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When “Hoops in the Hood” Became “Hoops in the House”

When Covid-19 came to Chicago, Hoops in the Hood, LISC's long-running basketball-community-building-and-safety program, morphed into the perfect antidote for quarantine stress and boredom. Now, hundreds of kids and their parents across the city are staying active, and logging their exercise minutes, in a true Chicago-style competition between neighborhoods.

Hoops in the Hood, a program LISC has supported in Chicago for 14 years, is about as good an example of the transformative potential of basketball as you can get.

Every year, LISC collaborates with 17 neighborhood-based organizations to host summer leagues that engages more than 30,000 youth and community members. Games are often played in places known to be crime hotspots, but when Hoops is up and running, there’s no violence.

“These blocks become sacred ground,” said Alex Anaya, head coach and executive director of ABC Pilsen, a youth development organization he founded as part of his personal quest to teach his children basketball skills and lift up the neighborhood (the ABC stands for Academics Basketball Community). Anaya grew up playing basketball in Pilsen “when crime was everywhere. I saw things no child should ever see.” Through Hoops, he says, kids build positive relationships, make peace with youth from “rival” neighborhoods and build valuable skills. “We haven’t even seen a shoving match.” Hundreds of residents and fans attend the end-of-summer championship games that are played, literally, on the streets of their neighborhoods.

And then, when plans for the 2020 summer season were well underway, the pandemic arrived.

The organizers of Hoops in the Hood knew they had to pivot quickly, to promote a different kind of safety, and to find a way to engage neighborhood kids who were suddenly stuck at home, indefinitely. The upshot? Hoops in the House, a city-wide exercise and community-building challenge that has brought the program’s benefits straight into Chicago homes.

“If you can get kids to be active in positive ways and building community, that’s the best use of funds we know of.”
— Meghan Harte, executive director of LISC Chicago

“Chicago is a huge sports town and we like to be competitive,” says Meghan Harte, LISC Chicago’s executive director and a youth basketball coach who came up with the idea for Hoops in the House (though credit for the title goes to Julian Sanchez, a LISC consultant who helps manage Hoops in the Hood). So it was only natural to structure Hoops in the House as a competition that has gotten hundreds of participants to log their exercise hours, post them online and contribute to a growing pool of hours for each neighborhood-based league. The organization with the highest number of exercise minutes when the lockdown ends, likely sometime in June, will get $2000.

One of the biggest challenges for the community-based partners who run Hoops leagues has been making contact with families who normally interact with their organizations in person. “In a lot of cases, our partners don’t have a way to access the kids,” says Harte. “The family may have a phone one month, but not the next. This experience is really building the muscle in our partners of how to think differently about engagement and lean in and use technology when they can.”

In spite of the obstacles, the program has taken off, and the community groups have rallied both kids and adults to log their exercise minutes and post their workouts on social media. To motivate and guide kids at home, with limited space, coaches post skill-building videos. Alex Anaya, for one, teamed up with his son to tape a series of ball-handling segments at an empty neighborhood court. Even Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot and a few sports and luminaries have even stepped in to offer virtual workouts, including NY Giants’ Garrett Dickerson, who lives in Chicago during the off season. Hoops has also shared videos from the Jr NBA at Home, featuring NBA staff and players, to encourage kids to keep developing their moves.

As motivating as the prize money and gift cards may be, the real payoff, says Vince Carter, the executive director of Project Education Plus (PEP), a veteran youth development organization in the Cabrini neighborhood and home to the Chicago Demons traveling basketball league, is the growing sense of community and connection, and the incentive to keep exercising until the shut-down is over.

For Carter, whose league is neck in neck with ABC Pilsen in exercise minutes logged, part of the beauty of the program is that it’s gotten parents up and moving, too. A group of mothers who call themselves the Chicago Demon Divas is clocking exercise minutes and posting their routine on social media. “There’s been a groundswell of activity,” said Carter, who challenged PEP’s participants to ramp up their activity over Memorial Day weekend in a push to beat Pilsen’s score. “They’re not just hoopin’ in the house. A lot of parents put up courts in the backyard and alley. They’re doing whatever they can to keep the family active. It really took off.”

In addition to motivating kids to stay physically active and tackling the big boredom factor of sheltering in place, the organizers also recognize how the Hoops in the House has profound mental health benefits. “It’s helping kids keep focusing on good things,” says Anaya. “Depression and mental illness can creep up on you, but staying active helps keep your mind active. It can keep some of those negative thoughts away.”

In addition to LISC’s support (backed by State Farm, a longtime partner of Hoops in the Hood), Hoops in the House caught the attention of the One Chicago Foundation and People’s Gas, both of which have contributed to the program.

But Hoops in both the Hood and the House, notes Harte, need continuous investment to do their work. “This is just one more example of how important these programs are, and that youth engagement needs to be funded robustly, and funded year-round. The attraction to negativity activity will always be there, and if you can get kids to be active in positive ways and building community, that’s the best use of funds we know of. If we can create it, they will come.”

To see Hoops in the Hood—and its extraordinary impact—in action, watch this video.