On young people, violence and hoops

The story of basketball is millions of stories. But a huge percentage of those stories originate in some of the worst neighborhoods in America, where violence is a major factor in daily life.

In 1995, as a college senior, I hosted an interview show on my college radio station, WNYU. One of my guests was the author of an amazing book called "Fist Stick Knife Gun: A personal history of violence in America." Geoffrey Canada wrote honestly about the terrifying aspects of his own upbringing in the South Bronx, his escape to college, and his return to the neighborhood to tackle those problems head-on through a bold assortment of long-term education programs that were then in their early stages.

Nowadays he's something of a legend -- empowered, praised, and emulated all over the country and globe. President Barack Obama, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, 60 Minutes , The New York Times ... is there anyone who doesn't think Canada is just about the best there is at fixing what ails the inner city?

Basketball is woven all through the story of the city -- and comes up several times in Canada's first book, including in this passage about a visit from then-Attorney General Janet Reno. It starts with her shooting hoops, and ends with Canada's convictions about how best to nurture strong young people.

We had decided that after Janet Reno had spent some time talking about her support for programs that deter young people from jail, and taking questions, we'd ask her if she'd shoot a basket or two in the gym, where about eighty young people were participating in a late-night basketball tournament. She agreed. She dribbled to the basket, shot, and missed. She shot again, missed. After her sixth or seventh attempt she stopped. All the young people in the gym clapped, but you could tell they wanted her to make a shot. I don't know what it was, but they needed her to make a shot.

She was asked to try again. I was worried because it was already 11:00 p.m. and she was obviously tired from a long day on the road. She picked up the basketball and shot again, and missed. She shot five, six, seven times and missed them all. The whole gymnasium groaned as one ball rolled around the rim two times and them came out of the basket. She shot again and the ball hit the backboard, looked as if it was going to come out, and then went in. The young people screamed their approval. You would have thought the Knicks had just won the championship.

I thought then about our children at our Beacon school in Harlem. Many have so little, but they have so much to give. They really wanted Janet Reno to hit a basket. They were patient and supportive while she missed shots from right underneath. Any one of them could have made those shots easily, yet they didn't laugh or ridicule her, they knew in time she would get it done. And when she finally made the basket they cheered her. How proud I was of our young people. I couldn't help but think that this is what we are trying to do at our Beacon school -- believe in our children, support them, be patient with them, knowing that eventually they will succeed. And then cheering with all our heart when they do.