Hoops and hope: Gotham City Panthers offer a pathway for Bronx youth

Gotham City Panthers Founder Eric King explaining how the tryout will run to the 33 players in attendance.
Gotham City Panthers Founder Eric King explains how the tryout will run to the 33 players in attendance.
Photo Julian Nazar

Thirty-three kids between the ages of 12 and 14 gathered around Gotham City Panthers Founder Eric King on Saturday afternoon as he divided them into position groups and then teams of five.

For the remaining hour and a half, several eight-minute basketball scrimmages took place that gave players the opportunity to showcase their abilities. One team wore shirts while the others went “skins.”

As the games progressed, King could be heard shouting instructions from the sidelines.

“Keep your head up when dribbling!”

“Follow your shot!”

“Set some screens!”

The Gotham City Panthers, a new amateur youth basketball team that was founded in December 2020, held tryouts for the first time on March 4 at Roberto Clemente State Park’s gymnasium on Tremont Avenue, along the Harlem River in the Bronx.

The first tryout was for kids ages 12 and 14 and the second tryout followed for ages 15 and 16. Twelve players selected from the younger age group and 10 from the older group will join the Gotham City Panthers.

It took King more than two years to put all the pieces together for his basketball team. But his dream is now finally coming to fruition.

“This means everything to me,” King said. “A lot of times, when you are yelling at the screen about what you think a coach should do, you have no say so. Here you get to show your basketball smarts and show what you learned and observed.

A player pulls up for a jumper during Saturday’s scrimmage at the Gotham City Panthers basketball tryouts on March 4, 2023. Photo Julian Nazar

“You get satisfaction from helping kids. To see the gleam in their eye, you get to live your youth back again through them.”

King faced obstacles along the way. The biggest was finding an indoor gym for his team. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the city’s subsequent shutdown in March 2020, it took King more than two years to find a home. The Madison Square Boys & Girls Club, located on East 189th Street and Lorillard Place in Belmont, initially had agreed to rent him gym space before canceling its offer on April 18 later because of rising COVID case numbers.

It wasn’t until late December of 2022 that he secured a permanent gym. As part of this arrangement, King pays around $200 to rent Roberto Clemente State Park’s indoor gymnasium for two hours.

Besides $325 he raised from a GoFundMe page, King is financing the Gotham City Panthers entirely from his work paycheck. He is a conductor for the MTA and works on the 1 train line.

King said that there were no funding sources available to him since most government entities and corporations scaled back their grant giving after the pandemic hit.

To differentiate his basketball team from well-established ones such as the Riverside Hawks and the New York Gauchos, King had to get creative.

“When you are the new kid on the block, you have to kind of offer them things to get them to look your way,” he said.

Players who make his team will not have any fees. If they attend both practices and games, they will receive a free pair of sneakers and a team starter jacket.

“For some people, you will give out some things and then you will never see them again,” King told the Bronx Times.

He will also be holding a team family night for his players at a New York Knicks game, as well as taking his players on a trip to the NBA Hall of Fame.

To get the word out, King worked with street company’s Bomb Parties and Bomb Promotions to distribute 35,000 flyers throughout the Bronx in early February. He also promoted the tryouts on five Facebook pages and sports groups.

The easiest part of the process for King was finding tournaments for the Panthers. Leveraging his relationship with Mike Simmons, who he has known since he was 13 and used to play basketball with at Bronx parks Devoe and St. James, he got his team invited to participate in the Mike Simmons Basketball League.

Alan Ransom, another friend of King’s, owns a youth basketball team called the Harlem Hurricanes that regularly participates in a basketball tournament in Inwood. He is optimistic that his relationship with Ransom will help him get the Panthers into that tournament as well.

“I believe the Inwood tournament runs during the week while the other one runs on Saturday,” King said. “It won’t clash, and it will be more exposure and more games for the youth to have them in those tournaments.”

The Mike Simmons Basketball League runs for seven weeks before the playoffs start, with only the top four teams qualifying. The Inwood tournament is a six-week long season.

Now that King has gotten his basketball team off the ground, he is eager to prove himself as both a coach and as a mentor for young kids in the Bronx.

“I want to do something where I am getting kids to the next level and helping them get scholarships to go to school,” King said. “I want to make a difference in the community.”

For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes