Playing with Tradition

Douglass Gym has been a hoops haven for youth for more than 30 years
Sunday, May 1, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:42 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Wednesday night at Douglass Park.

The concrete is a murky green, with chipped white lines marking the edges of the basketball court. New nets were put up recently, though the nets are really no more than metal wire covered in plastic and looped through the bottom of the rim.

From infants to adults, everyone is at the park. And though Columbia is only 11 percent black, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, at the park the minority is the majority.

Teenage boys walk up; their hands shoved into the pockets of their baggy jeans, their boxer shorts bunched up and sticking out the back as they turn to the court and jostle one other for possession of the ball.

The girls are here too. They stride up to the bleachers in packs and settle into position next to the court. The rhythmic beats of rap and R&B flow into the park, coming from the speakers of a car parked close by.

As the ball players continue to shoot hoops on one end of the court, the other end gets louder and louder.

Two girls are at the center of a circle of people, threatening each other until they start to fight.

One girl rips off the other’s shirt, a boy runs up with a video camera to record it. Everyone, even the smallest kids, surround the two girls. Eventually, even the men get involved.

It doesn’t dissipate until Columbia Police Officer Randy Nichols, hired by Columbia Public Schools to provide security for night school classes taking place inside Douglass, walks outside.

Minutes later, six police cars pull up, and men from the crowd are handcuffed and questioned.

Still, the players keep shooting hoops.

Basketball goes on.

Since the late 1960’s, Douglass Park and Douglass Gym have been gathering places for members of Columbia’s black community.

Back then, the music was Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson. Now, it’s 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg.

But the game hasn’t changed.

Basketball still dominates the culture of the neighborhood, and every Monday through Thursday night, the park and gym at Douglass give kids a place to play.

Nichols said it’s never ball players who cause the trouble.

“It’s the kids standing around...the hangers-on,” he said. “This is the focal point of the community; this is where everyone comes every night of the week.”

When it all started, Missouri was still segregated.

After attending a civil rights march in the 1960s, Wynna Faye Elbert, a black woman and a Columbia Parks and Recreation employee, was inspired to create a night program at Douglass, which was then an all-black school.

Elbert’s idea spawned the creation of Douglass Gym, and since then, every Monday through Thursday night, Douglass Gym and Douglass Park have been filled with kids, adults, and teenagers from the surrounding community.

“The troublemakers stay outside,” Max Ware, 21, a regular at the gym, said. “In here, we’re just playing basketball.”

Douglass Gym is dingy and dark, and its court is several feet short of regulation size. The smell of sweat permeates the air, and the wooden floor is covered with a thin layer of dust.

A theater stage to the right of the court holds what looks like a weight-lifting museum. The machines here seem old and rickety compared to the gleaming, high-tech equipment at MU’s multi-million dollar Rec Center.

But for these basketball players, and the community that watches them, it’s not the court itself that brings them back.

“It’s the history,” said Tracy Edwards, a Parks and Recreation employee who supervises the gym program. “People have been coming here for over 30 years.”

Together with Scotty Williams, Edwards serves as both a chaperone and “big brother” to the young basketball players of the neighborhood. Edwards and Williams spent most of their time at Douglass growing up, and they took control of the gym program in 1990.

“The people who came before us were the ones helping us,” Williams said. “We wanted to continue the tradition.”

In 1990, they called it ‘Club for Respect.’

“With that name, we wanted to start it off right,” Edwards said.

Officer Nichols, who grew up near Douglass Park, said he’s seen kids in the neighborhood losing respect for authority figures, especially police officers.

“We’re the only ones telling them, ‘No,’” Nichols said.

But Edwards and Williams disagree.

“We won’t let them smoke in here, and if they fight, they know we won’t open up the gym the next day,” Edwards said. “When we tell them not to do something, they listen.”

Marquisha Armour, 17, has been coming to the gym for four years. She said it’s a good hangout spotand whatever trouble happens outside never comes inside the gym.

“They (Edwards and Williams) are like bosses,” she said. “Everyone knows they have to listen to them.”

Fifteen years after starting the gym program, Edwards and Williams have earned quite a reputation.

“Anyone who comes down to this area of Columbia knows about Tracy and Scotty,” said Jamaal Foster, a former Douglass Gym star who now plays basketball for Southern Illinois. “They help a lot of people, and they had a big impact on my life.”

Foster is one of the success stories to come out of Douglass Gym. Not only does he play basketball in college, but he carries a 3.07 grade-point average.

The 6-foot-10 college freshman got exposure playing AAU basketball for Edwards and Williams on the “Dream Team,” which won the AAU National Championship in 2002.

“They took us places where people could actually see us play,” Foster said. “They’re like a second and third father to me.”

Edwards and Williams sometimes paid for hotel rooms out of their own pockets when the athletes couldn’t afford it.

“We just wanted to give everyone a chance to play,” Edwards said.

Through the gym program, Edwards and Williams have continued to do just that, even though that can be a tough job at times.

For some, it’s hard to be both liked and respected in the community.

“As long as we’re doing something for them, helping them out, our relationship with them is good,” Nichols said. “But if not, it’s bad.”

Edwards and Williams seem to have found a way to be listened to, as well as liked.

“Without them, I’d probably be locked up,” Tremaine Wilkerson, a 2004 Hickman grad who now plays at Mineral Area College in Park Hills, said. “Everything I have goes back to them.”

Ware graduated from Hickman in 2002. A standout on the football field, he was offered a partial scholarship to William Jewell, but he left after two years. Ware said tuition increases and mounting school loans made it impossible for him to finish his degree.

He returned home to Columbia, and came back to the gym.

“Everyone pretty much comes here every day,” Ware said.

Ware admitted that the neighborhood can be tough, but he said he felt more comfortable here than in some of Columbia’s other neighborhoods.

“Even if it’s rough, this is where I’m at,” he said. “You’ve got to go somewhere you feel comfortable, someplace you’re familiar with.”

The gym is a place where everyone can feel comfortable.

“For the two hours that this gym is open, that’s two hours that people can feel safe,” Ware said. “They can feel that they’re doing something right.”

For Edwards and Williams, the gym is an important community resource, a place where young black men can find positive role models.

Edwards said too many young black men under the age of 25 are going to jail.

“We’re losing our population,” Edwards said. “If I can do something to keep them out of trouble, that’s a good enough reason for me.”

“We do it for the love of protect our kids and our community.”

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