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Zaire Johnson is laser-focused. Feet planted just short of the three-point line, he clutches the ball and steals a glance at the bench before making a break for the basket. He dribbles with his right hand, using his stocky frame to push past the outstretched arms of defenders before floating the ball up and in off the backboard.

“That’s the way, Zaire, just like we talked about,” yells his coach Tony Lee, a sergeant at the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department.

Watching from the sidelines is an unlikely group, composed of police officers — some in uniform, some not — parents, and eager kids, most hailing from Roxbury.

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John Jackson, administrative coordinator at the Tobin Center and recurring coach in the league, instructed his players during a break.
John Jackson, administrative coordinator at the Tobin Center and recurring coach in the league, instructed his players during a break.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

They gather here, at Roxbury’s Tobin Community Center, every Tuesday and Wednesday as part of a new youth basketball league hosted by local law enforcement agencies in an effort to “bridge the gap” between historically disenfranchised communities and police.

“We know that there is distrust in some of these communities with everything that’s been going on the last couple of years,” said Anthony Dear, a State Police lieutenant who hatched the idea with Lee a few months ago. “They just need an opportunity, a chance to see that we’re like them in that we’re human.”

The league, now in its sixth week, is a collaboration between the State Police, Boston police, and the sheriff’s department, and has so far hosted around 150 kids. The idea, Dear said from the sidelines Wednesday, is to introduce kids to police officers at a young age and create positive first impressions and relationships.

At each game, officers stop by to engage with the kids, watching the action and chatting with parents. Some have shown up every week, Dear said, fist-bumping kids as they run off the court and cheering as they play.

“Every game, I encourage the kids to go introduce themselves and meet a new officer,” says Lee, who grew up playing basketball at the Tobin Center. “And the same with the law enforcement officers. They have to engage and communicate with the kids. And that right there is strengthening the relationship.”

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The players range in age from 10 to 15, and are divided into 12 different teams which are split up among three age divisions. They’ll continue playing for four more weeks, pivoting to after-school games after Labor Day.

The competition is friendly, but can be fierce, with skilled players vying to beat out rivals they’ve identified over the weeks.

Johnson, for instance, has struck up a friendship with Josh Harris, 10, of Wellesley. They play on opposing teams, guarding each other with extra care and lunging to steal the ball when the opportunity is right.

“It’s a lot of fun,” says Johnson, who is 12. “It’s given me the opportunity to meet people I wouldn’t normally meet and play basketball. And it’s competitive.”

Zaire Johnson,12, (left) went for a layup against his friend Josh Harris, 10, from Wellesley during warmups.
Zaire Johnson,12, (left) went for a layup against his friend Josh Harris, 10, from Wellesley during warmups. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Many of the players, like Johnson, are from Roxbury, but others come from around the city to compete. A few are driven in from suburbs like Needham and Wellesley.

The league undeniably navigates a complicated dynamic. And that, Lee says, is the point. He and Dear came up with the idea when thinking about ways to connect with disenfranchised communities in the wake of rising tensions with police.

So far, they say, it’s worked.

“The kids look forward to it every week,” said John Jackson, the Tobin Center’s administrative coordinator and recurring coach in the league. “They were a little hesitant at first, but once they got used to the officers, got to know them a little bit, they relaxed.”

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“Now it feels like nothing is different,” said Osa Idada, 15. “They’ve been really cool, giving out snacks and water. We’re just playing and it’s cool to know some of them.”

The program has been particularly popular among parents, Dear said. For them, it’s a safe opportunity to introduce their kids to police. The price tag is appealing too.

“Getting them out of the house for free to somewhere they know is safe, that’s really attractive,” said Claude Defay, a Boston police officer whose son plays in the league.

Lino Sanchez sat in the stands Wednesday, watching closely as the players he brought to the league from the Epiphany School, a Dorchester institution for economically disadvantaged families, competed. The league works well at forming connections with police, he said, because basketball is “speaking the kids’ language.”

“When you bring sports or when you bring basketball to anything, that sort of kills all the other stuff,” said Sanchez, the athletic director at the Epiphany School. “This is such a universal sport. To the kids, nothing else matters.”

Players from both teams congratulated one another at the end of the game.
Players from both teams congratulated one another at the end of the game. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff



Andrew Brinker can be reached at andrew.brinker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewnbrinker.