope," said Joel Avery, spokesman for the Behavioral Health Department. “That’s what people need.”

On Wednesday, the oldest guy in the game, Levi Combs, 64 years old, threw a behind-the-back inbounds pass to a young teammate … another bucket. (The younger guy, Demar Crawford, had come in the gym making three-pointers in warm-ups with his backpack still on.)

Another game, Combs had wowed the little crowd with a backward no-look bounce pass through his own legs and the legs of his tight defender, to an open teammate under the basket.

How long has he been doing this stuff?

“Fifty years,” Combs said in a little postgame interview.

One of the players in the second game doesn’t live in a shelter. He lives in the neighborhood. But he kept coming in, wondering if he could play. Finally, he was put on a team. He was a little late Wednesday, rushing in from work.

The second game ended with a last-play defensive stand in a one-point game.

“This is a ballgame now," said one of the shelter workers, jumping out of his seat, watching it unfold.