On a steamy Saturday afternoon in New Orleans, young men begin arriving at the Apex Center.
All week long, they've been gearing up for the Blacktop Battle 3-on-3 tournament, and one by one, they gather on the outdoor basketball court. Of course, calling this uneven stretch of cracked pavement a "court" may be a bit of a stretch. There's just one hoop and a few small plastic cones and a fence topped with barbed wire marking the boundaries. By 3pm, a thunderstorm has passed, and 18 eager players crowd around the basket, shooting jumpers, attempting dunks, and yapping about their teams' chances.
In the nearby wooden bleachers sits APEX founder Lisa Fitzpatrick. "We play street ball here," she explains. "No blood, no foul." To the uninitiated, that might sound pretty rough, even dangerous. But not to this crowd. These young men hail from the surrounding streets of Center City, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in one of America's deadliest cities.
By age 15, they've witnessed more terrifying sights than most people see in a lifetime. Here in Center City, violence lurks around every corner, in every classroom, even in many homes. In fact, when they're at APEX playing ball, they're in one of the safest places they'll be all week. "One hundred percent of these kids have been directly affected by murder," Fitzpatrick says. "A friend, a relative, a family member. I'd estimate that 15 percent of the kids who come here have their own bullet scars."
Since opening APEX with her husband, Danny, in 2010, Fitzpatrick has seen more than five hundred kids come through its doors.
They're here for the meals, the music lessons, the reading rooms, the pool table, the summer camps, and the basketball. But most importantly, they're here because they know that at APEX, the gunshots and sirens and screams of their daily lives will be silenced-at least for a few hours.
Soon after the rain ends, the tournament begins. Olivia Brown, a Tulane graduate who majored in Public Health and has helped run APEX for the last five years, addresses the six teams. "Games last to fifteen points or ten minutes, whichever comes first," she says. "It's double elimination and the top two teams receive prizes." As teams JYO and 3rd 'n G flip a coin to see who'll take the ball first, Fitzpatrick recounts APEX's beginnings.
Although it officially opened in 2010, the seeds of the APEX center were planted on a September night in 2009.
Coming home from her job at a health care firm, Fitzpatrick encountered squad cars, flashing lights, and police tape up and down her block. This was nothing new. Before moving to Louisiana, the 54 year-old had worked in Los Angeles, counseling high-risk kids, gang members, and addicts. But when she got to the Big Easy, she noticed a dearth of youth services and safe activities and soon turned her house into a de facto youth center. Her plan? Work a few more years, retire, then open APEX, a community center built on the promise of "Always Pursuing Excellence."
But on her street that September night lay the bullet-riddled body of Donato Quinn, a cousin of Fitzpatrick's daughter's best friend. Lisa had met the 20 year-old a few times, but now he was just another young man killed in an act of senseless, random violence. "I shot him," the 19 year-old triggerman told homicide detectives, "and I don't know why." "That night, I knew we couldn't wait any longer," says Fitzpatrick of the decision she and Danny made. "We had to open APEX."
Two signs hang on the blue entrance door to the APEX center: "No Guns" and "No Drugs." First and foremost, the Fitzpatricks wanted to create a place where kids would feel safe, where they'd feel cared about, where someone like Ms. Lisa or Ms. Brown would ask, "How was your day?"; "How are your grades?"; "How are you feeling?" APEX also had to be an outlet where kids could blow off steam, where they could really play. "A place where we could provide competition without conflict," Fitzpatrick says.
From the outset, street ball was the biggest draw, and it was not for the timid.
Contests were heated, marked by bodies banging and tempers sometimes flaring. But the Fitzpatricks knew that these kids wouldn't respond well to too many rules, or too much structure. They also knew that keeping them on the court would give them a better chance out on the streets. Lisa had read the studies about high-risk kids and sports: Those who play regularly are far less likely to drop out of school or get arrested and are much more likely to get better grades and land jobs. Street ball at APEX might mean a bloody lip here or a bruised elbow there, but it also might help prevent these kids from becoming just another gruesome statistic. "I used to play at Shakespeare Park," says 18 year-old David Jackson, the tournament's official timekeeper. "But last year, someone got shot over who had next game. That was the last day I ever went there."
Once established, APEX quickly drew a large following. But the road to success was by no means smooth. "It was a blessing we didn't know what we were really getting into," says Lisa with a laugh. "We imagined it would be like an episode of Glee." She didn't foresee the two occasions when, standing between a pair of pugnacious boys, she got punched in the face. Or the time she had to tackle a young man and put him in a safety hold, a feat that earned her the nickname The Linebacker. "It happens," Fitzpatrick says. "But we learn from it. And I'm sure we have fewer fights in a year than any public school has in a week." And despite the growing pains, there are countless success stories. Stories Lisa and Danny witness everyday, and a few of them are right here on this very court. As the Young Greatness team deftly handles Team Glo, Lisa points to players whose lives have been changed by their time on this blacktop. Kids like Luther, the 6' 4" man-child. When he first came here at age 11, he was getting suspended from school every week and thrown out of APEX every day. He couldn't walk through a door without knocking it down. Now at 16, he's staying in school and has become a junior counselor at the APEX summer camp. There's Sham Abbott. Five years ago, he was he carrying a gun and once threw an entire basketball hoop at Lisa. Today, the 20 year-old works in sales at the Four Point Hotel and hopes to eventually start a clothing line or open a sports bar. "I always felt safe here," says Abbott, whose cousin was shot and killed just two weeks prior. "APEX helps keeps me focused. It provides the positivity I need."
Then there's David Jackson. Today, he wears a gray t-shirt, shorts and a warm smile as he keeps time on the action. But just three years ago, he was pure anger, storming out of APEX's back door, cursing, and swearing never to return. "He was angry at the world and had every right to be," says Lisa, explaining how gun violence left David's father in a wheelchair. But no matter how mad he got, David always returned to APEX, and the Fitzpatricks always welcomed him back. Gradually, he committed himself to his studies and started helping out with the youngsters at APEX. This fall, he'll be a freshman at Pearl River Community College. "He's used basketball not just to bring himself up, but to become a leader in this community," Lisa says. "He works with the kids, gives his time. He's become an amazing young man."
Despite the many tales of triumph, the Fitzpatricks still struggle to keep APEX afloat. Grants are limited, and funding often falls short. At times, APEX's hours of operation have had to be cut back. "Nothing is more dangerous for these kids than our doors being locked," explains Lisa. Last year, things got so tight that the center could only stay open two days a week, a scenario that ended in tragedy.
Lisa points to Mikey Jackson, a tall 16 year-old out on the court. He and his younger brother, Miquial, had been long-time APEX regulars, and were often inseparable as they kept watchful eyes on each other. But in May 2014, they arrived one late afternoon to find APEX closed. Several hours later, after an apparent argument on the street, a 54 year-old man began chasing the brothers and firing gun shots. Mikey took a bullet to the leg. Fourteen year-old Miquial, struck in the back of the head, wasn't so lucky. "Miquial died in Mikey's arms," says Lisa, still visibly shaken by the killing.
A month after Miquial's murder, a minor miracle arrived in the form of a $119,000 check from DICK's Sporting Goods. The Fitzpatricks had applied for a Sports Matter grant earlier that spring, and they couldn't believe it when DICK's Sporting Goods executives flew to New Orleans to personally present them with the money. Not only could the Fitzpatricks now look to repave the dilapidated blacktop, install lights and hire a basketball coach, they could also afford to keep the center open six days a week.
"The kids were all so excited," recalls Olivia Brown. "They were like, 'Somebody cares about us!'"
By six o'clock, the APEX Blacktop Battle nears its crescendo. Amidst the sweltering heat and humidity, the final game is underway, and the action is living up to its street ball reputation: fierce battles over rebounds, hard fouls in the paint. But despite the hard-nosed play, nothing gets too rough or overly personal. The thirty or so spectators, between bites of hotdogs and chips, are talking, laughing, high-fiving, and commentating - non-stop - about the game. "Put it up youngin!"; "We ain't calling no soft fouls! And that was soft!"; "Nice pass big man!"; "Lord have mercy!" From the sidelines, David Jackson checks his timer. "Two minutes left!"
Although today's tournament is nearing its end, the APEX basketball program is just getting started. Some of the Sports Matter grant has been allocated for uniforms and a coach for APEX Elites, a team of all stars founded earlier this year. Jackson is the point guard. "And the best player on the team," he says with a wide grin. Instead of street ball games at APEX, the Elites seek to compete in regular league games around the city. So far, the squad has played friendly contests at the Andrew W. Wilson Charter School and the YMCA, but finding a regular circuit might require more than just new jerseys. "I've tried to get us into the local leagues," says Lisa with a laugh, "but no one has returned my calls!"
The final game ends with the score Young Greatness 10, JYO 6. The six finalists, sweaty, exhausted and ready for the pizza that's on its way, offer congratulatory handshakes and reminisce about the best plays of the afternoon. The runners-up get cellphone accessories while the victors pocket a $25 DICK's Sporting Goods gift certificate, plus a free ride to the store. But the most valuable gift of the day is shared by everyone here at APEX; for another hour or two, none of them have to worry about a thing.