Dyckman Park in Upper Manhattan — home of the legendary NCAA and NBA sanctioned Dyckman league and the “Mecca of street basketball” — hosted the inaugural NYPD Blue Chips citywide basketball championship on Tuesday, Aug. 17.
For Blue Chips creator NYPD Lt. Michael Almonte, the finals were the culmination of the dedication of the 200 NYPD police officers, who meet “their kids” for mentoring sessions and athletic practice on Tuesdays and game days on Thursdays.
Almonte and NYPD Officer Darnell Gatling came up with the year-round program, which focuses on bridging the gap between the police and young people through mentoring and sports and is managed by the NYPD Patrol Services Bureau. They pitched their idea to NYPD Chief of Patrol Juanita Holmes, who immediately embraced their concept.
The Blue Chips program officially kicked off on July 1, and it has already proven to be a great success in this short time, with almost 1,000 youngsters participating.
Almonte and Gatling shared that they have seen a positive change in the kids and their attitude toward the cops.
“It is amazing. You these kids, they don’t call officers cops. It’s ‘coach,'” Gatling said. “They look at them as big brothers and mentors, more than anything. You see genuine joy when they walk into the gym. They see their coach; they’re ecstatic. We see these kids hugging their coach, and that bond is unbreakable.”
Almonte shared that some of the kids were around gang members and were recruited by them, but the basketball team steered them away.
“Because they developed that strong bond with their coaches, with the cops, they no longer want to be associated with those kids,” Almonte said. “They want to continue in the program. And our job here as officers is not to show that every cop is good or that no cops are bad. It’s to have real conversations, to let the kids know that we’re human.”
He underlined that the program’s goal is to build a strong foundation for the kids and create a generation of leaders.
“These kids are the future cops, the future lawyers, the future councilmen, the future presidents,” Almonte said.
Chief of Patrols Office Isa Abbassi noted that Blue Chips goes beyond athletics and sports.
“This is about mentoring and career development. Most importantly, it is about building relationships,” Abbassi said. “The relationships you forge with each other and with police officers are going to carry New York City through the next generation in policing and community relationships.”
Deputy Commissioner for Community Partnership, Chauncey Parker, said that the NYPD invested its resources into young people because officers care.
“It’s because we love you,” Parker said. “That is why these police officers risk their life. That’s why they became police officers, is to help people just because they love the community that they serve, particularly young people, and today is a great example of that.”
Dunking it out on the court that has seen the likes of basketball greats Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, the finalists from the 111th Precinct in Queens North and the 17th Precinct in Manhattan South, played in front of packed “house” with fellow Blue Chips players, family members and NYPD officers cheering them on.
Both teams came in undefeated after 72 teams from 75 precincts played for a spot in the finals during the regular season.
After a tense second half, Manhattan beat Queens — by a mere point — taking home the coveted trophy.
111th Precinct Blue Chips players Yianni Xaras, Brendon Lee and Matthew de Leon agreed that the program, which also included graffiti paint over and community work, provided an excellent opportunity to spend the summer.
“Playing during the summer is the best thing I could do to keep healthy. I’ve learned more sportsmanship and to work better with my team,” 17-year-old Yianni Xaras said.
Brendon Lee, 17, said that the relationship between the NYPD and the players improved.
“I think our relationship grew like as the summer went on. I learned leadership and helping out the community with the cops,” Brendon said.
Matthew de Leon joined the program at the recommendation of his high school coach and because he “was down with the opportunity to play here.”
About his team, he said, “I feel like we don’t have ‘a’ best player. I feel like our team is collaboratively a team and everyone is equal.”
The program not only benefits the teenagers. Mentoring and coaching the young people between 12 and 17 is a morale booster for the police officers, who say that the program has enriched their lives.
NYPD Youth Coordination Officer Michael Cillis, who also serves as a mentor and head coach of the 111th Precinct Blue Chips, shared that the players treat him like one of their friends.
“During COVID and everything that happened last year, a lot of us were down with our job and not very happy,” Cillis said. “Then we started this program, and it just brought new light to what I go to work for.”
His assistant coach, NYPD Youth Coordination Officer Kristen Kirby, added, “Having this relationship with the kids makes us feel more positive. They like hanging out with us and enjoy our company, and vice versa. So I think that’s an enrichment.”
Head coach of the 17th Precinct Blue Chips team, NYPD officer Hakim Constantine, said about his team, “The kids came together to season, and they gave us a heck of a season.”
Constantine shared that he immediately jumped on the chance to join the program and said that it was needed given the increase in crime and teenage violence. He emphasized that it wasn’t solely about athletics but, more importantly, giving teenagers the tools to succeed in life.
Constantine explained that the program provides workshops helping young people with resumes, dress for success and financial intelligence, as well as a chance to talk about personal matters.
“Sometimes they forget that I’m even a cop. They talk to me about issues that are going on not only in the community but in the family,” Constantine said. “They can relate to me whether I’m an older brother figure, whether I’m a father figure, or whether I’m just a figure of authority. A lot of [teenagers], they need someone to call on.”
Young people interested in signing up with Blue Chips can contact [email protected], or head over to their local precinct.