Players from the Outley House go up against Our Brothers’ Place during a game at the Church of the Advocate in North Philly. Men from both shelters participate in a basketball league run by Hoops for Hope. Steven M. Falk/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS

Basketball league helps men deal with stress of homelessness

Every Wednesday this summer, in a little gym just off a courtyard in the back of the historic Church of the Advocate at Diamond and Gratz Streets in North Philadelphia, there’s a men’s hoops league, the quality more or less the same as most any community league in Philadelphia.

Ian Murray, who officiates high school games in the winter, came in to referee the first week. He wasn’t sure what the quality would be. He was ready to let some things go.

“Some guy dunked on the layup line,” Murray said. “All bets were off.”

The surprise factor came because this Hoops for Hope League may be unique. It’s the only one in the city specifically designed for homeless men. It’s shelter vs. shelter competition. You wouldn’t know any of that walking in, hearing a coach yell, “Kick the ball out, man.”

George Giles, 60, didn’t need instructions on how to play. Every rebound, opponents knew this literal graybeard was going to be right there, maybe grabbing the ball, maybe tipping it. And if he got it … a pivot master. Once, Giles head-faked a defender half his age right out of bounds, giving him an open lay-in.

The value of this league, Giles said, “it keeps my mind off the hardship,” mentioning his recent divorce, and a long struggle with sobriety.

The league’s founder, Tori Urban, began it in 2015, an offshoot of her work as a substance-use coordinator in shelters. It was three teams then, maybe 20 guys.

They took a hiatus after that year, began it anew this summer, with six shelters participating. The city gave its official blessing, a GoFundMe page and fund-raiser producing $10,000 in seed money.

“I work out of eight different homeless shelters,” Urban said, explaining what she sees as the goal of the league: “To assist these men to regain a sense of self-worth and self-esteem. Give them a sense of normalcy. A lot of them work.

“I actually surveyed the men in different shelters, what sport would they like to play? Basketball was the choice of an overwhelming majority. Seeing the addiction and the mental illness and the trauma, knowing the role a sport — particularly a team sport — how it can affect them, this made sense. We’ve been seeing smiles, and the spirit brightening — literally seeing the stress fall off the shoulders of these men.”

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