Tommy McBrayer is the founder of Don’t Shoot Guns, Shoot Hoops, a nonprofit that strives to create a safe environment for kids and young adults, the hope being that their efforts will inspire the youth to pick up a basketball instead of a gun.
Born in South Minneapolis, McBrayer grew up at the intersection of 36th Street and 4th Avenue in a historically black neighborhood that featured many black-owned businesses.
Sadly, that area was also plagued by poverty, and McBrayer adds that he and many of his friends did not have fathers actively present in their lives, which motivated him and his friends to look out for each other.
“A lot of us who didn’t have fathers were hanging out together in order to fill that gap that we were missing,” McBrayer explains.
During McBrayer’s childhood, there was also a significant amount of gang violence happening, but unlike some of his peers, McBrayer saw the pitfalls that came with that lifestyle and decided that he would do what he could to avoid becoming ensnared in criminal activity.
“I never became a gang member. I was one of the rare people who was always around gangs but never became affiliated,” says McBrayer, who mentions that often becoming involved in illicit affairs isn’t a choice that an individual makes, but rather is a result of growing up in a culture where one’s future has often already been determined.
“So many people who gangbang were born into that lifestyle. It’s almost like a family history, and people live by different codes,” McBrayer says.
One of these ideologies includes many young people being taught to dislike other people who they know nothing about (often members of different gangs), a concept that McBrayer never fully understood.
“That mentality has been going on for so long that some people don’t even know why they hate certain people,” he says.
Yet perhaps McBrayer’s biggest incentive to avoid the trappings of life in a gang came when he would visit friends who were in prison, many of whom were only teenagers and had already received decades-long jail sentences for crimes they had committed under the belief that they were supporting their gang.
Even more tragically, after McBrayer’s friends were incarcerated, the same gangs they thought they were supporting would turn their backs on them.
“That was my biggest motivation to not gangbang,” McBrayer says.
After graduating from high school, McBrayer enrolled at Vermillion Community College in Ely, a small mining town in northern Minnesota that was only a short drive from the Canadian border.
“I didn’t even know where Ely was,” McBrayer says of the desolate city that wasn’t always kind to outsiders.
“It gets real racist the further north you go in Minnesota. I was being called a monkey and other things. Those were things I thought only happened on TV.”
The malevolence McBrayer experienced from others while he was in Ely was disheartening, and even though the environment off-campus did not suit him, he learned a lot about discipline and how to effectively navigate hostilities that varied from the ones he grew up in.
That measured approach would benefit him as he later transferred to Central Lakes College in Brainerd, another sparsely populated Minnesota town, only this city wasn’t as ill-mannered toward newcomers.
“Central Lakes was a nice environment,” recalls McBrayer, who in addition to being a student-athlete also registered for business classes because he believed they would give him the best chance to succeed once he left school.
Following his stint in Brainerd, McBrayer then returned to the Twin Cities.
He had hoped to make an immediate impact on his community, but McBrayer admits that he put himself in less than desirable situations, which unfortunately led to him becoming a victim of gun violence.
“I was robbed, tied up, shot, and left for dead in a hallway,” McBrayer recounts.
“That was the incident that woke me up. I didn’t want to be in the devil game. I wanted to live a good life.”
Seeking a reprieve from the difficulties he was facing in Minneapolis, McBrayer left the Twin Cities and moved to Springfield, Illinois to temporarily live with his grandparents.
But like South Minneapolis, Springville had its own set of problems.
“Springfield is Crackville. It is nothing short of a slum,” McBrayer notes.
To steer clear of distractions, McBrayer landed a job working with disabled people, a position that only paid $8 per hour, but it gave McBrayer a sense of purpose, something he was grateful for after nearly losing his life to gun violence months earlier.
The job also put McBrayer on a career path that would follow him back to Minneapolis, where he eventually accepted a position working with people who were paralyzed or suffering from traumatic brain injuries.
That newfound stability made McBrayer happy, and with his personal matters sorted, McBrayer then was in a position to begin helping other members of his community, something he had aspired to do ever since he was a kid.
His first move involved hosting Thanksgiving dinners, and initially only a small contingent came out to enjoy a meal, but over the years attendance rose, and eventually over 100 people from across the neighborhood showed up.
As the numbers increased, McBrayer felt compelled to do more for his community, so he then began honoring citizens who he felt deserved recognition.
“I started giving out awards to local business owners, leaders, and mentors,” McBrayer says.
“My thought was that if you had been doing your job since I was a young kid growing up in the neighborhood, then you deserved an award.”
Which brings us to 2021, a moment where McBrayer took the next step in his ascension and founded Don’t Shoot Guns, Shoot Hoops, a nonprofit that allowed him to combine his love for the game of basketball with gun violence advocacy in a way that would appeal to athletes and community leaders alike.
For his first event, McBrayer planned to host a basketball tournament to draw awareness to the impact gun violence has had on the Minneapolis community.
He didn’t know what to expect for his event’s turnout, but through social media and word of mouth, every ticket was sold and over 300 people were in attendance.
That trend has continued in subsequent events, and while McBrayer understands that many people are attracted to the basketball festivities, his organization’s ultimate goal remains centered on doing what they can to prevent gun violence.
“And as we grow, we’re trying to be active in every neighborhood that suffers from gun violence, talking about the damaging effects and telling stories that people can relate to,” McBrayer says of his platform’s mission.
At the same time, McBrayer understands that change won’t happen overnight, especially in low-income inner-city neighborhoods that are routinely stricken by gun violence.
He also is adamant that he is not anti-gun ownership, not only because he finds that turning the conversation political won’t assist in getting to the crux of the issue, but also because without guns, certain factions of law-abiding citizens would be adversely affected.
“I can’t tell someone not to have a gun because there are guns all over the place. If I tell someone not to have a gun and then two weeks later I see them on the news, that’s a problem,” McBrayer emphasizes.
“But I want to try to do things the right way because America is built upon the foundation that everyone needs to have a gun.”
As for the future of Don’t Shoot Guns, Shoot Hoops, McBrayer wants to build off the momentum his organization has created and disseminate his message beyond just the Twin Cities and into other major metropolises that experience exorbitant amounts of gun violence.
“I want to expand the company to the point where we are nationwide and hosting basketball tournaments throughout the country,” McBrayer says.
“Our vision for Don’t Shoot Guns, Shoot Hoops is we want to be a nation without gun violence, and we want to make that idea cool to young kids.” QS
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