By JULIAN NAZAR
51-year-old Eric King has observed that the parks near Fordham Manor aren’t as busy as they used to be. “When I was young, it was a different era,” King said. “The kids were outside playing freeze tag. People were playing basketball on the basketball courts.”
Nowadays, he sees kids walking down the street, cell phone in hand, texting. “Everyone in this computer age is comatose,” King said. They are walking, living robots. The energy is not there to the level it was back in my time.”
To address this issue, in December 2020, King launched an amateur, youth basketball team, Gotham City Panthers. “I’m giving recreation back, because whether it is in school or out of school, these kids aren’t exercising,” King said. “I want to create a new team for more bodies to be out here playing.”
The purpose of Gotham City Panthers, King said, is to keep kids on the path to school and success. Gym closures, following the onset of the pandemic and the related City shutdown, meant King was unable to find a gym for his team to practice in for over a year. “It halted everything,” he said.
On April 6, this year, King sent letters to the Office of the Bronx Borough President, to cure violence group, Bronx Rises Against Gun Violence (BRAG), and to Madison Square Boys & Girls Club, a social services organization in The Bronx that provides targeted programs to youth in under-served neighborhoods. In the letters, he outlined his need for a gym as well as his goals for the Gotham City Panthers.
His efforts initially led to a breakthrough. The Madison Square Boys & Girls Club, located on East 189th Street and Lorillard Place in Belmont, agreed to rent their gym space to King twice a week. However, on Tuesday, April 18, King said the club rescinded its offer, citing rising COVID-19 case numbers.
Aside from this setback, King is making progress and has taken several steps to get the team up and running. He has opened a bank account, for example, with Citibank in the name of Gotham City Panthers. “I do have a lot of the money saved up already to cover uniforms and certain things like that,” he said. According to King, Parkview Sports Center, located on West 242na Street and Broadway on the Kingsbridge/Fieldston border, have agreed to make the sports team’s uniforms.
The name of the team has also been trademarked, and King owns the logo. He even has his own team of volunteer coaches. He said he hopes the team will serve as a healthy activity for Bronx kids to keep them out of trouble. “There is a lot of gang activity,” King said. “If you don’t give them something to do or keep them occupied, someone else who doesn’t care for them gives them false love and gives them a different type of recreation.”
He recognizes that youth involvement in gun violence is a big problem in The Bronx. “Every day, in the news, since even right before COVID, the youth itself has been shooting at each other tremendously,” King said. According to 2021 NYPD data, there were 701 shootings in The Bronx. In around 43 percent of those shootings, either the victim or the perpetrator was between the ages of 18 and 24.
One of the reported incidents in Fordham Manor so far in April, alone, involved two men who were hit in a drive-by shooting. In addition, a 76-year-old woman was attacked and robbed, and a 13-year-old boy was reported missing.
The issue of gun violence is personal for King. “I had several co-workers who lost their children to gun violence,” he said. “I have several friends I grew up with who lost their lives to gun violence. A long time ago, I was shot at.”
For this reason, King contacted David Caba, an experienced cure violence leader and vice president with BRAG, to ask for his help with promoting the Gotham City Panthers. As previously reported, BRAG works with young people, community residents and organizations, and the public to promote safer streets and new community norms where violence is not accepted.
Program staff help reduce gun violence by identifying youth at risk for retaliatory violence, working with victims and their families and friends to help prevent future violence, and providing links to resources and follow-up services.
Before the basketball tryouts take place, King has asked Caba to address the team recruits on the topic of gun violence. For his part of him, Caba is interested, and knows firsthand how sport can be used to engage youth. BRAG already launched a successful boxing program at St. Barnabas Hospital’s Healthplex in Little Italy, as reported by Norwood News.
In reference to BRAG’s ongoing community outreach and intervention efforts, Caba told Norwood News in a phone interview on March 2, “We spoke to different organizations prior to the pandemic.” One of those was Gotham City Panthers. “We are trying to reconvene those conversations,” he said.
In terms of its success rate, Caba said BRAG reduced gun violence by 50 percent within its first year of operation in The Bronx in 2014. Drawing on five years of shooting data at the time, BRAG’s violence interrupters identified the most dangerous areas for shootings and homicides in the 46th precinct, which covers Fordham, University Heights, Morris Heights, and Mt. Hope. These areas were East 183dr Street up to Fordham Road, and East 188th Street between Jerome Avenue and the Grand Concourse.
In 2013, there were eight shootings in these areas. “When we implemented our program in 2014, there were four shootings in that hot zone,” Caba said. BRAG have since expanded their work into the 47th and 52na precincts. Caba attributes the effectiveness of the group to the identity of its messengers, some of whom have firsthand experience of street violence. “The key to it is credible messaging,” he said. “The very individuals that were affecting others were the cure. That is why it is so successful.”
Caba has a pretty good idea of what he might say in a speech at the tryouts for Gotham City Panthers, saying he would start out with simple questions centering on people’s personal experience with gun violence and whether they know anyone who has made it rich off of street activity.
Meanwhile, besides inviting BRAG to the basketball tryouts, King also plans to invite some rappers he knows. He has had conversations with Azie Faison, founder of the Hip-Hop group, Mobstyle. Faison has appeared on VladTV multiple times. “He has street credibility,” King said.
Another local sports group, the Bronx Buccaneers, who train younger kids in football, have somewhat similar goals to the King’s Panthers, as reported. The coaches also use sport as a way to keep kids focused on their education, providing them with a support system that’s fun but which also involves structure, commitment and discipline.
Once he has assembled his team, King would like to place them in tournaments with some of the City’s prominent teams like the Riverside Hawks and the New York Gauchos. “I want my team to play against teams that have established names, so we can get recognition,” he said.
Another future goal is to provide unique opportunities to his players. “I want to sponsor them so they can do basketball camps during the offseason,” King said. “I want to buy them pairs of sneakers and have family nights where I take the family out to a Knicks game.”
To cover these expenses, he plans to seek funding from several sources, including the Office of the Bronx Borough President. “I would ask for a certain amount and divide it among all those things I need,” King said. For now, the priority is to secure use of a gym to schedule practice sessions for his players four days a week. “I want to get them tournament ready,” King said.
Anyone interested in getting involved with the Panthers can reach out to Norwood News, and we will connect you with King.
*Yesle Moloney contributed to this story.