In March, Bostonians watched with pride as Mission Hill native Shabazz Napier led his University of Connecticut Huskies to the NCAA men’s college basketball championship, while earning MVP honors. Amid the hoopla, Napier confided to reporters that he regularly goes to bed “starving” while at school, and thus became the face of a broader conversation about whether student athletes should be compensated for the millions of dollars they bring into their universities.
Napier isn’t going to be hungry much longer, as he prepares for a lucrative career in the National Basketball Association. But his comments helped feed the longstanding debate about those student athletes who won’t ever make the NBA, and whether inner-city kids are pursuing a false promise. After all, only three out of 10,000 high school basketball players will make it to the NBA, according to research provided by the NCAA. The grim statistical reality serves to encourage teachers, parents, and community leaders to dissuade young people from pursuing what they see as a quixotic quest.
It shouldn’t. As distant a goal as it may appear to become a professional basketball player, the positive effect that it has on the wider community is impossible to ignore. While no teenager should expect an easy pathway into professional sports, the mere attempt keeps kids out of trouble, brings pride to communities, and has the power to draw disparate people together.
Mission Hill isn’t a large neighborhood; it has less than half the residents of Jamaica Plain. The Alice Taylor Apartments complex is a mid-sized public housing development that sits just behind Northeastern University’s west campus. It’s where Napier grew up. But he’s not the first soon-to-be NBA draftee to come from there.
An astonishing nine NBA players come from this single block of housing, including Wayne Turner, Will Blalock, and the WNBA’s Sheylani Peddy. Since the early 1960s, on average, every five or six years, a new player emerges from the Alice Taylor Apartments to play professional basketball. This unprecedented concentration of talent caught the attention of filmmaker Brian Culkin, who is now in final production of a documentary called “The Mission,” which tells the story of how this small community sent so many of its kids to play professional basketball.
His film traces the development of Northern cities and the strains that poverty, racism, and growing up in public housing brought to struggling families. In focusing on Mission Hill, he shows how the neighborhood’s support for a succession of talented players not only boosted those individuals, but the community itself. It gives special attention to the volunteers who helped the kids on the way up the ladder — coaches such as John Jackson, Chuck Davis, and Franny Ward, who beam with pride as they talk about the kids who made it.
Boston’s post-busing decades were a time of racial division and tumult, but in Mission Hill, neighborhood basketball games helped keep the peace. Maryanne O’Keefe, a longtime resident who was driven out of the neighborhood by rising rents, remembers how the entire community would assemble at the park on top of the hill or at the Tobin Community Center to watch their kids play. Her son Donny played alongside some of the best players around and, like many of them, he wound up converting his love of the game into a college scholarship. While it might have been unheard of at the time, O’Keefe recalls his teammates — black, white, Latino — as his brothers, sleeping over at his house and hanging out on the corner.
Mission Hill, like almost every other neighborhood in Boston, is different today. It’s better in many ways, but missing some of the community fabric that kept together a unique pipeline of talent. Trying to fill the void is Boston Scholar Athletes, which funds athletic programs but also learning centers called “zones” now in 19 public schools in Boston. Suffolk Construction CEO John Fish has given $5 million to the program. In four years, he’s already seeing results. His scholar athletes have achieved a 200-point increase in their SATs and are reaching graduation rates of 93 percent.
When Shabazz Napier gets drafted by the NBA next month, he won’t be alone. His victory will be shared by his family, friends, and coaches. And by Mission Hill itself. His success is part of a larger mission that needs to continue.