Just seven miles separate the glistening tip of Manhattan from 105th Street but the Woodrow Wilson Houses which tower above this forgotten corner of New York are not even on the radar of the sightseeing tours. Built almost a half-century ago, every window is shielded by iron bars from the first floor to the twentieth, a ploy that serves to deter intrusion but also to trap those within.
Jessie Sapp grew up on these mean streets. “It’s a tough place, a really tough place,” confirms the Glasgow Rocks guard. “To survive is a blessing.” Not everyone is so exalted. Alonzo Milligan, one of his best friends, was gunned down in 2005, another desperate statistic. His sister, Steveasia, was lucky. A bullet struck her mouth but she lived to fight another day. “But it teaches you how to be a better person,” he adds. “Of course, you go through the ups and the downs. It’s a struggle. But I love the place, no matter what. It’s not like everyone says it is.”
Basketball, for the American rookie, provided the escape route, via Washington DC – where Sapp earned a scholarship to Georgetown University – and now to the UK.
There will be an adjustment, he admits. At college, there were classes to combine with practice in order to complete his degree in theology. Now, sport has become full-time employment and Glasgow his home from home. But Harlem’s Globetrotter is playing for re-pay debts owed and to set an example. “You see the drugs, the killings, the bad influence. But the people there are my biggest supporters. They’ve got my back every single day.”
As painted by Sapp, the projects provided a loving embrace as well as omnipresent fear. Once, the gyms of such neighbourhoods turned out boxers by the dozen. Now the caged-in courts are the crucible of basketballers who dream of the millionaire lifestyles enjoyed by the stars of the NBA.
The Rocks newcomer was among them. The first stage was to prove in the local playground. “Every day you’re going against the best. The guys who didn’t quite make it but who come back. It’s tough but it prepares you for everything.”
It is not a place for the tentative, he concedes. “You have guys who hate your game, some people who hate your game. People screaming. It’s hard to focus. They’re so close. It’s not like you can go into a locker room and hide away at half-time or at the end. You’re stuck out there and you have to be able to cope with that and play the game.
“But it prepares you. There’s so much rivalry. You get called the worst names in the world but have to continue and keep your focus. But if you do well, they will love you for it.”
Best of all, it provided security. Included within the code of the street is that those with talent are left alone. “I’m not going to say I was the best kid in the world,” Sapp smiles. “But I changed for the better.”
His initial reward is a one-year deal with a Rocks side that has undergone a radical overhaul following last season’s seventh place calamity. Facing Newcastle, reigning champions and pre-season favourites, will provide an immediate insight into just what it will take to succeed, night after night.
However the mantra, instilled by his mother, will serve him well. “She always told me to be the best you can be and make it out,” he revealed. The window of opportunity lies wide open now.