Courtesy Cleveland Cavaliers
Members of the victorious Team 3 pose with their championship trophy alongside City of Cleveland and Cavs leaders.
Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb, Cavs CEO Nic Barlage and President of Basketball Operations Koby Altman all sat courtside at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse Monday night for a riveting championship game in the Hoops After Dark program.
In late June, young men aged 18-26 tried out for the program, a six-week, tournament-style basketball league that doubled as a violence mitigation strategy from City Hall. It was a resurrection and twist on what used to be known as the Midnight Basketball program and a brainchild of both Mayor Bibb and his chief of youth and family success, Sonya Pryor-Jones. In total, 112 men participated.
Embraced by the Cavs and framed by both parties as a hugely successful pilot year, the program culminated in Monday night's game, which was emceed by Cavs in-game announcer Ahmaad Crump. DJ Chosen, the Cleveland Charge house DJ, provided the soundtrack. Teams 3 and 5 provided 40 minutes of hard-nosed basketball.
Families and friends of the players, community members, and elected leaders, including city council members Stephanie Howse and Richard Starr, were also in attendance.
Team 3, coached by Melvin Burke, ultimately prevailed over Team 5, coached by Mikki Smith. The score was tied at halftime and both squads ratcheted up the defensive intensity in the second half, leading to a thrilling finale.
The trio of Makail Cottingham, King Goss and Marcus Vazquez, on the victorious Team 3, led the offensive assault down the stretch. With two minutes remaining, Cottingham caught a pass on the perimeter and, with his defender out of position, drove hard to the bucket for a layup to take the lead.
On Team 3's next possession, after a pivotal defensive stop, Cottingham drove again, but dished to a lurking Vazquez, who converted an easy layup and put Team 3 up by four points with a minute and change on the clock.
Emboldened by the lead, Team 3's defense tightened the screws and forced a costly turnover. The lengthy King Goss sprinted out in transition and caught a crosscourt pass in stride, sailing to the hoop for a breakaway dunk that sealed the victory and instantly became the game's most electric moment.
Bibb and Altman, sitting courtside, were beside themselves. Both had been active observers of the game and regularly applauded highlight reel plays or high-effort possessions from both teams. Alongside Barlage and Pryor-Jones, they presented a trophy to the champs and awards for players' off-court accomplishments in a brief ceremony following the game.
In remarks, Bibb praised the young men for their on-court hustle and their committed participation in the fledgling program. He said it was destined for growth and success in subsequent years. Barlage piggybacked and said the Cavs would continue to use basketball as "a platform to create change."
Key to the Hoops After Dark program was not only basketball but "life skills workshops." Before every game in the tournament — hosted at Cudell Recreation Center on the west side and Zelma George Recreation Center on the east side — players were required to attend these workshops, which featured visiting speakers and content around job preparation, financial literacy, safety and other topics.
Donald Hughes, 20, wasn't suiting up for the championship game. The 6'5" forward swatted away a critical shot in the final moments of his semifinal match, but his team (Team 2) turned it over on the final possession and lost by one point, narrowly missing the finals. But Hughes was in attendance for the final and spoke with Scene before tip-off about the merits of the program.
"I heard about the tryouts on Instagram," Hughes said, "and at first, I just thought it was another chance to hoop. I didn't know about the workshops or anything. And I was nonchalant about it at first, but they were really pushing us towards careers."
Hughes, who played basketball for a year at Notre Dame College, said he was taking a year off to focus on entrepreneurial opportunities (including videography and tattoo artistry), and said he viewed the workshops as important networking opportunities. He said local companies like Sherwin-Williams and University Hospitals accepted resumes from the players, and in some cases were offering jobs on the spot.
Hughes said the engagement of his teammates, both on the court and in the workshops, was encouraging.
"I was surprised to meet so many people on a certain mental level, people like me," he said. "Being in this area, you don't meet a lot of like-minded people who are interested in going further. I wasn't coming here for a job, but a lot of people I know could use opportunities like that. And I think it's dope."
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