Far removed from the opulence of an NBA arena’s luxury boxes and $1,000 courtside seats, a green asphalt court is flanked by hard metal bleachers and a chain-link fence.
Vendors sell fried fish, french fries and pineapple-flavored smoothies, and the smell of cigarette smoke permeates the air, along with the sounds of conversation, laughter and music blasting thorough oversized speakers.
The court is Barry Farms, nestled between a housing community and a busy intersection in Southeast D.C., about a stone’s throw from Nationals Park. It’s a place where NBA players such as Gilbert Arenas, Kevin Durant and Michael Beasley have earned their stripes in front of tougher crowds than most NBA arenas could boast.
Welcome to the Goodman League.
“Durant says all the time, this is where he gets his toughness at,” said Anthony Davidson. “If you can play in front of these fans, you can play anywhere.”
Better known as “Wing,” Davidson has been a regular since 1997 and is the videographer for the Goodman League.
“These fans expect a lot. They don’t want to just see you show up,” Davidson said. “When Gilbert [Arenas] first came down here, he thought the people just wanted to see him out here. He was just being lackadaisical. We had to tell him, ‘They want to see you play.’ “
For NBA players, the Barry Farms fans have some high standards.
“The street guys love to go at NBA players,” Davidson said. “Everybody has a name here. Names don’t mean nothing until you do it here.”
Without naming names, Davidson said a few NBA players couldn’t quite cut it at Barry Farms. The fans, of course, let them know it.
In charge of it all is the Goodman League commissioner, Miles Rawls. He not only runs the show but calls the games from a courtside chair, providing running commentary on the players, the game and the fans that’s worthy of a standup comedian
“This league brings the city and the community together,” said Rawls, who has been commissioner since 1997 after serving in the military. The league has been in existence since 1977.
“It’s important to keep the tradition going,” Rawls said. “The summer of ‘96, they didn’t have the league that summer so I took over in ‘97. Coming up, that was the thing. Everybody looked forward to summer basketball.”
Rawls called it “more than an honor” to provide stewardship over the Goodman League, named for George Goodman, who was murdered in 1984. Goodman worked at the Barry Farms Rec Center, and the league - which has 18 teams - was named after him in 2000.
“I don’t have to pick up the phone no more looking for teams, they call me,” Rawls said. “I get Nike to do a free cookout opening day. It has a backyard barbecue type of atmosphere here. It’s just clean basketball. No arguing, no fighting, no guns, no knives. People leave all that wherever they came from for four hours out of the day when they come through the gates.”
For the kids, it’s a place where they can see NBA players for free, interact with them, get autographs and pose for pictures. For the players, it’s a place to cut their teeth.
“This is where you get your toughness from, in the streets,” Rawls said. “Before they made it to the NBA, they grew up in the streets just like everybody else, but they were lucky enough and good enough to make it. Just because they’re in the NBA, nobody shows them any favoritism. People go at them like they’re ordinary Joes.”
A so-called Barry Farms “season ticket holder,” Charles Holmes is a lifelong D.C. resident who’s been coming to Barry Farms since 2000 and helps as a volunteer.
“I usually get here early, set up the chairs for the people,” Holmes said. “I usually have 10 or 12 people with me. We go to all the games, and we’re here to support the teams.
“We have a lot of good athletes who came out of here. A lot of guys who started here are now in the NBA - Kevin Durant, Ty Lawson, Michael Beasley. It’s a great steppingstone for the guys in the city. We even had a couple of guys get looked at who got scholarships to D-II schools, so it helps everybody,” Holmes said.
More than just a chance to watch basketball and see a few stars, an evening at Barry Farms is more like a holiday picnic or a family reunion.
“It keeps a lot of people out of trouble, kids as well as adults,” said Mac Williams, who handles the league’s website and social media.
“Crime is down during the summer and has been as long as we’ve been here. It’s a very safe environment; lots of police here,” Williams said. “But at the same time, people come here for the love. Ain’t nobody going to let nobody get out of order here because they love it.”