Hoops game unites youth and police in North Mpls

Officer David O'Connor in middle of crowd
Officer David O’Connor in middle of crowd at game (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

It really didn’t matter that the youth basketball team defeated their adult opponents, primarily made up of city police officers — the game served a greater purpose. “The basketball game is irrelevant,” said Minneapolis Police Officer Mike Friestleben on the first-ever “Building Bridges Through Basketball” event. “The community and cops right now are one. Everything that’s great about the North Side is right here,” he said.

The game was held Saturday, October 29, at Hospitality House Youth Development, a longtime youth development center in North Minneapolis. “It’s definitely very important for our community” to have police present in a non-police capacity added Mike Pettis, a Hospitality House coach. “You see the police riding around in cars — now we get to see them on a personal level and interact with them. It’s big for our community.”

l-r Wally Chapman, Bretta Alexander, Friestleben, Henn.  Co. Lt. Dorpha Copeland, Rev. Hunter
(l-r): Wally Chapman, Bretta Alexander, Officer Friestleben, Hennepin County Lt. Dorpha Copeland, and Rev. Hunter (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

It was equally important for kids to see that he and other officers are “just like them,” noted David O’Connor, a 14-year Minneapolis police officer. “We really like working with kids. The kids wanted to chill with me during the game. I think they liked it. I liked it.”

Crunch, the Minnesota Timberwolves’ mascot, was on hand to pose for photos with the attendees, and police officers did their share of camera posing, along with passing out goodies.

Hospitality House crowd with Crunch, the Timberwolves' mascot
Hospitality House crowd with Crunch, the Timberwolves’ mascot (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

Hospitality House Executive Director Rev. John Hunter told the MSR, “I grew up in this community. I think the police officers play a vital role in this community besides just solving crimes. I believe Hospitality House is the glue to be able to build relationships. Relationships begin in small steps. I think this Hospitality House-officers basketball game is a small step in building relationships and the beginning [of] healing.”

Everybody has a role in this, stressed Hunter. “The churches, the Urban League, the schools and all the elders in our community play a role,” he said. “I believe North Minneapolis is a great community with many leaders. We have raised so many great men and women in this community.”

It’s more than just holding police accountable, which Hunter said he doesn’t disagree with. “But who is building the relationships?” he asked. “That’s where I think Hospitality House can play a role in this.”

Hunter (front), McNeal in referee uniform
Rev. Hunter (front) and Brett McNeal in referee uniform (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

Hospitality House board member Wally Chapman came up with the idea of a game featuring local police officers playing at the center, explained Hunter. “He said ‘it would be great with all this strife going on [to just have] fellowship. Get to know each other and break bread,’” recalled the executive director. During a break in the action, Chapman told the MSR he was pleased with the outcome. “It’s a dream come true,” he said.

“To build police and community relations requires execution,” said Brett McNeal, Hospitality House alum, now the athletic director at South High School. He vividly recalled how the center played a huge part in his development growing up in the neighborhood. He graduated from North High, and played college ball at Western Kentucky under former coach Clem Haskins.

“It was a place to play ball in a safe environment,” said McNeal, who served as one of the referees of the game. “In between games they stopped and read Scriptures, and allowed us to think about who we are as spiritual creatures, and help us become better young men for our community.”

“This building has been here for years reaching out to kids, and [it] has done so much for the community,” Friestleben told the MSR at halftime.

“I think we’d like to do this next year, and continue to grow it. We love to do this at North High School and pack the place,” said Chapman.

Finally, for the record, the Hospitality House youth team won 66-49, but Hunter pointed to the community as a whole as the real winner of the game. “We had a fellowship with no pain. That’s the greatness of the score today,” said Hunter.


Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.