District Heights complex hosts LGBT basketball tournament
nTeam wants to expand its presence in Prince George's County
This story was corrected on Oct. 21, 2010. An explanation of the correction follows the story.
James Santos was about to move to Largo from Houston last year and was trying to think of ways to make new friends. One of his favorite cable TV shows, "Shirts & Skins," gave him an idea.
The reality show on the Logo Network follows the San Francisco Rockdogs, a team in the National Gay Basketball Association.
Fast break to this past weekend when Santos, 26, was playing as a member of the DC Sentinels in the 2010 DC Capital City Classic II, a basketball tournament staged at the District Heights' Capital Sports Complex.
"It's just something I've never seen before," Santos said of his team. "Just to be able to have that choice, to be able to play recreational sports with people who are like me is wonderful because I can be myself and play sports at the same time."
The Sentinels played host to more than 20 other teams from U.S. cities such as Phoenix, San Francisco and Seattle. Three out of four DC Sentinels' teams placed first in their divisions: division A, middle division B and lower division B.
The first DC Capital City Classic II was held at Trinity Washington University in Washington, D.C., in 2008.
Thomas McKinnie, 30, of Greenbelt said events such as the DC Capital City Classic II give him a chance to bond with other players across the U.S., who then stay in touch via Facebook and text messaging. He said the tournament sometimes brings out a new batch of teams and players, such as the Boston Three Party, who defeated the Sentinels 44-34 in their first game on Saturday.
"You can't relax on those teams," McKinnie said Saturday. "You've got to be playing competitive ball at all times."
The tournament is just a sign of the team's growth which team president Tim Francis has been hoping for.
Francis played for the Sentinels in 1996 while living in Forest Heights, but the team dissolved in the late 1990s. After organizing open gyms throughout the 2000s, Francis who now lives in the District finally found a group of friends to help recruit players, create a website, attract sponsors and build a member-based organization run by an executive board in 2007.
The Capital Sports Complex is one of several gyms in the D.C. metropolitan area where the Sentinels hold open gym practices, but the only Prince George's County practice gym. In three years, one team grew to four teams under the organization, and the roster blossomed from about 12 players to 40, Francis said.
"It's open to everyone," Francis said. "In fact, we do have people that are not LGBT that are with us. There are some people who are on the team that are borderline. We do have friends of friends that come out and play. We're open to everybody."
Santos said he did not have the same opportunity to join an NGBA team where he lived in Houston, which he described as more of a club nightlife scene for the LGBT community.
"Anybody can join," Santos said. "My sister has gone and played a few practices at an open gym. Even one of my co-workers has come. He's straight and married with kids. Everyone just plays and really has a good time. It's really a no-judgment type zone."
One of the coaches, Bill Swann, 47, of Largo, assisted Francis in rebuilding the team, which he said is important to him because it's a validation that the LGBT community is alive and that its members are capable of holding their own within the community.
"Since basketball is so prevalent here in Prince George's County, it gives everybody a chance to come out and see the LGBT community playing basketball at a very high level," Swann said. "It gets the word out that we're out here and we're having a good time with it."
Swann said he would like to see more Prince George's County residents join the Sentinels and said the tournament is important not just because it brings players from all over the nation but it could serve as a way to attract other county residents to the team.
Swann said the Sentinels participate in community service projects and fundraising for groups such as Food and Friends and the Whitman Walker Clinic, both in the District, but he hopes the group will partner with local schools in Prince George's County to mentor children.
"I'm into mentor education and our youth need us to help them, to show them, to tutor them, to give them a little bit of guidance on this journey that they're partaking called life," Swann said. "I think it's needed because our youth have too much idle time to do absolutely nothing. There's too much idle time. That's what causes a lot of the negative behavior."
District resident Tyrina Hinkle came Saturday to support her friend, McKinnie, who she just saw lose his second tournament game to the New York City Gay Basketball League 39-34.
"I would have preferred for them to play a little more defense, which I'll tell him in a minute," Hinkle said with a chuckle.
Hinkle said the tournament was a warm environment and that she planned on staying to watch games for the rest of the day.
"I think it's very important because it gives a safe atmosphere and outlet to still do the things that you enjoy," Hinkle said.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to the DC Capital City Classic II.