Jeremiah Peoples was alone in the fast break with the energy of the crowd urging him to the rim. “Finish your breakfast!” the announcer boomed into the microphone. Mr. Peoples, a lanky 18-year-old, imbued with authority.
It was opening day of Grenada Built to Win, the summer basketball league at Edenwald Houses in the Bronx, and there was little room to move. Spectators pressed against the fence around the court as music played from a DJ booth and jerk chicken smoked over a fire.
After painting the asphalt overnight and holding a clinic in the morning, the league’s founder, Rasheem Jenkins, known as “Rah Rah,” announced the games in the afternoon with verve and humor. “In and out like a relationship,” he teased as the ball spun off the rim.
The league, which began its 11th season this June, is the realization of a dream he has nurtured since he was one of the neighborhood kids.
Mr. Jenkins, 34, grew up in Edenwald, the largest public housing complex in the Bronx, in an apartment overlooking the courthouse that will eventually house Grenada Built to Win. Then, weeds grew out of cracks in the tarp and the poles at each baseline had no backboards or edges.
So Mr. Jenkins and his friend Vance Callahan played basketball on the paths between buildings, using trash cans as hoops. Later, they snuck behind John Philip Sousa Junior High School, a short walk across Baychester Avenue, to play on its courts after dark.
The two were “out there every night, no lights,” said Mr. Callahan, the league’s program director, who coached and kept score on opening day.
Sometimes, patrolling police officers caught them. But the officers’ behavior changed after they saw a basketball tucked under their arms, Mr. Jenkins said, and they sometimes watched them play from the street.
Basketball, Mr. Jenkins added, “gave me an escape from the reality of the projects.”
Mr. Jenkins went on to play in high school and college, scoring 2,146 points at Wings Academy in the Bronx and winning a borough championship before attending Florida A&M, where he played point guard. He completed a master’s degree in educational leadership in 2012 and returned to the metropolitan area, splitting time between Edenwald and New Jersey.
As he trained and coached basketball players in programs across the city, Mr. Jenkins noticed that there were few activities available to the children and teenagers who lived in Edenwald — a problem, he believed, that contributed to the neighborhood’s high crime rate. In 2012, the 47th Police Precinct in the northeast Bronx, which includes Edenwald, recorded 2,127 major felony offenses, the 10th most in the city.
The next year, Mr. Jenkins reconnected with Mr. Callahan, who was also back in the Bronx. “I saw a lot of the same things I saw before I left for college,” said Mr. Callahan, 32, who works as a paraprofessional in a public school. “The violence. The drugs. It was bad.”
The two men agreed, Mr. Jenkins said: “We had to give the kids more opportunities.” They started with basketball.
By that time, backboards and borders had been installed on the abandoned courts of their childhood. Mr. Jenkins and Mr. Callahan printed flyers, gave the court the first of many fresh coats of paint and, for the first three weekends that August, held morning clinics and evening games in a tournament called the Grenada Black Top Classic. — named after Grenada Place, the street that runs alongside the housing project. It was an instant success.
In 2015, he and Mr. Callahan expanded the tournament into a 10-week summer league, and they renamed it Grenada Built to Win. They expect about 300 players this season.
The program is free for players, who are mostly boys from elementary school to high school (some years, including this one, have included girls’ divisions). The costs — for basketballs, uniforms, food and DJs, Monsignor Scanlan High School athletic trainers and an insurance plan — fall primarily on Mr. Jenkins, who owns a trucking company. Volunteers raise money and spread the word on social networks; this season, 22 workers paid by the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program will come on board to run the game clock, keep score and clean up. Voluntary funding from the office of Councilman Kevin C. Riley, whose district includes Edenwald, also helped.
Even as the league has flourished — Mr. Jenkins registered it as a nonprofit in 2018, and paired basketball with mentorship programs at local public schools to offer academic, athletic and emotional support to young people — crime rates in Edenwald are about the same as they were a decade ago, according to data from Police Service Area 8, which patrols public housing in the 43rd, 45th and 47th Precincts in the Bronx.
However, Mr Jenkins and Mr Callahan believe the weekend games have made a difference in the lives of the hundreds of children who have participated in the league over the years.
“For a lot of them, it’s home,” Mr. Jenkins said.
Shannon Cohen, an eighth grader who lives in Edenwald, was totally on board with the program. “Basketball can keep you out of trouble,” he said. This is his fourth year playing in Grenada Built to Win. “It made me stronger as a person,” he added. “I didn’t trust my game, but they encouraged me to play.”
The core of Mr. Jenkins’ ambition lies in addressing something often unspoken. “We all have traumas from the projects,” he said. Grenada Built to Win’s goal is to “correct some of that trauma.”
“Edenwald has this bad reputation,” said Stacie Clement, assistant principal at PS 112, a nearby elementary school. “I try to teach my children, my boys and girls: Don’t let that stop you from pursuing your dreams.”
Ms. Clement met Mr. Jenkins about a decade ago through Councilor Riley. Mr. Jenkins needed a gym for Grenada Built to Win clinics, and Ms. Clement offered PS 112 on the condition that her students could join.
“As soon as I find out that some of my boys are interested in basketball, I contact Rah,” she said. “If I find that one of my boys needs a male figure in their life that I can’t provide, I reach out to Rah and say, ‘Rah, I have this one kid, can you come and talk to him?'” Never there was a time Rah ever told me no.”
Councilor Riley said in an interview that the league offered an alternative path for young people. “We have to make sure our kids don’t have any wasted time,” he said. “Instead of feeling, ‘Hey, I have to join this gang,'” he said, the neighborhood kids can join “something that’s positive.”
The court, once neglected, became a source of life for Edenwald. Old friends connect on the sidelines as residents gather to watch the games over a hamburger or a plate of chicken and coconut rice.
Robin Gomez, 65, who has lived in Edenwald for 45 years, said she enjoys watching the games in the summer. She added that she wished something like Grenade Built to Win had been available to her sons when they were growing up.
Michelle Leggett lived in Edenwald in the 1970s and 80s and still visits almost every weekend to attend church and visit relatives. She said she noticed that “the young people help
the seniors now,” including with grocery trips.
“I notice that everyone has gathered; they have their little cookouts there, they enjoy the basketball tournaments,” Ms. Leggett, 60, said. “I saw the community change for the good.”