After his full-time day job driving a truck for Scheid Produce, and before his part-time night job working security, Chris Johnson will arrive at Lancaster City’s Brandon Park around 5:30 p.m.
He’ll do so every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday from mid-May through mid-August, parking his forest green Ford SUV on the grass on the far end of the four asphalt basketball courts, next to a tiny building.
The building is more like a storage shed. Inside are items such as basketballs, wooden benches and plastic fold-out tables and chairs. Johnson, 58, will roll out the balls and set up the benches, chairs and tables between each court.
The items are needed for the few hours of games that will be played that night as part of Johnson’s nonprofit, CJ’s Hoop For Hope, an affordable summer recreational basketball league for inner city youth.
Johnson founded the program six years ago. Ninety players showed up the first year. The league has since grown to more than 350 kids entering grades three through 12.
The program has several purposes. One is to bring the community together, as parents often watch their kids play while sitting on the large, concrete steps next to the courts. Johnson also hopes the program keeps kids out of trouble, while also teaching them about possible outcomes of poor choices.
It’s why one of the final items Johnson will retrieve when setting things up on the Brandon Park courts is a plastic milk crate. Inside the crate are folded white T-shirts. On the front of each shirt, in black lettering, is the name or nickname of a young man who lost his life to street violence in the city of Lancaster.
Johnson will grab a few clothespins and hang up each shirt on the metal fence on the far side of the courts. On one of the shirts is the nickname of Johnson’s son, Crishon “Boobie” Johnson-Gray.
‘Everything can change’
Crishon loved Lancaster so much he had the city’s abbreviation, Lanc, vertically tattooed in capital letters on the back of each forearm.
“He really loved this city,” Johnson said of his son.
But Crishon was also constantly in and out of trouble.
“He was stabbed when he was 14 or 15,” Johnson said.
In 2007, two years before his death, Crishon was grazed by a bullet that cut his lower back and the little finger of his left hand. In that incident, on South Prince Street, Crishon’s cousin, Tyquan Hall, was trying to be a peacemaker when he was shot and killed. Hall was 19 years old.
“I knew something bad was going to happen,” Johnson said of his son’s future. “My friends were telling me he hung out with gang members. Of course, every time I talked to him about it he told me it was not true.”
A drug deal gone bad on Marietta Avenue resulted in Crishon being stabbed and killed on Aug. 24, 2009.
He was 20 years old.
Johnson shares this story with the hoopsters at Brandon Park at the start of each summer season.
“I’m real with them,” Johnson said. “The thing is getting them to see the consequences of their decisions. Everything can change in a matter of seconds.”
Nearly all of the players who participate in CJ’s Hoop For Hope program attend schools within the School District of Lancaster, a district in which 90 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Future Ready PA website. It’s why Johnson aims to keep costs low.
“It was important to me, especially my first couple of years, to make it free so it could be a community event,” Johnson said.
Johnson didn’t charge anything the first two years. Now, each player pays just $15 to participate in the three-month program. The rest of the operating costs are covered by sponsorships from Kegel’s Produce and the Lancaster Recreation Commission.
The league is made up of about six to eight teams for nearly every grade level. Each team has a coach, many of them McCaskey High School alums. And some of the teams are coed — about 20 girls are playing this summer.
There are referees. Scores of each game and overall records are kept in order to determine seeding for the end-of-season playoffs in August.
There are also “open division” games played on Wednesdays that consist of teams mixed with youngsters and older players, some of them like McCaskey grad Kobe Gantz.
“This gives the kids a place to go,” Gantz said. “And try to create positivity in their life.”
Gantz’s father, Collins, who died in in January 2018, helped Johnson launch CJ’s Hoop For Hope. A poster recognizing Collins Gantz’s contributions now hangs above the T-shirts on the fence.
Melissa Carter is the creator of the shirts, an idea that came to her a few years ago. One of the shirts bears the name of her son, Kenyon Wright-Carter, who was stabbed to death while sitting in the front passenger seat of a car in the 500 block of Green Street on the afternoon of Jan. 26, 2009. Wright-Carter died three days later. He was 18 years old.
It’s worth noting that Wright-Carter’s best friend was Johnson’s son, Crishon.
Carter has since organized the annual Kenyon’s Promise 3-on-3 Stop the Violence Basketball Tournament, held at Brandon Park on the final Saturday of July, just as it was last weekend.
That was when Carter added more shirts to the fence — the same shirts Johnson puts up Mondays through Wednesdays during the summer. There are now about 15 shirts in all.
Some bear the names of young men from Lancaster who died more than 25 years ago. Others are more recent, like Benjamin Ramos, who was stabbed in the 900 block of Fremont Street on the night of June 12 and died the next day. Ramos was 16 years old.
'I miss you every day'
Shake Johnson’s hand and you’ll notice the Ohio native has a strong grip that, along with his 6-foot-4 -inch frame, likely helped make him a standout wide receiver on the football field in the early 1980s at Millersville University under legendary coach Gene Carpenter. Johnson also played basketball for the Marauders. And his last claim to fame from his playing days was being a replacement player for the Buddy Ryan-coached Philadelphia Eagles in 1987, when NFL players went on strike.
Johnson has continued to scratch his sports itch by spending winter nights for the last 25 years as a PIAA basketball referee, officiating local games from junior high to the varsity level. So he feels comfortable sometimes refereeing games at Brandon Park.
In the background, on the fence, are the T-shirts. And above the shirts are five posters. Four of them have photos of Crishon, inscribed with messages like, “I miss you everyday,” “Where would you be?” and “What would you be doing?”
Johnson will never know the answers to those last two questions. But he can give purpose to his son’s life by letting it serve as a learning lesson to the youngsters Johnson now influences on these courts.
“It’s my way of staying close to him,” Johnson said of Crishon. “I feel like he’s watching me.”