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Community responds to violence with sports — Guns Down, Balls Up promotes the positive

The Southern Wildcats know.

The Dr. A. L. Lott Youth Sports program knows, too.

So does Dixie Youth.

It was through the baseball programs — watching his children play in both local leagues — Brookhaven musician Johnnie Smith figured it out himself.

“Sports is proven, it’s positive. Sports is a catalyst to keep kids engaged, and it will take them away from all this other stuff,” he said. “I’m seeing everything that’s going on in our city right now, the shootings and the gun violence, and we can involve the kids and show them there’s a better way through sports. The violence has to stop.”

With support from community leaders and like-minded coaches and mentors, Smith has put together “Guns Down, Balls Up,” a community-wide sporting event for youth and adults to spend the day in competition and fellowship to showcase the uniting power of sports. He hopes the first event will turn into a monthly recurrence and that participating youth will choose sports instead of violence.   

“If you’re not doing something positive, doing something with your time, negative activity is going to find you, man,” Smith said. “A baby just got shot — and he played on the baseball field I coach on. I see this kid every day. It’s got to stop. I feel like Guns Down, Balls Up is the perfect way to take that step forward.”

Guns Down, Balls Up starts at 9 a.m. Saturday, June 23, at the Dr. A. L. Lott Youth Sports fields by Mullins School on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The day will feature a three-on-three basketball tournament, flag football, softball, water slides and fun jumps for the children. Admission is free, and a $5 registration fee will allow a whole family to participate in the sporting event, regardless of how many are in the family. Barbecue plates will also be sold for $5.

Smith said proceeds from the event will go toward funding a second Guns Down, Balls Up the following month.

Smith said the ultimate goal of the event is to raise awareness for the need for a community center in Brookhaven.

“We need a building, a community center where (children) can have multiple activities — a basketball court, a swimming pool, a study hall,” he said. “From age 23 on down, these babies haven’t even experienced a swimming pool or nothing like that, no teen center where they can play ball.”

A public swimming pool has been a controversial topic in Brookhaven for years, and city aldermen last month heard the results of a $12,000 feasibility study on the construction of a pool and community center. A public pool is projected to cost more than $1.1 million, with a community center estimated at another $2.3 million.

Aldermen have taken no action on the study since it was publicly introduced — Brookhaven Mayor Joe Cox condemned the project in a prepared statement on May 16.

“Any attempt or action by this board to construct such a facility would constitute a clear error in judgment by this board,” he said. “(The project is a) clear breach of our financial and fiduciary duty … at the expense of so many other needs of our community.”

Smith disagrees.

“I think it most definitely needs to be reevaluated,” he said. “The mayor needs to walk through these communities, knock on doors and talk to the people of Brookhaven.”

The community center could be a long time coming, but so far Guns Down, Balls Up is generating interest in the community. Stacy Fells, director of the Southern Wildcats youth football league, is sponsoring the event — his league has been practicing the idea that sports keeps children out of trouble for years.

“We’re all about the kids,” he said. “We’re all for doing something to keep the kids off the streets and encouraging people to put the guns down, pick up the ball or pick up the books.”

The Rev. Larry Jointer of St. James Missionary Baptist Church said Guns Down, Balls Up is a good start, but only a start. There has to be more, he said, and it must go beyond sports.

“We have to do more to get our young men to understand their role in the community,” he said. “We’ve got to start getting involved instead of standing back on the sidelines and reacting. We have to be proactive. Guns Down, Balls Up is a good idea and a good first step. But there’s got to be more.”