Stephania Ergemlidze never played college or high school basketball. She just believes in its power in her own life, she said, and tries to extend that out.
“I was born with a leg condition, I wasn’t supposed to be able to walk,’’ Ergemlidze said. “My family came from the country of Georgia with $300." Shriners Hospital for Children took her in, had her feet in casts for three years. The hope was to get her walking. Sports, she was told, wouldn’t be part of her life.
“My parents put me into every sport,’’ Ergemlidze said over the phone as she walked Wednesday along Ben Franklin Parkway toward City Hall, two friends helping bring along the portable basketball standard that usually is against a wall in the living room of her Fairmount apartment.
Ergemlidze, 26, had started an Instagram project, bringing her basket out into the community. She decided this week she would bring the basket back out. She contacted her friend Jaquill Shackelford, who lives nearby.
“She’s like a YouTube influencer in the basketball community,’’ Shackelford said. “That’s how I met a lot of great people, from different backgrounds and religions and views. It’s kind of like my own LinkedIn. I ran into her, we played one-on-one.”
This was last June. They’ve stayed in touch and when Ergemlidze thought about this current project, she reached out to Shackelford and his friend Khalil Gardener. They were in.
“I was nervous at first, extremely nervous, nauseous, ’’ Ergemlidze said. “I’ve done this in times of peace. I’ve never done it when times are crazier. I don’t want to distract from the protests. I just really want to highlight them more.”
“It was very awkward at first,’’ Shackelford said Friday. “Just carrying around this basket.”
The first time they went out, Ergemlidze said, “We didn’t really have a route. We didn’t know if we should go with the protesters, or lag behind.”
They lagged just a bit, from City Hall to the Art Museum to Rittenhouse Square. The sign Ergemlidze wrote on cardboard told their mission: “I’ve always used basketball to try to bring people together. Today I feel is a day we need that most! I have sanitizer if you’d like to play!”
People played. Or they just asked if they could take a shot.
“We reached pretty much every type of person,’’ Ergemlidze said. “We were able to play with police officers, protestors, pedestrians. People were joining us on our walks, following us around. That was pretty cool. We had every race pretty much join us.”
“It was all love,’’ Shackelford said. “It was all love.”
Shackelford said these two twins followed them around and would play people who walked up. “Hours and hours and hours, we went,’’ Shackelford said. A WHYY reporter ran into them and reported on their project. That really blew things up. According to Shackelford, Gardener got messages from Ben Simmons and Gardener’s personal favorite player, Carmelo Anthony, on Instagram.
Their message, Shackelford hopes, isn’t just that people like to play basketball. He’d heard a story about opposing sides laying down their guns in wartime to play a game of soccer.
“In my view, it was kind of this,’’ said Shackelford, who grew up in different places around the city but considers North Philadelphia, around 6th and Girard, as the place where he had the most childhood memories. “The police don’t look good to the other side. The other side don’t look good to the police. It was our way to say, let’s tone it down.”
Shackelford, 26, never played organized ball — “never played under the whistle” — but he can name a variety of courts around the city where he played, though he didn’t pick up the game until his late teens. “I could barely touch the backboard. It was a good way for me to lose weight.”
If the quarantine put a couple of pounds back on him, Shackelford said, dragging a full basketball standard around Center City is a pretty good training regimen. Weather permitting, the trio planned to be back out Saturday.
“There’s a bigger message than just us playing basketball,’’ Shackelford said. “Somebody lost their life. There are problems in this world. Can we help ease the tension?”