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Royal Docks: How NASSA’s match with the Met is more than just a game of basketball

Newham All Star Sports Academy contest with police marks 15 years of CABNAB partnership

Anthony Okereafor founded Carry A Basketball Not A Blade

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At 5.30pm a game of basketball will begin at UEL Sports Dock on January 25, 2024.

But the players will be doing more than making passes, shooting hoops and competing.

It’s not the first time that a team from Newham All Start Sports Academy (NASSA) has taken on a squad of serving Met Police officers. 

But this year is the latest in a series of events marking the 15 years of partnership between the two organisations.

Son of NASSA founder Natasha Hart – Anthony Okereafor – founded Carry A Basketball Not A Blade (CABNAB) in 2008 following the fatal stabbing of two of his friends within weeks of each other. 

Its programme reaches thousands of young people each year, alerting them to the dangers of knife crime and carrying knives through basketball coaching and question and answer sessions.

The annual game is held to show the strength of organisations working together in the community, but also to remember those who have died as a result of knife crime locally during the year – with a hoop shot for every life lost.

“We come together to play a game of basketball, but the most important part of it is remembering those lives,” said Anthony.

“The event allows people in the community to see Met officers as human beings.

“It helps to break down the barriers for young people – to show them police officers enjoy sport just as they do.

“Trying to build a safer community isn’t just about removing the knives.

“It’s about making sure the right relationships and structures are in place to try to reduce the number of people who fall through the gaps.

“The game is common ground, it changes the dynamic.

“One of the things NASSA and CABNAB participants say is that when they meet officers in these settings they talk and have conversations and that’s something to build on.”

NASSA engages with young people through sport to help tackle knife crime – image Ilyas Ayub

That’s also something the Met is looking forward to with Chief Superintendent, Simon Crick, set to take part in his first game against NASSA since taking over as borough commander for Newham and Waltham Forest.

“It’s the engagement with young people and the diversion away from anti-social behaviour that’s so important,” said Simon, who began his career as a police constable in Newham.

“This part of London has seen more than its fair share of homicides and violent incidents over recent years and I’m really supportive of what NASSA and CABNAB are trying to do.

“Having been down to Sports Dock and seen all of the things the charity has achieved, it’s really good for us to be a part of it and to try and do something positive with young people. It’s really empowering. 

“As for the game itself, we’ll get annihilated, without a doubt – I’m sure.

“I’m really looking forward to the game – anything that we can do to show a willingness to engage with young people, work with them and have a bit of fun, is really positive.

“Building relationships is what it’s all about – there’s too much animosity, so we need to do more of that. 

“Alongside me, some of my senior leadership team will be playing and they understand the need to engage with young people.

“There will also be some neighbourhood officers in there, whose purpose and role in life is to do that – to support young people and divert them away from crime and anti-social behaviour.

“I think it will be really empowering for our officers – it always helps build that trust, whenever something is fun for those taking part, and it will help make their jobs easier.

“The uniform can be seen as a barrier sometimes and, if people can see you’re human through playing sport, that’s really important.”

The charity plays its games at UEL’s Sports Dock – image Ilyas Ayub

For NASSA and the young people that participate in its programmes, the game is a chance to explore those relationships and find some parallels.

Anthony said: “When people put on a uniform, there’s a certain reputation they have to uphold.

“When we play basketball, we put on a uniform and we preach that to our young people – it’s the same with school uniforms.

“When wearing them, you have to represent certain things, to look at the bigger picture of what that means, how you carry yourself and the importance of that.

“There is a natural tension with the Met, but police officers are also the first responders – they are the people you call when you’re in trouble and they also go through traumas related to the work they do.

vWhen the officers are playing, you don’t see that tension with the young people and that’s a seed that can be planted to grow into something better.

“Who knows, one of our young people might end up saying they want to join the police themselves.

“I’ve never worked for the police, but I can imagine officers are always on high alert for themselves and those around them as they work to keep people safe.

“This game is an opportunity for them to let their hair down – a bit of a break in a safe place and a chance to communicate with young people.”

With a reduction in youth services locally, that’s a welcome prospect for Simon and his colleagues.

He said: “There’s a lack of youth engagement opportunities following austerity – we saw huge cuts to many of those services locally and what NASSA does is phenomenal – bringing young people together locally.

“It gives them the ability to work as a team, to enjoy themselves, to get fit and have fun.

“It gives them somewhere to go and a sense of purpose.

“Having young kids myself, I know how important sport can be when they’re growing and everything is changing in their lives.

NASSA is set to take on the Met in a symbolic game on January 25, 2024 – image Ilyas Ayub

“That continuous focus around sport can be crucial.

“NASSA also provides a sense of family – speaking to Natasha, you really understand it’s a close knit organisation and people coming into it will really feel that.

“That’s important because I think lots of young people feel very alienated in the modern world. What NASSA does is very powerful.

“Knife crime is an issue that goes far beyond the police.

“We deal with situations where people are on the street carrying knives or when they’ve been the victim of a homicide or serious assault.

“There are things we do – very well planned and coordinated partnership activities – to try and reduce offending.

“But tackling this issue starts a lot earlier than that. It often begins in the home with good parenting and at school with education. 

“There are so many factors that play into it.

“Where we’ve seen success across the country and across the world, has been when a public health approach is taken.

“That’s where numerous partners including charities, police forces and other organisations, come together to look at all the different factors that feed into knife crime, such as deprivation

“This game is a good example of how we’re trying to reach out and encourage young people to be part of that. 

“We’re a long way from solving the problem, but we’ve recognised as a service that only a partnership approach will address it. 

“If you speak to young people and ask them why they carry knives, a lot of them would say they are for self defence or to make sure that they are safe.

“If I had a magic wand it would be used to make people not feel unsafe or at risk so they wouldn’t feel the need to carry a knife.

“That’s the ultimate aim – it’s difficult to achieve that because of all the factors that affect it.

“For a young person to say they need to carry a knife to feel safe speaks volumes and that’s that we need to address first.”

  • While the game on January 25, 2024, is not open to the general public, organisations or individuals who would like to support NASSA can get in touch with the charity and may be able to attend.

Support from businesses, either financial or through volunteering is welcomed so NASSA and CABNAB can continue their vital work.

Find out more about NASSA and CABNAB here

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via
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Royal Docks: How CABNAB continues to fight knife crime through sport

In 2023, it will be 15 years since NASSA launched Carry A Basketball Not A Blade to tackle violence

CABNAB founder Anthony Okereafor

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Thamesmead and Abbey Wood aren’t far from Newham. The Elizabeth Line connection via Custom House brings the areas to within a few minutes of each other.

So the fatal stabbings there of Charlie Bartolo and Kearne Solanke – both 16, both killed in linked attacks on November 26 – are an especially potent reminder to those in east and south-east London of the ever present threat and brutality of knife crime.

At the time of writing, three teenagers had been arrested in connection with the murders and two charged – five young lives either ended or changed forever.

It’s a story Anthony Okereafor knows only too well. Two of his friends were killed in unrelated knife attacks in 2008.

“I was 17 and out playing basketball and my phone was ringing – but I ignored it and continued with the game,” he said.

“Later I followed up on the missed call to find my friend had been stabbed.

“For me, it wasn’t just that my friend had passed away, but that it had happened so close to where I was playing.

“If I hadn’t ignored my phone, it could have been me – to some degree basketball saved me from being involved in that incident and in that environment.

“But, at the same time, I had the trauma of having lost a friend.

“At the time I was quite young and studious.

“I had a younger brother and sister and I thought, that if this was what had helped keep me out of trouble, what could we do to help other people?”

Anthony is the son of Natasha Hart, who in 2005 sowed the seeds of what would become Newham All Star Sports Academy (NASSA) by giving her kids an impromptu basketball session in a local park.

She offered to make it a weekly treat and soon friends were joining in, with the group rapidly growing in size. 

Young people training with NASSA outside during the pandemic

A year later she officially launched the organisation as a charity to provide competitive basketball coaching for children and young people in the borough – a safe place to play sport away from the lure of anti-social behaviour, alcohol, drugs and crime.

So it was to Natasha that Anthony went first in 2008 with his idea for a campaign to tackle knife crime. Working through NASSA, it will be 15 years since his Carry A Basketball Not A Blade (CABNAB) campaign started.

“Basketball has always been the sport I enjoyed playing most, so we have used that as a tool to get young people engaged with our message,” he said.

“It’s an educational tool we employ to let them know how dangerous carrying a knife can be, not just for the victim but for the carrier.

“CABNAB empowers young people to do productive things and uses the power of sport to bring people together and forget about the things they face on a day-to-day basis, like postcode wars, racism and poverty.”

Today CABNAB delivers talks and workshops in primary and secondary schools, starting with children as young as nine and 10 – carefully tailoring its approach to the age of its audience.

“The age will determine how graphic the sessions are,” said Anthony.

“With the younger ones, we’ll talk about how easy it is to be asked to hold something, for example – these are very young kids, but grooming by criminal gangs starts at a young age.

“Drug dealers and gang members will use younger people because they are less likely to be stopped by the police even if they’re carrying a knife.

“We talk about the physical dangers and issues if you do get attacked, which people have to live with – trauma, scars and physical impairments.

“Alongside that, we also talk about what happens if you are the perpetrator – what time are you looking at in jail and how your family would be affected.

“Personally I believe a lot of the time when these crimes are committed and people die, that it’s not the intention of the perpetrator to kill. 

“A lot of young people I’ve encountered carry knives for fashion and protection. When you ask them: ‘From what?’ they’ll say it’s being in certain areas and doing certain things.

“Sport is one way to tackle that. When people see a person in a kit or sporting uniform, that’s a young man or woman on a mission – they’re more likely to respect it and leave them alone.

“Growing up in Newham and going to certain parks to play basketball, I saw it happen.

“The gang leaders and those affiliated with drugs allowed me to play in the park, possibly because they could see that I wouldn’t want to be involved as I potentially had a future. 

“As much as they might do bad things, a lot of them do have moral compasses and think that if a kid is involved in basketball or football they’d just let it go.

“That kind of respect does exist in our communities, and CABNAB can use it to help young people to stay engaged in sport, after school, through extra-curricular activities and, on top of that, in school as well.”

NASSA regularly trains and plays at UEL’s SportsDock in Royal Docks

Pre pandemic, CABNAB was reaching up to 3,000 young people a year and is now building back up as well as looking for funding to grow further.

The campaign also works in partnership with the Met and former officers – it hosts a basketball match each year where police take on a team of NASSA members to help break down barriers.

“We can never completely eradicate knife crime, but we can get the numbers very low,” said Anthony, who was named a Point Of Light in 2015 by then Prime Minister David Cameron for his work tackling knife crime in Newham.

“Funding is the biggest help for us in this, although we’re also so grateful to businesses, entrepreneurs and individuals who help us out in any other way they can or those who volunteer.

“In another 15 years the dream would be that knife crime will have faded away to the point where we can almost forget about it. 

“We need to get away from blame and open up a conversation about why young people are doing these things.

“I want carrying a knife to be seen as taboo, not cool, not fashionable, not worthy of respect – just something that leads to a waste of life.

“We need to look at peer pressure and poverty and get this issue away from being gang and drugs related to reduce it on the street.

“CABNAB started in a sense with trying to save my own life.

“The court was my safe haven and basketball kept my mind off other things.

“To know we’ve changed many lives is incredible but even though we work with thousands of young people every year, if just one person puts down a knife or never picks one up, that’s good enough for me.

“You can see the reduction in crime in the areas where we work and there are so many other benefits when kids get involved with NASSA – the physical health, the education and the mental health that comes with those.

“With the cost of living crisis, it’s getting harder to do what we do, but I’m optimistic. Nothing is impossible – you just have to face the difficulties and overcome them.”

Excel in Royal Docks supports the charity in its mission

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via
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