Violence kept kids out of this Cleveland park. Now it's home to a basketball league hundreds strong
On an idyllic summer day on the courts of Jefferson Park on Cleveland's West Side, 15-year-old Caden Hill, clad in a purple basketball jersey and white t-shirt, faked out a competitor, pivoted and leaped toward the rim of the basket. The ball sailed from his fingers cleanly through the net. He grinned as a teammate clapped him on the back.
"I enjoy playing because it's just something I love to do," Hill said. "Like to keep my mind off things, and it's a real challenge to get better and better every day."
Just a few short years ago, Hill couldn’t imagine playing where he is today. A slew of gun violence incidents in recent years kept the park on West 133rd Street largely empty of residents and kids.
“It used to be a lot of fights up here. People used to get shot up here all the time," Hill said. "It was bad. People just stopped coming up here."
Hill’s brother, Christian Simpson, recalls the violence well. His family lives just a few blocks away from the park, and he said a friend of his was shot there.
"Just knowing that happened, it was hard on a lot of people because it's like, ‘Dang, this is our park, why is this happening?’" Simpson said.
After violence reached a fever pitch in 2021 with two shooting deaths in a six-month period, Ward 16 Cleveland City Councilmember Brian Kazy said he decided the park needed a time out and removed the hoops from the courts while leaders figured out next steps.
“After the second incident, residents came to me and said we need to change the park, and we need to change the perception that’s going on in the park," Kazy said.
Kazy convened a series of community meetings with neighbors and stakeholders on how to transform the park. He partnered with Impact Youth Inc., a nonprofit focusing on developing young athletes through mentorship. They ultimately landed on the idea to launch the first-ever outdoor, citywide youth basketball league in the summer of 2022.
As the league entered its second season this year, Kazy worked with his Cleveland City Council colleagues to give the league $40,000 of the city’s casino revenue funds, taxes paid to Cleveland from the JACK Casino Downtown.
It’s an issue that’s personal for Coach Richard Austin, who runs the program and grew up nearby.
"When I was growing up here... Jefferson Park was somewhere where we would come all day long," Austin said. "We would play, and we would have no worries and we never had to worry about our safety. Now in recent years, that’s kind of changed. Our goal is to get it back to how it used to be."
Austin said the youth basketball league is a great opportunity to develop young talent and minds, as well as give the kids something to do in the summer. It also teaches social skills and has helped prevent violence in the park, he said.
"The building of relationships is what I’m really, really focused on, and... from that leadership happens and now kids are protecting the park. When someone sees someone up here not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, they go up to talk to them, and they have that conversation," Austin said. "Now it’s not combative, this is collaborative."
The league is free to all Cleveland’s youth, with four divisions based on age, ranging from 8 to 22 years old. In its first year, about 125 participants signed up. This year, that number has grown to more than 400 kids like Caden Hill.
Hill's mother Lauren Corvi, who watches from the sidelines five days a week, said the league has had a big impact on her son.
"Basketball has really driven Caden to be more focused," Corvi said. "It's the only thing that's really kept him on track and his motivation for a majority of things in his life."
Hill’s brother Christian Simpson, who recently graduated high school and is running media and content creation for the league, said he sees that happen with a lot of the kids in the program.
"You can come up here and this is like an escape, almost, for some of these kids," Simpson said. "So basketball, it means everything. And it also brings them together, too, they kind of can resolve issues literally almost with just a basketball game. You can do a lot with that."
Beyond building up the next generation, Simpson said the league has had an immediate effect in eradicating violence at the park and the surrounding area where he lives.
“Everyone started to buy into the league. The more we bought into it, the more everyone else did," he said. "That’s why this year, we haven’t really had any issues with violence.”
After participation in the league has skyrocketed since its start last year, Austin said he hopes to expand the program, either to other parts of the city or through fundraising efforts to get more courts at Jefferson Park.
And with events like park cleanups and neighbor engagement, Austin said it’s not just about what happens on the court.
"We are really trying to implement like, ‘Hey, you can be good at a sport. It’s what you do, it’s not who you are,'" Austin said. "It’s just a piece of you; you got to figure out who you are at your core and what you want to do with your life.”
The Revolutionary Minds Summer League runs through August 4.