After a long hiatus, Twilite Basketball returned this year to the Young Adult Project in South Berkeley. Friday night, local youth and Berkeley Police officers who have been coaching them are set to face each other on the court as the program winds down for the season.
The winning team will get bragging rights, as well as a large trophy to display until the next match up, slated for the summer.
Though the “Battle of Berkeley” — where officers and youth compete on the court — has happened in the past, this year will be the first time Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan plans to play.
Officers credit Ginsi Bryant, recreation coordinator at the Young Adult Project, or YAP, for bringing back the Twilite Basketball program in January. Though it began in Berkeley in the early 90s, participation dwindled in recent years and it was no longer active.
YAP itself was founded in 1972 in South Berkeley to help keep local youth off the streets and give them a safe, positive outlet for their energy. The organization, at 1730 Oregon St., offers a variety of programs including sports, arts and crafts, and leadership skills building.
Don’t miss our feature from January on YAP’s popular boxing program.
The 10-week Twilite Basketball program is aimed at pre-teens and teens. There are three practices a week, with games on Friday and Saturday nights. Bryant runs the program, which has about five coaches of its own. But Berkeley Police officers are also a key part of the equation.
That’s because one goal of the program has been to help police and youth build relationships that can help them off the court.
“A potentially bad situation can turn the other way on a dime because you’ve spent time with these kids and their families,” said Lt. Ed Spiller, who oversees the BPD side of the endeavor. “It’s just building that trust: That’s half the battle.”
Bryant said the program is designed to reduce juvenile delinquency, get young people off the streets and equip them with life skills that will help them have better judgment when faced with challenging situations. About 80 youth, age 11 to 18, have participated this season, though the program has room for more as it grows.
When Bryant approached BPD about kickstarting the program in January, a handful of officers jumped in to volunteer. They show up at practices and games to help coach, and sometimes help run “rap sessions” before the games about different topics Bryant thought could be valuable to discuss. They also provide what Bryant described as a “body presence,” just being there to offer support and encouragement.
“The parents really enjoy seeing the officers there and interacting with the kids, and the kids enjoy it as well,” she said.
Bryant said the “rap session” workshops are central. Youth must participate in those before they can even get on the court for games. Topics have run the gamut from cyberbullying and peer pressure to the perils of social media and the importance of education. They’ve talked about respecting authority, how to become better leaders, and how to achieve their dreams. Coaches, officers and other community members have led those sessions, which end with the kids filling out surveys to share what they learned and reflect on how the information could be helpful to their futures.
And participation is mandatory. One night, she said, the kids were acting rude and disrespectful during the rap session. She called off that night’s games. The players were unhappy, but it was a reminder that they need to follow the rules, or there would be consequences.
“Here with the program, it’s a family,” she said. “We’re all a family and everybody has to be a good role model.”
Coach: “It can change the climate of a city”
Keenan Coogler, a volunteer coach and mentor with Berkeley Twilite, described it as the kind of program that can have a big impact: “A place where kids can hang out, study, play, learn, exercise and even just get a hot meal. People talk a big game about combatting urban crime and youth street violence, but Berkeley Twilite is really our biggest weapon against it.”
He said the program combines friendly competition with opportunities to learn from public speakers and interact with the police.
“You give kids in this environment an outlet with just the right amount of structure and it can change the climate of a city,” he said.
Bryant recalled, when she ran the program from 2000 to 2007, how her boss encouraged her to bring officers into the mix.
“They need to be down here engaging with the kids,” he told her. “You have that relationship, you have better policing and a better community.”
If officers see kids causing trouble in the streets, but know their backgrounds, and know them through the program, it could potentially lead to different outcomes, said Bryant. Instead of an arrest, officers might say, “‘I know who you are. You play in Twilite. I’m going to tell Ginsi about this.’”
“I know that’s what happened in the past,” she said. “We’re trying to reestablish that relationship again with the officers and the kids, a better relationship.”
One of the officers who has been involved with the program is Kelvin Gibbs. Gibbs played basketball in college at Pepperdine, then went on to play professionally in Europe for nine years before becoming a Berkeley Police officer almost six years back.
One of the other officers involved played basketball as a student at Berkeley High, and another coaches a youth basketball team where he lives. Four or five officers have been most involved in Twilite, with others dropping in from time to time.
Much of the time the officers spend is after work; they show up in regular clothes and get out on the court with the kids, Gibbs said. But several of the officers work nightshifts on the weekends and — time allowing — they also go by in uniform during and after games to say hello and visit.
Bryant: “Here, you’re a coach”
When the program kicked off in January, some adjustments were required from everyone involved. Ginsi Bryant recalled the first day of the season. Four officers showed up in uniform to YAP. Not everyone was pleased.
“The kids kind of tensed up,” she said. “We told them, ‘These are coaches here. Calm down, relax.’”
She also recalled how the police introduced themselves with their rank, as “Officer So-and-So.” YAP staff told them: “Here, you’re a coach. You’re COACH such-and-such.”
Gibbs agreed it took some time to break the ice. The kids were used to seeing the cops in the streets, on car stops or during other enforcement operations. Not to mention the questions that have become a frequent part of the national conversation: disparities in policing, the high-profile fatalities involving officers in other places and, too often, young black men. Gibbs described the atmosphere, nationally, as “tough times.”
“The first few weeks, it was kind of trying,” Gibbs said. The kids had questions. “‘They’re here but are they really here to support us fully?’ I think now they realize that we are.”
Gibbs said he actually knew some of the youth from prior contacts on the streets. Since volunteering with the basketball program, he said, the interaction — both at YAP and out in Berkeley — has totally changed.
“Now, it’s more of them saying, ‘What’s up, how you doing, you gonna be at practice?’ versus ‘Oh, the police are coming. We better go over there,’” said Gibbs. “That alone makes it worth it.”
The Twilite program is ending Sunday, but a summer basketball program is in the works, and officers said they hope to see Berkeley Twilite return next year and into the foreseeable future.
Said Spiller: “Anything we can do to improve the police-youth relationship is a bonus.”
Bryant said, going forward, she also plans to rebuild the relationship with Berkeley High’s basketball program, which in the past was a feeder into the Berkeley Twilite program.
Gibbs said nine Berkeley officers, including the chief, are set to face the youth team Friday night at 8:30. The teams will compete over who will get to display a large trophy, at least until the next match. Gibbs said he wasn’t sure which youth would play, but understood it to be an “all star” team.
“It should be a good game,” he said. “We got the older legs, they got the younger legs. We can’t last as long as them but hopefully, with nine people, we’ll have enough people subbing out to be able to do it.”
Bryant said the game, traditionally, is just another way to build the relationship between the kids and the police. Seeing officers on the court, out of uniform and in regular basketball clothes, is part of that process.
“Kids can’t judge an officer out there. They’re one of them,” she said. “People are just being people. Everybody is just out there having fun, running up and down the court.”
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