Known for his work with rec centers, Richard West looks to re-establish his Midnight Basketball at area schools.
As I walk into this tall brick house, I am welcomed by my step-grandmother with her gleaming smile and noticeable red lipstick. Outside the frame of the door, you can hear basketball fans chanting through the TV. My nose begins to twitch, as I smell a fresh home-cooked meal. It seems to be a familiar smell of neckbones, cabbage, pinto beans, and chicken thighs. To my right and is a wooden Dallas Cowboys display board leaning against the wall. Nearby, I notice many sports items: a football, basketball, and sports trophies. Two Cowboy blankets, noticeable in size, are perfectly folded where a big blue star with white and grey outlines appears symmetrically on top.
Richard West had an athletic background, playing sports practically all his life. His mother had a tough working schedule, which caused him to be raised not just by her but by his neighbors and area rec center workers as well. West's athletic background made him the man he is today, wanting to give back to the kids as his mentors did. “Folks poured into me, and I want to pour back into other kids," West says. His work with Chattanooga rec centers addresses a problem prevalent in our society: the lack of opportunities the inner city has to get away from the streets.
“Folks poured into me, and I want to pour back into other kids,” West says.
In an article by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tiara Hayes writes about a meeting between members of the community and the city council over a mid-pandemic problem: the centers had been closed. During this meeting, former workers of the recreation department spoke up. One individual, named Jackie Daniels Simpson, who worked for over 35 years, said, “Not having the centers open is taking a toll on local youth.... Something has got to give to help these kids. Now it's gonna be us, as adults, to see about them, or the gangs are going to get them, and they're out there" (Hayes). Community members also expressed concerns about the rise in gang violence, which stemmed from the closing of the centers (Hayes). WDEF Chattanooga reported that in the spring of 2020, there were only 28 shootings, but spring of 2021--about a year after the centers closed--there were a whopping 45 (“Shootings Have”).
Pre-Covid, West poured into these kids by always finding ways to be in their lives, both reffing games and hosting extracurricular activities outside the hours the centers were open, outside the parameters of his job. West knew that the Chattanooga youth deserved more and wanted to keep them off the streets. So, he and his team created events during regular times and also events at “the odd hours of the night,” he says, essentially anything beyond 12:00 a.m. The events he helped create were movie nights; 3v3 basketball; Midnight Basketball; RBI baseball/softball; and punt, pass, and kick, which is connected to the NFL. Not only did these activities help keep kids off the streets, but they also sent kids to college. RBI baseball/softball alone has sent over 50 kids to colleges and has gained students over $4 million in scholarships over the last 15 years.
Midnight Basketball was a great creation by West and his team, although it was an idea others feared was impossible. They thought this was unachievable because Midnight Basketball would bring youth from various areas of Chattanooga that housed “gang members” into the same building. West was able to pull this off because of two key factors. The first and most important factor is because his staff loves kids. The second is his distinct discipline. Although there were not any major fights, there were disagreements that just comes with the sport. When these exceeded the limit West feels is acceptable, he kicked them out. Depending on how bad it was, he may allow them back under a condition. The individual disciplined would have to apologize not to West, but at a randomly picked time during the basketball event. These sure did get into these kids' heads to appreciate the event that they get to enjoy and to act straight.
Unfortunately, as Covid-19 started up, West and the city had to shut everything down. West had to again start from the bottom and back up, but this time with a shaky foundation because the prolonging closing of the centers created a lack of trust. The city provided year-round activities for the children of Chattanooga, most importantly affordable summer camps kids got to enjoy while their parents were at work. Again, this ended because of pandemic precautions, and too many the centers were believed to be closed way too long. This caused citizens in this neighborhood to distrust city government.
West, while speaking about the two-year closings of the centers, says, “That hurt tremendously. Since we were closed so long, parents found other revenues/avenues to put their kids in, so our number dropped and we still suffer from that now.” This is especially important since the city did not want to take a chance in making a safe populated environment. West says this could be solved, but the center's operations hours were greatly reduced, now only 10:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. These are unrealistic times for the kids because some schools do not get out till 4:00 p.m., so how could they possibly get to a center with more than an hour to enjoy, not even accounting for time to eat or do homework?
Still, West is searching for a way to overcome this by attempting to make a deal with Hamilton County to secure Howard or Brainerd to resume Midnight Basketball. West says that the main obstacle is the violence that has been happening lately, but he reiterates that during the 15 years Midnight Basketball was going on, there was not a singular major fight.
"That hurt tremendously. Since we were closed so long, parents found other revenues/avenues to put their kids in so our number dropped and we still suffer from that now.”
West says, “We cannot stop programming for the kids that want to do right because of the few that do wrong.” So, he will continue to advocate for the children who can’t speak up. He will continue to make Chattanooga's inner city a place love and opportunity.
Hayes, Tierra. “Community members express concerns about closed Chattanooga recreation centers.” Chattanooga Times Free Press, Chattanooga Times Free Press, 19 May 2021, https://www.timesfreepress.com/news/2021/may/19/community-members-express- concerns-about-clos/. Accessed 2 May 2023.
“Shootings Have Nearly Doubled in Chattanooga.” WDEF 12, 19 April 2021, https://www.wdef.com/shootings-nearly-doubled-chattanooga/. Accessed 2 May 2023.