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Decky Lawson (above right and following pages) right at home on the courts with the kids of the South End.

photos: Alicia Solsman

Off the Streets
By David King

Part 2 of a series looking at programs in Albany that are trying to provide gang alternatives

Bring it to the kids

Decky Lawson is there for the youth of Albany’s South End, but are the politicians there for him?

On Aug. 13, Albany County District Attorney David Soares held what was planned to be the first in a series of Bring It to the Court basketball tournaments in Albany’s Hoffman Park. The tournament was designed to get kids who may have feuds with kids in other parts of town to come together on common ground.

That morning, politicians flocked to Hoffman Park for photo ops as hundreds of youths were handed colored shirts bearing the tournament’s name. By that afternoon, the politicians had left and only two of the organizers remained: two cousins, Decky Lawson and Corey Ellis. Ellis, who ran for Common Council in the Third Ward Democratic primaries, meandered through the crowd with a plastic garbage bag picking up trash, chatting with parents and handing out bottles of water to thirsty players, while Lawson juggled the roles of coach, referee and player.

For five years, Lawson has run a basketball camp at a small court in the South End that serves “8 year olds to 20-somethings.” With no community center or Boys and Girls Club court to call their own, the kids of the South End have come to play with Lawson, even though the public court on South Pearl Street is small and poorly maintained.

They play despite cracked asphalt, and a court that isn’t full-sized. They play in white T-shirts instead of neatly pressed uniforms. They play despite toddlers who run with abandon across the court to the orange tubes and slides next to it and sit on the edges of the court spilling Cheeze-Its onto the asphalt as they eagerly try to balance stacks of crackers on their orange-coated tongues. They play despite the shootings and gang violence that go on up and down the streets of the community. They play despite Mother Nature herself. “These kids have been out here with shovels in the winter,” says Lawson.

“Drive through the South End,” says Councilwoman Carolyn McLaughlin (Ward 2), “and you see young people standing on the corner. It’s because they’ve got nowhere else to go.”

The kids are usually at the court before Lawson himself. In the smoldering heat of a July day, a group of seven teens in sweat-soaked white T-shirts run drills, passing the ball back and forth. They smirk as Lawson pulls his black SUV into the parking lot. “Deckeee!” they shout as they saunter up to greet him. Handshakes and slaps are exchanged and then Lawson says, “Let’s run some drills.” The teens group up and start taking shots. A man drives past with all his windows down and shouts “Yo, Deck!” After Lawson has been at the court for only minutes, the calls of “Deckeee!” and “Yo, Deck!” shouted from passing cars and pedestrians become a common refrain. Decky Lawson has lots of friends.

“It’s a family thing,” says Ellis. “Kids just see the gentleness in him. He gets it from my grandfather. All the kids would flock to him.”

For five years Lawson has made calls, paid for tournament entry fees, driven to tournaments in other states, provided food and kept an eye on the kids of the South End. He’s done it not only without a paycheck, but out of his own pocket, only occasionally getting some people to chip into to partially cover his costs.

Lawson grew up in Albany and was a star Albany High football and basketball player. He currently works at Albany High as a teacher’s assistant. He feels that sports did a world of good for him compared to “being out on the street throwing rocks at cars” when he was a kid.

The kids he works with generally agree that if they didn’t have anything better to do, they would be throwing rocks, too. There is a mantra among his kids: “We’re always bored. We got nothing else to do.”

On an oppressively hot day in late July, Lawson waits at the court with a couple of his teens. “A lot of kids are starting school sports,” he explains. “Others are out of town.”

Nevertheless, Lawson is there with the kids who have nowhere else to go. Quickly it becomes two on one—the teens versus Lawson. Lawson smiles, dribbles forward and leans his shoulder into a teen who lets a smile slip and then quickly contorts it into a scowl. Then he leans right back. The teen looks like a toothpick leaning against a redwood. Lawson dodges forward and the teen quickly swats the ball from under Lawson’s dribbling hands. Lawson chuckles as the other teen grabs the ball and drives towards the hoop. Lawson leaps up in front of the teen, lunging to block the shot. The teen fakes and then releases as Lawson’s hands sink out of the way. The shot is good and Lawson laughs to himself, “Just a little bit rusty.”

Besides organizing tournaments and coaching kids, Lawson deals with the problems he thinks Albany’s politicians have largely ignored.

“This territorial stuff is a problem,” says Lawson. “Tomorrow one of my teams is going uptown, but I know these kids are not involved in gangs. Others of my kids I can’t bring into those neighborhoods. I’m willing to do anything for the sake of the kids, but I have to find somebody they know and trust. I don’t want to make them a political thing.”

Lawson insists that some of the feuds between the South End and uptown may have a lot to do with the South End’s lack of a gathering space which they can call their own. “If these kids want to play a game, they got to go to somebody else’s courts. They don’t have something to be proud of.”

It has become clear to many in the area, including Lawson, that the phrase “gang prevention” is used to talk about providing the city’s black youth with the support structures that should be available to them in the first place. McLaughlin points to her eight-year struggle to get a community center in the South End and wonders why it has been such a problem. “I don’t understand why it has been so easy to get funding for the North Albany YMCA. Why can’t a program like that happen in the South End?”

Soares thinks Lawson is dead on. “He is 100 percent right. It is incredible that in this community the people we invest in the least in terms of resources are kids. You can drive down any one of these streets in Albany. Look at the sheer number of kids playing on the street. The communities hardest hit by crime are the ones with the least resources to invest in the youth. Unfortunately, we continue to lose these young kids to gangs, and, you know, the number of kids we are prosecuting—these are not 25- or 26-year-old men and women; they are 17- and 16-year-old teens, and those are the ones we’re seeing in criminal court.”

Both Lawson and Soares think politicians and residents alike should see the shape that some of the areas of the city are in. “Pick a street. Throw your finger on a map,” suggets Soares. “Whether it’s Arbor Hill, Park South, or the South End, and just walk it from the beginning and stop and count the number of kids and what they are doing. I think about the route I take to work every day and wonder how many people come into Albany the same way. How many people are actually driving through the city of Albany and seeing what it is that’s out there?”

McLaughlin says that her push for a community center has been marked with frustration. “Maybe we’ll have to go get advice from members of the Polish-American or Italian-American community centers and find out how they got funding,” she says.

Lately, thanks to his cousin’s connections to the district attorney (Ellis was a campaign manager for Soares), Lawson has been getting some of the support and opportunities that have been missing heretofore. Still, the attention isn’t exactly something Lawson is at peace with.

“All these people are jumping on the bandwagon now. I’ve been around; why didn’t they ask me then? Now they see how many kids I get. Parents are asking why these people are jumping on the bandwagon now. I have to go to these meetings and figure out, are they sincere? Are they going to come downtown and talk to kids?”

Ellis realizes that the respect that kids have for Lawson is what is important. “David and I have had the discussion about how to help the community, and we realize that you can have the centers, but we have to have people in these centers who kids respect and kids look up to.”

Lawson insists that a community center is essential to getting the kids of the South End off the street. However, he does not want to be taken away from his kids. He worries that politicians will appoint people who don’t know the neighborhood and the kids to run the center.

Ellis notes that there is definitely a push to construct a community center in the South End and insists, “I would advocate for him to be a part of it. There is no way I would allow for him not to be included without standing up. He draws a hundred kids, because they see him as a leader in the community.”

The first Bring It to the Courts tournament was meant to function as a warm-up event for a series of DA-office sponsored tournaments, to assign the hundreds of players to the proper age groups and skill brackets.

After the first tournament’s success, Lawson was hopeful but still wary. “I know the campaigns are going on and I didn’t want them to jump into this just because of that. If they are gonna do this I wanna make them do this all the time. I met with David Soares and I expressed to them I didn’t want this to be one time. I wanted this to be all the time cause we are down here all the time.”

“They asked me to set a date” for the next tournament, he says. “I didn’t want to make it too far off, ’cause the weather might start to get bad in the fall.” Lawson chose Sept. 10, a month from the first tournament, let Ellis and Soares know, and says as far as he knew, the tournament was on.

It didn’t take much to get the players interested in the event. According to Lawson, during the week before, masses of kids showed up at Hoffman Park, some out of habit, some in hopes that the tournament was happening.

But as the date approached, and the political season started heating up, Lawson began to worry when his calls weren’t returned by Ellis and tournament organizers. When asked the week before if the tournament would take place, Soares spokesman Richard Arthur made a sound like a wounded animal and asked, “Doesn’t he know it is primary week?”

With or without support from the DA’s office, Lawson was determined the tournament would go on. “I can’t do that to the kids. I can’t let them down. How is it gonna look if I tell them it is gonna happen and it doesn’t?” The official word from Arthur came the Friday before the tournament: The DA’s office would not be affiliated with whatever tournament was taking place that weekend.

On the morning of the 10th, the Hoffman courts were packed with youth from all over Albany. The only politician in sight was Common Council presidential candidate Greg Burch, who drove by waving, perched on the top of his convertible following a van with a loudspeaker that blared out “Don’t forget to vote on primary day.”

This time around, there were no perks for the kids. There weren’t many essentials, either. A barbecue was started and food was sold for a while, until it was decided to simply give it away to hungry players. However, food was of little concern to players who had to walk blocks to get a drink of water. Without politicians there were no prizes, no trophies to hoist up at the end of the day. Nevertheless, the courts were full again with hundreds of kids.

It still isn’t quite clear where the mix-up came in the plans for the September Bring It to the Courts tournament. Ellis thought there would be one up until a week before the date. Soares and Ellis will not directly address what happened to their involvement in it.

That doesn’t mean Soares has given up on basketball tournaments, or working with Lawson. He is happy the first tournament was successful, and wants to do more. “I’m like a perfectionist. I’ve been criticized by my own wife. ‘Just do it!’ she says, but it takes planning.” Soares says he wants to make sure the tournament is about more than just basketball. He proposes bringing in vendors with education for kids and more events for girls.

Soares says that while he came into office with plans for community- oriented crime-prevention programs, “there was a core function in this office that needed revamping. That’s what I focused on in my first year, and we’ve done that now. It’s September already and I feel like I just got here.” Soares’ plans for the future include importing antigang programs from New York City, starting community taskforces, and most of all listening to the kids to find out what works for them.

Soares insists that people like Lawson are essential for the community because they are doing the things that politicians are not. “Absolutely, we have plans to work with Decky in the future,” says Soares. “If Decky wasn’t in the picture. . . . He brings with him carloads of kids—where would they be? They follow him like the pied piper, and if he wasn’t in the picture I’d have more traffic in my court.”

Lawson, for his part, has not heard from the DA’s office since early September. Whatever the problem was—bad planning, lack of communication or a simple mix-up—Lawson plans to continue holding tournaments in the area and has been looking for new ways to get as many kids involved as possible. However, the problem with the recent tournament certainly hasn’t done anything to strengthen his trust of politicians. “If they can help the kids get somewhere in life then I’m fine with it,” says Lawson, “but I don’t want them to promise something and when the campaign is over they forget about the kids. I’ve seen it happen time and time again, and I don’t want it to happen to my kids.”

According to Soares, there is a lack of interest in the kids of this city from politicians in general. “I’m being as honest as I possibly can here. . . . The children in this area are not a priority ’cause if they were they would have more resources. There would be more investment in what they are interested in.”

McLaughlin says she is at a point of total frustration regarding a South End community center, and wants to renew her efforts with a group of interested citizens. She echoes Soares’ sentiments, saying, “If the young people were a priority we would find a way to do this.”

It seems almost inevitable that Soares and Lawson will work together again. It comes down to a simple lesson that both Soares and Lawson are trying to teach their kids on the court: “We had the Metro Maulers [the Albany semi-pro football team] there,” Soares explains. “The purpose was to show these kids that in order to be successful, even in basketball, it requires teamwork.”

McLaughlin insists that those who want to help their communities will learn they have to work together, but they will also need a helping hand. “These are young men who have come together to try to do something positive to give back to their community and what they are learning is it is hard to get support to do that. The leaders need to step up. There has got be some creative collaboration going on to make this happen.”

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