The sizzle and pop of frying chicken and fish mix with the sounds from DJ Unique’s speakers, the squeak of sneakers on asphalt and the rat-a-tat of a half-dozen bouncing basketballs.
Spectators unfold lawn chairs and cover both baselines. Kids barely old enough to walk in a straight line waddle around the court.
Along the fence, food cooks on a family-size grill. Vendors walk between the steel bleachers, selling Gatorade, water and frozen snowballs for relief from the relentless sun.
“Oh yeah, that’s my team,” one kid shouts and points as Face Mob and the DMV Hoopers approach center court for tipoff.
It’s another summer evening of basketball on the crown jewel of the Barry Farm Dwellings, a fenced court in the Southeast Washington community where George Goodman Basketball League games are played.
The Goodman league, in its 36th year, features pros, street ball legends, college players and neighborhood talent. It is also the one place in the housing project, located in one of the city’s roughest neighborhoods, where an informal truce is strictly observed.
“This is where you come and get a peace of mind,” said Curtis Howard, who grew up in the Parkchester apartments, a block from the court, and played in the league growing up. “One thing you won’t see is no drama. They don’t bring it here. People look forward to the summer coming around just for this league. It’s the best thing that’s happened to Barry Farm.”
In the 19th century, “The Farm” was a tobacco plantation before it became a community for freed slaves. Today, the court’s 12-foot fences surround one of the few places where the neighborhood’s 2,729 residents can escape the harsh realities of life. The court was refurbished not long ago with a $50,000 donation from Nike.
A reduction in crime
Neighborhood leaders believe the league’s two-month schedule helps reduce crime during the summer. Over the last year, according to police, 165 crimes — from car thefts to assaults with deadly weapons — have been reported within 1,000 feet of the basketball court. No crimes have been reported within 100 feet of the court over the same time period.
On a hot June evening, six police officers in bulletproof vests huddle in the alley that divides the neighborhood’s worn duplexes from the court. Large orange traffic cones block the alley off Firth Sterling Avenue.
One of the poorest neighborhoods in D.C., with a median household income of $18,500, Barry Farm hosts basketball stars — from Kevin Durant to Gilbert Arenas to AND 1 streetball favorite Hugh “Baby Shaq” Jones — at no cost to the public. During the games, it is a place where Arenas, the former Washington Wizards star, could park his Maybach at the end of the alley and walk 20 paces to the court. No posse. Just Arenas and the Barry Farm community.
Eighteen teams are competing for the league title this summer. Professional players who show up for a game or two are assigned to a team by Commissioner Miles Rawls, based on what he believes will provide an even matchup.
The pros and others stick around the court afterwards for a postgame meal with local residents or to sign autographs, briefly acting as male role models for young boys and men in a community where 74 percent of the households are headed by women.
“We have our ups and downs, but still no matter what, people are positive about things,” said Linda Miller, who heads the local neighborhood commission. “It’s not always bad. There are good things out here, too.”
George Goodman worked at the Barry Farm Recreation Center as a counselor and often served as a father figure to children from the neighborhood. From his home, Goodman could see them in the rec center, on the basketball court and in the swimming pool.
The residents of Barry Farm were stunned by the 31-year-old Goodman’s murder in 1984. No one in their right mind could want to kill Goodman. No one. “The majority of the neighborhood looked up to him,” Rawls said.
Rawls renamed the Barry Farms Community Basketball League in honor of Goodman in 2000. “I know he’s smiling down on us and seeing where we started and where we are today,” he said.
Talent in the house
Nowadays, high-profile NBA players are common “inside da gate,” a melting pot of various talent levels. Two-time NBA scoring champion Durant, a District native and member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, is a “Goodman league junkie,” Rawls said. Durant drew the largest crowd of the summer when he played on opening day.
The Goodman league is a rite of passage. Players who want to claim they’re the best in the area must prove themselves on Barry Farm’s court. Rawls wants John Wall, the Wizards’ star point guard, to “earn his stripes” in the league, as Arenas did.
“He doesn’t have to play for the entire summer, just once,” Rawls said.