Mark Graves sat in his car in the parking lot at Phelps Park in south Minneapolis on a recent afternoon, looking out at an empty basketball court, one that normally would be bustling with activity.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he marveled.
Now in his 18th year as a director for the Southside Village branch of the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Twin Cities, and his 30th overall with the clubs, there is little Graves hasn’t seen.
Whether it be a hand up, a pat on the back or a friendly word, Graves has been there for countless kids with family issues or school problems — a rock in a stream of worry.
But this, this is different.
The closure of city parks, schools, community centers and other traditional gathering places for thousands of young athletes and kids in response to the coronavirus pandemic has befuddled even old hands such as Graves.
“I’ve seen different hardships from families, helped them through different tragedies. I have lost kids through gang violence. This is the biggest thing I’ve ever seen,” said Graves, his normally confident tone tinged with concern. “There’s confusion around what’s going on right now. It’s kind of devastating to these kids. A lot of them have no clue what’s going on. It’s hard to take.”
For many city kids, schools, parks and clubs are havens. Places to meet up with friends, get a bite to eat, hang out, do something constructive. For much of the past two months, they have been off limits, their sanctuaries chained. Most visibly, after a first wave of park closures in Minneapolis, basketball rims were removed or padlocked to further curb urges to gather.
“I don’t think they fully understand it,” said TJ Valtierra, a program director for the Little Earth branch of Boys and Girls Clubs. “For many of these kids, they come from disadvantaged places. The [turmoil] caused by this pandemic is a kind of a way of life. They’re used to sudden deaths and sicknesses and tragedies. Now things like sports and athletics, which for many of them is the best thing in their lives, are closed down. It’s hard to process.”
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On weekend nights when basketball wasn’t in season, C.J. Brown usually could be found in the Farview Park gym on Minneapolis’ north side, taking advantage of teen night.
It was where he would go to both remember and forget, to lose himself on a basketball court, the way he and his father would before his dad died unexpectedly last fall.
“It’s been hard, to be honest,” said Brown, a shooting guard for the Minneapolis North basketball team and a tight end and middle linebacker for the Polars football team. “At home, I’ll be thinking about the memories of what we would do — probably going to a gym or working out.”
Brown splits his time between his mother’s townhome in the northern suburbs and his sister’s home in north Minneapolis. While most of his life exists in Minneapolis, he has found he is spending more time with his mom, largely because of an available basketball hoop at the complex. It’s a precious commodity.
“Social distancing has been challenging for a lot of athletes,” Brown said. “Not being in class, not being able to live your life. That’s kind of hard.”
The limitations haven’t been all bad, however. Brown said that living with his mother, which “didn’t work” when he was growing up, has helped them grow closer.
“Being in the house together, having long conversations with her, it’s helped a lot,” Brown said.
Despite his recent setbacks, Brown isn’t feeling sorry for himself. He has taken it upon himself to be a helping hand to any of his friends or teammates who are having pandemic-related difficulties, paying back the kindness and support he felt after losing his dad.
“Everyone’s tempted to leave the house and get out,” Brown said. “Some of their homes aren’t great. They can always call me, and I’ll open up my home to them, just like they opened their home to me.”
And he has vowed to never again slack off in athletics.
“I feel like I used to take sports for granted,” he said. “Our last [basketball] game, I played OK but I don’t feel like I played like it was my last game. And you should play every game like it’s your last.”
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Spending much of his life in the Little Earth Native American housing complex in south Minneapolis, high school senior Josh Vermillion is well acquainted with neighborhood problems.
“I’m not going to be bashful about it. There are people with addictions, people choosing wrong paths, drugs and gang violence,” he said. “I can walk through the community and find a needle laying there from drugs. It’s terrible.”
Vermillion, who has six siblings, lived in foster care until he was 11, when he moved in with his grandmother. He attends Nawayee Alternative High School and gets good grades. He also plays center for the Little Earth Red Bears AAU basketball team, which finished a program-best second in league play this season.
Playing basketball, whether for an organized team or at the local park, has been his recipe for escape in a neighborhood that catches many in a whirlpool of hopelessness.
“I’m a pretty social person, so usually I’ll just walk down to the local courts, just to talk, hoop a little, make new friends,” he said. “It sucks that you can’t just do that. Sometimes, I get the urge to break the rules.”
Valtierra, who coaches an AAU basketball team among his myriad duties in the Little Earth community, understands the necessity of social distancing. But he worries that shutting down places so vital to the well-being of local youth could have regrettable long-term effects.
“For some of these kids, it’s the healthiest thing in their lives,” he said.
Valtierra estimates that as many as 50 kids or more frequent the open gym he monitors each Saturday. Play basketball, laugh and catch up with friends, top it off with pizza provided later in the afternoon. A normal routine that plays out in cities across the nation, one with life-affirming qualities that are as important as they are obvious.
“It’s a huge worry that it’s all been taken away from them,” Valtierra said. “Their whole social structure is inspired by basketball — their shoes, the ball, the backpack, their lives. Now, their whole social structure is broken down.”
Vermillion said he is already seeing a fragile neighborhood ecosystem start to fray.
“People like TJ and the Boys and Girls Club and the YDC [Youth Development Center], they’re great for people when they’re struggling,’’ he said. “Kids can escape the realities at home. Now where do they go? Little Earth is a good place, but there are a lot of bad people.”
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Demetrius “Meech” Seay thought this was going to be his time to get his name in front of college football recruiters.
Minneapolis South football hasn’t had much success in recent seasons, but Seay, a running back and linebacker, has the athleticism and desire to take his game to the next level. But with South rarely a destination for college recruiters, the senior-to-be hoped to spend his spring and summer training and attending camps and combines.
Most of those plans have been shelved. He has been able to get a workout or two in from home, but now he’s relegated to counting on a big season this fall. Problem is, he has played running back for only one year. He knows this will be his only opportunity to show his stuff.
“I don’t think it will set me back,” Seay said. “I’ll just have to focus harder in my senior year.”
Missing out on a chance to improve his future, Seay said he was tempted at times, mostly when friends would call, to head outside and meet up with them in violation of Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order.
“I don’t think people take it as seriously as they should,” he said. “They call sometimes and say, ‘Come out to the park, just for a hour.’ It’s hard not to.”
Seay has extra motivation to be diligent. His mother, Renel Coffey, has diabetes, which has compromised her immune system. He is not about to let one moment of weakness compromise his mother’s safety.
“All of my friends understand. They understand where I’m coming from,’’ he said. “She can get sick real easy. But it hasn’t been easy.”
He has found some positives, however.
“I feel more connected with my family,” Seay said. “And my mom showed me a couple of things on how to barbecue.”
• • •
Walz’s recent relaxing of stay-at-home restrictions means that hundreds of athletic fields, sport courts and play spaces in Minneapolis will start to reopen over the next two weeks, with social distancing rules still in effect. It is likely to ease some of the pressures for inner-city kids who were struggling with the constraints.
But some feel there will be some long-term effects to combat.
“I worry about the mental health of these kids,” North boys’ basketball coach Larry McKenzie said.
Many kids, he felt, never really took the restrictions seriously, looking at them instead like just another roadblock in life full of them.
“I think some of the decisions to close were made very hastily. Some of this kind of stuff, they were not thinking through,” he said.
Undermining the framework of the lives of kids who need structure most, McKenzie said, can lead to problems.
“A lot of these kids don’t have the structure they need in their lives. My basketball kids would have already played in two, three AAU tournaments already. With so much time that they’re not used to managing, it increases the possibilities of making [regrettable choices].”
Said Graves: “Idle hands, right? A lot of these kids are angry at having been stuck in the house, but they don’t know how to express it verbally. I worry about it getting into their heads.”