- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 11, 2002

It's the pickup game that never ends.

Whether it's midnight, 4 a.m., Christmas or Easter Sunday, the basketball never stops at the Run 'n' Shoot Athletic Center, a formerly abandoned department store in District Heights that houses 10 full courts and is open 24 hours every day of the year.

"It's heaven's playground," 21-year old art student Leo Cannon said while waiting to take on winners in the next game. "I've never seen anything like this. It's better than outside. You always have [air conditioning], you never have to worry about being too hot. There's always games going. It's not costly, either."

The complex which includes eight courts of NBA and college size, four of which have scoreboards and shot clocks, plus two high school-size courts is designed as an urban health club in an area where there are few gyms. There are no membership fees, and about half the participants pay the $8 daily rate at the door. The massive gym that features glass backboards quickly has become a mecca for local hoop worshipers that attracts some 1,000 visitors a day in summer and upwards of 1,500 in winter.

"It's wall-to-wall at night until 3, 4 in the morning," manager Gary Perkins said while taking cash at the front desk. "These are basketball junkies. Everybody's a junkie. It's somewhere to go and somewhere to play. People are going to be here. We might have had 2,000 or more people in here. New Year's, Christmas, it's busy, busy."

The courts are almost always occupied, and there usually is a wait for games starting in mid-afternoon and going well past midnight. The facility was patterned after the first Run 'n' Shoot that opened in Atlanta's inner city in 1993. The Prince George's County location opened three years ago after an old Caldor's department store was gutted. Renovations cost $4million, including $400,000 for hardwood floors.

The 113,000-square foot complex is located in the back of a strip mall just off the Capital Beltway and close to the D.C. line. In addition to hoops, there's an aerobics studio that doubles as a church on Sunday mornings, a large weight room, a day care facility, a retail store and even a barber shop. But for all its other perks including a planned physical therapy section the health club is unique because of its focus on basketball.

"It's a community of ballplayers," said Carl Farmer, 30, a financial adviser who travels from Arlington three times a week. "It's a basketball haven. For all the guys with game, that had game, that still have game, everybody is welcome. I'm 20 pounds over my playing weight, so I'm a little slower than usual, but I still play with the semipros that come in and ex-college guys."

Occasionally, celebrities work out at the sprawling gym. Maryland point guard Steve Blake drew a crowd Monday night. Houston Rockets guard Steve Francis and Washington Wizards forward Kwame Brown can be found there in the offseason. Rapper Master P has played there, as has Chamique Holdsclaw of the Washington Mystics.

But while there can be star power and the place often holds tournaments and camps, the main draw is pickup basketball. Players are seen wearing jerseys of NBA stars like Francis, Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant. Designer athletic shoes such as Air Jordans often complete the ensemble.

Cannon, who played at DuVal High School, is dressed in Steve Francis shoes, along with Houston Rockets shorts. His uncommon appearance is enhanced by cornrows culminating in a ponytail.

"It's a 15-minute ride to get here," said Cannon, who lives in Greenbelt. "But I get so excited that I usually get here in 10. I can't wait to play. I'm one of the best ones here."

Trash talk and "street-style" ball are found in games. A court monitor, who limits games to 12 minutes to ensure rapid turnover and settles any on-court disputes, regulates games. There is plenty of security, with metal detectors at the door and a uniformed officer on duty. Prince George's County policemen are given free memberships.

The neighborhood of the Atlanta club was known for drugs and prostitution before basketball helped improve the area. District Heights' problems were less severe because it is a bedroom community, but there were concerns about the graveyard shift.

"I was a little apprehensive about being open all night with the proximity to certain areas," Run 'n' Shoot general manager Bill Marlowe said. "When I went down to Atlanta, they have a lot of shift workers. That one is near the airport. Here, we have the post office, we have UPS workers, we have a lot of guys from the Coca-Cola bottling company. You come in here at 3 o'clock in the morning, you'll see the same guys every day because they just got off work."

In fact, there is a feeling that the complex has made the neighborhood safer. The previously half-filled shopping center is now at capacity, with a row of independent stores. Forest Heights police chief C.K. Brinkley sees round-the-clock basketball as an alternative for youngsters to hanging out.

"It takes the kids off the street," Brinkley said. "I haven't seen anybody in here that I've locked up, but I'm sure there have been kids in here that have been in trouble. At least this gives them something to do especially during the hot summer months when there is absolutely nothing [else] to do. When this place first opened, I know crime definitely went down in the Seat Pleasant and District Heights areas."

In addition to his law enforcement duties, Brinkley is a popular player. Two months shy of his 60th birthday, the chief is known as "Pops" as he goes against men as much as four decades younger. Brinkley started playing golf last year but can't give up the sport he loves most. His doctor told him he could play basketball only once a week because of his knees. The elder courtsman who played for Norfolk State in the early 1960s can be found on the hardwood every Tuesday afternoon.

"I come out here and teach them some manners and some skills," said Brinkley, who enjoys humbling cocky young opponents. "Especially when I block one of the shots from the young boys who think they can shoot over me. I'll just sucker 'em in and block their shot. Then the other guys will give them a little razz."

Brinkley sees the vast complex as a place to relive some past glory. Others make the trek because they know they can always play. Jamal Murphy drives 45 minutes from D.C. three times a week.

"A lot of people are out here every day," said Murphy, a 26-year-old law student. "It's a place to get some basketball for a smaller fee, and it's pretty competitive. The main thing is you are going to get a court to play on."

What else would you expect of a pickup game that never ends?

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