By Daniel Katzive
It started, oddly enough, when a group of concerned residents came together in early 2021 to protect the much-loved, landmark Metro Theater, on Broadway at 100th Street, from the wrecking ball. Some of them became friends. A youth basketball program was not part of the original agenda, but community organizing can sometimes lead in unexpected directions.
One member of the group was Keith Harris, an area resident who coordinates the sports and afterschool programs at PS 165, on West 109th Street, and other neighborhood centers, and who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 2021, in the district now held by Shaun Abreu.
Fast forward to 2022. The city had emerged from the pandemic, and parents and kids were looking for new ways to get active. Some of neighborhood kids had been gathering to shoot hoops in local playgrounds, but parents were concerned about violent incidents after school in the parks. One of the Metro Theater group’s children was involved in an altercation where a knife was displayed, and local papers, including the West Side Rag, ran stories on the issue.
Speaking at a recent community meeting, Harris explained why that story, about an incident involving the attempted robbery of a cellphone at the PS 145 playground on West 104th Street, especially bothered him.
“That was really the park where I grew up from fourth grade until I got ready to go to college,” said Harris, who lived in the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) Frederick Douglass Houses on Columbus Avenue, between 100th and 104th Streets, in those years. “I played basketball every day with my friends, and that never happened to me.” In subsequent conversations with a parent from the Metro Theater group, Harris volunteered to coach the kids and teach them basketball skills, providing adult supervision at their playground practices.
What started with just two seventh-grade boys in September soon grew organically, by word of mouth and social media, with a number of friends who attend the West End Secondary School on 61st Street joining in. Before long, the group had nine players participating regularly, including Harris’s nephew. Harris recalled that one of the boys asked “Coach Keith, does that mean we’re a team now?” Soon, they began competing in tournaments, calling themselves the AI2 Aviators, with “AI2” standing for All in Together.
This winter, the team joined the Live City League, playing Sunday games against other New York teams at the gym at Riverbank State Park, as well as continuing to participate in tournaments. Harris points out that a lot of the teams they are playing against have been together for multiple seasons. Nonetheless, the Aviators have had some success, winning handily against the BGA Royals by a score of 35 to 22 on January 9th, as parents and friends cheered from the sidelines.
Lindsay Ashmun, whose son plays on the team and who was in the stands that day, said the kids feel a sense of ownership and pride in being founding members. They view it as their own space, an activity they helped create rather than simply signed up for. Alex Yaroslavsky, whose son Liam was one of the original two players in the group, said his son thinks about strategy off the court as well—he could be seen in deep consultation with Harris before the BGA game. Liam’s mother, Liza Cooper, said “all of the kids have grown so much, both in their skills and their confidence.”
Harris has plans to add another seventh-grade boys team after the current team moves up to the 8th grade division, and is also looking to form a fifth-grade girls team, responding to interest from the sister of one of his current players.
The biggest challenge facing the group, and a potential constraint on future growth, is the lack of dedicated practice space, part of what Harris says is a broader lack of indoor community space available in the neighborhood. A warm autumn meant that the group could use courts in Riverside Park well into November, but as temperatures have dropped, the Aviators have moved into gym facilities in a residential building in the neighborhood where one of the players lives. Harris is working on a couple of possible options for practice space going forward.
Youth sports organizations like West Side Soccer League and West Side Little League are established institutions serving hundreds of kids. But all these organizations have their own origin stories. As for the Metro Theater, the Alamo Drafthouse plans to open a dinner theater at that location. Community organizing appears to have paid off double in this case, with a new neighborhood basketball program as an extra bonus.