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Girls practice a dance routine during day camp at Gathers in July 2018.

Girls practice a dance routine during day camp at Gathers in July 2018. (Jessica Kourkounis for WHYY Keystone Crossroads)

Jessica Kourkounis for WHYY Keystone Crossroads

Hope, love and basketball: Summer at North Philly’s Hank Gathers Rec Center

There is more to life in this pocket of the city where shootings drive headlines. This is about the people still here after the news vans drive away.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

It’s the last day of school in Philadelphia. Summer at the Hank Gathers Recreation Center has begun, the outside basketball courts packed with children, a feeling of wide-open possibility in the air.

“I have freedom. I’m free to do whatever I want,” said Jahkare, 16. “Play sports, like girls.”

Bionna, 16, dribbles a basketball non-stop as she talks.

“No more school for the summer….sleep ‘til like 12, probably go out, play ball,” she said, recounting what she expects in a typical day.

Hank Gathers is at 25th and Diamond Streets, in a part of North Philadelphia particularly plagued by deep poverty and violence. Many of the kids who come here live in the surrounding public housing.

And during the summer especially, basketball is a way of life.

The games are intense.

Trash talk runs like a river.

And with some kids you can see how the game brings them to life, energizes them, gives them the hope that maybe — just maybe — if they work hard enough, basketball will take them somewhere else.

“Life’s about staying humble, and doing what you gotta do to sacrifice and live,” said Shawn, 15. “Around here, it’s hard. It’s either you play ball, or…”

Or what?

Shawn trailed off, didn’t want to say.

“If you play a sport, get a scholarship…” he said, a distant look coming to his eyes.

It was as if he could see the outlines of a vision he had dreamed many times before. In a flash, though, he redirected himself, snapped back to the hot June blacktop of the present.

“But it’s the last day of school, man,” he said. “We ain’t got no more school. Let’s get it.”

Read the rest of this story and listen to the podcast at WHYY News