Hoops and Dreams
High school basketball players tip-off against FBI in Bureau bid to build relationships in D.C. communities
A member of the FBI team dribbles down court during a game with high school students at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C., on January 26, 2024. The FBI's Washington Field Office (WFO) organized the community outreach event with Washington, D.C.'s Department of Parks and Recreation. The goal was to improve relationships between WFO and the communities it serves, and to show kids opportunities within the Bureau.
The pre-game pep talk for a squad of high-school basketball players about to tip-off against FBI agents and staff on the hardwood at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C., wasn't your typical rah-rah speech.
"I just want to tell you, young men, that there are people out there that are proud of you because you showed up today," said Robert Contee, a D.C. native who grew up on the same hard city streets as the dozen-plus kids in front of him. He joined the Metropolitan Police Department as a cadet in high school and rose to become chief before joining the FBI last year to lead its Office of Partner Engagement.
Now, here he was encouraging kids just like he was to lean on the people who show up for them. "There are people out here who are committed to you because you showed up today. And what I’m asking you to do is to keep believing in you. Don't take your eye off the prize."
In this case, the prize wasn’t beating the FBI in basketball—which would happen in due time—but a bright future, possibly with the FBI, if they wanted it badly enough.
The 30-minute game on January 26 was the centerpiece of a half-day event two years in the making between the FBI’s Washington Field Office (WFO) and the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR). The department’s Roving Leaders program assembled the youth basketball team with students from Theodore Roosevelt High School, a public school in Northwest D.C. that serves a significant number of at-risk youth. The Roving Leaders’ mission to channel youth aggression and energy into positivity fit neatly with the field office’s ongoing efforts to build and nurture connections in the communities it serves.
"This is impactful," said Nicole Mines, a WFO community outreach specialist who led the FBI’s effort to organize the January 26 basketball game. "Partnerships are what help us change our communities, whether it’s saving a life or changing the trajectory of a young person in our community or if it’s just allowing us to build better trust in our community."
The day started with FBI special agents and leaders from WFO describing the FBI’s different career paths and what it takes to get there. Students asked FBI personnel—including some they would be playing against—what they liked and didn't like, if the pay was good, and if their commutes were long. Contee urged the kids to take full advantage of this opportunity and soak it all in. Life is about making connections, he said—like unexpectedly seeing his high school classmate, Roosevelt High School basketball coach Rob Nickens, across the room.
"This is how barriers are broken: with intentionality,” said DPR Director Thennie Freeman, who would be among the loudest in the kids' cheering section come game time. "The FBI said, 'I want to connect with young people who do not look like us, with young people who live in impoverished communities, with young people who may not ever have the opportunity to see, hear, or feel connected to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.'"
WFO community outreach specialists talked about pathways to the Bureau, including a weeklong Future Agents in Training program this summer, and the FBI’s Honors Internship Program for those who move on to college. Each step offers young people a leg up to get into the Bureau, but only if they stay focused.
"Partnerships are what help us change our communities, whether it’s saving a life or changing the trajectory of a young person in our community or if it’s just allowing us to build better trust in our community."
Nicole Mines, community outreach specialist, FBI Washington Field Office
"Think about the commitment you’re making to yourself today and stick with it," said Kevin Vorndran, a special agent in charge at WFO whose squad runs the field office’s outreach efforts. "The hard times are hard times. But stick with it, make good decisions, and you can do whatever you want, where you want."
After all the questions and answers, the FBI personnel joined the students on a tour of the Bureau’s museum, called The FBI Experience, where they could see artifacts dating back more than a century to the Bureau’s earliest days. They marveled at a hidden-camera exhibit, posed for a picture behind J. Edgar Hoover’s desk, and listened intently as Vorndran—standing beside the bullet-pocked boat where one of the Boston Marathon bombers hid—described the harrowing shootout that ended the manhunt in 2013.
Coach Nickens sat for a minute in the museum and watched his kids move easily between exhibits. He has spent a career coaching disadvantaged kids in basketball and life and was encouraged by what he was seeing.
"There are a lot of great opportunities that a lot of kids don't get to see," he said. "And that’s what I want to do. I want to put them in place to be able to see more situations like this."
FBI Director Christopher Wray joined both teams for a photo. On Director's Wray's left is Thennie Freeman, director of D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), which helped organize the event. Rob Nickens, at far right, coaches the students for DPR's Roving Leaders program and also at Theodore Roosevelt High School. At far left is WFO Community Outreach Specialist Nicole Mines.
Finally, it was game time. The two sides filed into the FBI gym—the kids looking sharp in their uniforms and the FBI team donning red bibs and doing their best to psych out their lithe, spritely opponents. It was 4 p.m. on a Friday and the bleachers were full of onlookers curious to see how this would play out. FBI Director Christopher Wray summoned the teams to center court before tip-off and thanked the kids for coming on a day when school was out.
"We hope we’re going to see you back," he said, "whether it’s maybe for another game or maybe with your families for a tour of The FBI Experience or maybe our Future Agents in Training program or maybe even on the stage at Quantico receiving your badge and credentials someday."
The FBI team started strong and led at the half. But youth won in the end with a final score of 35-31. David Johnson, a supervisory special agent at Headquarters and a commanding presence on the court, said after the game what nobody wants to hear an FBI agent say: “We were outgunned and outmanned."
Johnson said the game was a great example of trying to build trust. "We are our community and we want the community to have a relationship with us," he said. "We want to know what they need from us. Som this starts right here."
James Johnson, a 15-year-old sophomore who landed a few buckets in the game, said the day offered him perspectives he had never imagined. "There’s 2,000 opportunities in the FBI, and that is something that I never knew," he said. "But I’m glad I got to find out. It’s different from any type of nine-to-five job. You can do multiple things, and that’s what I like about it."
David Sundberg, assistant director in charge of the Washington Field Office, said the day’s lessons cut both ways. "One thing we learned from these kids today, and I think we’ve known this, is our agency can be pretty opaque to them," he said. "They can't put a face to it. And so it’s important for us to be in those communities putting a face to that."
After the first game, the teams mixed it up, with the FBI and high-schoolers playing again amongst themselves. The day ended with a lot of smiles, fist-bumps, and group pictures—a day the young players will likely remember.
"We are breaking down walls," said Freeman, the city’s DPR director. "We are removing barriers and removing stereotypes, one opportunity at a time."
"We are removing barriers and removing stereotypes one opportunity at a time."
Thennie Freeman, director, D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation