The weather had reached well into the 90’s, but Andrew Blacks was hauling cases of water and drinks along with bags of ice from his car to the Bennerson playground on West 64th Street in Amsterdam Houses. Despite the sweltering heat, Blacks said the Positive Influence basketball league would go on as usual. “The teams will definitely show up,” Blacks said. “I’ve been doing this for 18 years. I am here everyday in the summer – running, sweating, hustling – taking time off from work to run the league.”
Blacks (known in the neighborhood as “Peach”) was setting up for the string of games that would begin at 4:30 p.m. and continue until around 9:00 p.m. He makes sure that everything is in order – the teams have their uniforms, the state of the art scoreboard is set up, there are enough drinks for the players, coaches and spectators; and, that the referees show up. He’s a one-person operation.
I visited Blacks back on February in the middle of the winter and penned a piece in the West Side Spirit on Blacks’ personal story and the importance of the league to the Amsterdam Houses community. I decided, now that the league was in full swing, to see for myself how Blacks’ winter planning and preparation for the summer had worked out.
Blacks started the league in 2005 with sixty young people and a handful of teams from the neighborhood. Today, there are 81 teams and over 800 kids registered in age divisions ranging from 9-10 years old through college.
The level of play varies from good recreation players to some of the top high school and college players in the city according to Blacks. Teams travel to the West Side’s Bennerson playground from different parts of the city. The site is named for Samuel Bennerson II who created one of the first leagues in the NYCHA development in the 1960s. It underwent a $3 million renovation in 2018.
Passion for Basketball
Blacks’ own personal story, his love for the community and commitment to the young people approaches the stuff of legends. He grew up in the Fordham section of the Bronx but spent most of his time in Amsterdam Houses where much of his extended family still lives. He considers it his community. The historic public housing development, which abuts Lincoln Center (and celebrated its 75th Anniversary on July 30), consists of over 1000 apartments and 2200 residents. Eighty percent of the tenants are Black or Latino and have an average yearly income of $30,000.
Blacks has always possessed a passion for basketball and, years ago, decided to dedicate himself to helping kids in the neighborhood. He attributes much of his ambition and drive to his father who passed away five years ago.
“I know some of these kids since they were 10 years old,” Blacks emphasized. “I have watched them grow and some of them have become top NYC high school players. My main thing with the league is to keep things safe and positive. That’s why the league is called Positive Influence.” (There are also officers from the 20th Precinct on-site every evening as a precaution.)
Blacks was not in the best of moods when I arrived. “Everyone relies on me to bring out the kids and provide summer programs. The politicians come for their photo ops and congratulate me but I need more help,” Blacks lamented. “We are surrounded here by all this wealth yet I don’t get the support I need.”
Positive Influence partners with the Police Athletic League and relies on a cohort of young people from the city’s summer youth employment program (SYEP) to assist him.
Mohamed Doucoure is one of those SYEP workers. He lives in the Harlem Hospital area and began at Positive Influence three weeks ago. During the day he works part-time at a Mount Sinai Hospital site in Queens doing medical research. He will be a senior at NYU, and is studying biology with plans to become a doctor. He works evenings at Positive Influence to earn extra money to help support himself in college.
“Working with Andrew is amazing, “ he freely offered. “He’s chill about everything. We help him do whatever he needs to make the tournament run smoothly. I usually operate the score clock or work the concessions, “ he added. “It’s always a fun time when you’re here.”
“Good Level of Play”
Two teams in the under-14 years old division were getting ready to begin play – Harlem United from the Polo Grounds area of Harlem and a group representing East Side House in the South Bronx. Barry Gonzalez, who is the assistant basketball coach at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, leads several Harlem United teams. He likes the Positive Influence league. “Andrew runs a really good league,” he said. “There is a good level of play here that helps prepare our kids for the more competitive AAU youth tournaments,” he added.
Louis Torres and David Williams, dressed in their referee pinstripes, were about to get the game started. Williams has a long history with Positive Influence. He has known Blacks for years, and been with the league since its inception. He has lived his entire life in Amsterdam Houses (he’s 60 years old) and recounted that his mother was one of the original Amsterdam Houses tenants when the development opened in 1947. As a youngster he attended the Dome Project, a well-known West Side youth development program, and credited his involvement there as having made a real difference in his own life.
“I was a Dome Project kid in the 1970s,” he recalled. “They gave me an opportunity to leave the city and attend a boarding school in New England. That’s why I continue to help Andrew and referee. We need more programs like Positive Influence. It means a lot to the neighborhood. The league works on maintaining a very positive atmosphere that provides a good place for kids to be in the summer.”
As the game progressed, it was evident that the Harlem United players were stronger and faster. After a close first half, Harlem United pulled away from East Side House and walked away with a 58-45 win. You could see the joy on the faces of the Harlem United kids and disappointment on the red jersey cladded East Side House youngsters. There will be another day for them.
I asked Blacks why he keeps doing this summer after summer with all the headaches and complaints that he doesn’t get enough support from the community. Without missing a beat, he answered, “I love these kids. Many of them come from homes that don’t have a lot. Positive Influence gives them something to feel good about.”
You can tell this is a labor of love for Blacks. He exudes a palpable sense of satisfaction as he oversees what, for him, is just another summer evening at Bennerson. He would have it no other way.
“I love these kids. Many of them come from homes that don’t have a lot. Positive Influence gives them something to feel good about.” Andrew Blacks of Positive Influence basketball league