Standing on the sideline of the court, dressed in his uniform and equipped for duty, Officer Justin Anthony gave directions to his team. They were down by one with just over six seconds on the clock. Their opponents were preparing to shoot a free throw. The threat of losing their first game was unnerving.
For most basketball teams, the fight for a winning season comes after several months of team practice. For Community Outreach Unit Officer Anthony’s team, it came after a mere month of organized practice, and a lot of “street ball.” The team, made up of 9th and 10th grade boys, was through the Columbia Youth Basketball Association (CYBA). The association paid for the team and the players were sponsored by the Downtown Optimist Club. A majority of the boys on the team had never played in an organized sport before.
“I met some of the kids while patrolling Douglass Park,” said Anthony. “At first some of them were leery of me being a police officer and all, but we’d shoot hoops together and eventually they came around.”
Anthony made a name for himself as the officer that enjoyed playing basketball with the kids. He was approached by CYBA at the end of 2016 with the idea of coaching a team. He graciously agreed. Anthony recruited youth he’d played with at Douglass Park, as well as youth from the North and East Strategic Neighborhoods. Some of the boys had never met before, while others were friends.
“One of the players…told me he had found a basketball team and I was like ‘I want to play,” said Deangelo Washington, 16. “He gave me Coach’s number and I texted Justin. I came to [the] first practice. That weekend I started in that game. I came to like one practice and I started the next game.”
Washington said it was at that game he first found out “Coach” was also a Columbia Police officer.
“Growing up, I use to think police was only here to throw people in jail,” said Washington. “[Officer Anthony] made me feel like people got faith in me.”
Their practices began in January. By the end of the month, the team played their first game. Unfamiliar with playing the game outside of “street ball,” the team struggled with passing and working together. After a few time-outs and a motivating speech from “Coach,” the team dominated the Court and won their first game.
Game after game, the winning streak continued.
“I felt like we was doing something,” said Washington.
But it wasn’t all fun and games for the players. For some of the boys, they struggled with academics.
“I requested they all show me their report cards,” said Anthony. “Some of them weren’t so good, so I got tutoring arranged for them to help get their grades up.”
If grades weren’t enough, Officer Anthony also worked with the Columbia Parks and Recreation CARE Program and located summer jobs for some of the boys on the team.
“I didn’t just want to coach these boys in basketball, I want to be a mentor – help them build their confidence and show them people care about them,” said Anthony.
Player Gquan Jennings, 15, said his academic standing had prevented him from being able to play for the high school team.
“I feel like I’m ready to play for high school because [Officer Anthony] gave me that impact to play,” said Jennings. “I [am] getting more comfortable playing for the team and playing for anybody else.”
The score was 58-59. As Anthony’s team watched the basketball descend from the opposing team player’s hands for the free throw, dismal silence filled the room. The ball bounced off the backboard and into the hands of Jennings. With seconds ticking away, Jennings ran the ball down the Court. As the buzzer sounded, giving it everything he’s had, Jennings shot the ball towards the net.
“Oh my God,” said Jennings, as the ball made a perfect dive into the net. The crowd erupted. The celebration was thunderous. The team was undefeated.
Since going undefeated in March, the team reunited on the Court this summer. In June the team took third place overall in the cPhaseSports/Mid America Youth Basketball Classic. They then returned to their stomping grounds at Douglass Park and competed in the City of Columbia Moonlight Hoops League where they reclaimed their undefeated title.
Although several of the boys have told Anthony they plan to try out for their high school team this year, they say they will continue to play for Anthony as long as resources allow them to compete.
“Hopefully someone else will offer us to play for another tournament,” Jennings said with a grin. But no matter where or who he might play for next, one thing’s certain – “Coach” Officer Anthony has left some big shoes to fill.
“He impacts my life. I look up to him…I don’t think of him as police, I just think of him as a regular person,” said Jennings. “I don’t think a coach will make me more happy than him.”