Interview by Uriah Young
QFTD: As a police officer for the Gainesville Police Department, you are called to respond to disturbances. On one of those calls, you were told to check out a disturbance where some teens were said to be too rowdy while playing basketball. When you arrived, instead of being confrontational, you got out of your patrol car and started playing hoops with them. The video of that interaction was shared online and quickly went viral. Why do you think so many people watched the video? Why do you think it resonated with people?
Bobby: I'm not sure why mine actually blew up. Maybe it's just a matter of a few of the right shares, I guess. I think what attracts people to videos like mine is... you know, there's a cop video on the internet, so right away people think they want to see it because people may be expecting something negative, but mine was the opposite. Maybe some people expected a bad ending, but when they started watching it, people were pleasantly surprised.
QFTD: You’ve done some noble things in your life, but life wasn’t always that kind to you, especially as a young boy. Tell us about your childhood.
Bobby: I didn’t have a great childhood. I grew up not knowing my dad. I met my dad once when I was twelve, and I didn't even know he was my dad at the time. So, I was raised by my mom. She struggled from job the job. We moved from apartment to apartment, and I switched from school to school. She actually got hooked on drugs, and that's what killed her, ultimately. But I always kept my head on straight and tried to do the right thing and succeed. I managed to stay straight and on the right path to become a successful adult through my own hard work.
QFTD: Before you became a police officer, you were an entrepreneur, a day trader, and rose through the ranks at Home Depot as a manager. Please, elaborate on your career journey. What did you learn from this variety of experiences?
Bobby: I learned early on is that nothing is given to you. You're not entitled to anything and nothing is really going to be handed to you: nothing of any substance that's going to help you succeed in life. You have to commit yourself to something and work hard to achieve it. Right out of high school, I got a few, little odd jobs here and there. Then, I opened up an auto detailing business down in South Florida that became pretty successful. I kept it open for about 12 years, and I just kind of got burnt out and wanted to do something else. So, I met somebody that got me interested in the whole stock trading idea. I actually got a job for an internet software company that sold stock trading software. While working for that company, I had the opportunity to move to Hawaii to help my brother-in-law at the time open an office there. I started day trading stocks myself. It was fun, but it was challenging. Then, my wife at the time got pregnant with my daughter, and we wanted to move home, so we came back to Florida. I figured I couldn't keep just trading stocks. I needed a job with benefits and insurance for my family, so I ended up getting a job at Home Depot at night in order to do what I was doing during the day. I started to like the environment at Home Depot, and obviously it's somewhere you can make a career if you work hard. I moved up fairly quickly; I went from a brand new hire to an assistant store manager in a year and 3 months at Home Depot. I did that for several years and had an opportunity to move up to Gainesville out of South Florida. I wanted to move my kids to a quieter type of environment and community. Then, I started thinking about a career change. My whole life I always thought about what it would be like to be a police officer. To have that job where you're not stuck in an office, where you're out and you're interacting with all different kinds of people. I always wanted to do it, but I never had really the opportunity to slow down, and take that pay cut. When I came up here to Gainesville, Home Depot was changing a lot, and it was a very stressful job, working long hours and working holidays. So, I had the opportunity, financially, to put myself through the academy. When I completed the academy, the Gainesville Police Department hired me, and here I am.
QFTD: You’ve said that, as a police officer, when it comes to developing trust with the community, you may only have one chance, especially with young people. How have you approached that crucial opportunity to develop trust with the community you serve?
Bobby: When I grew up, I always looked at police officers like superheroes. They were out there protecting us. They were super strong, and they were fast. They were amazing. Every time I saw a police officer, I wanted go talk to them or shake their hand. So, I always thought, as kids, that’s what they thought of police officers. When I became a police officer, I kind of expected that kind of reaction from the kids, like they're going to want to talk to me. I soon realized that there are a lot of kids like that, but there are also kids who are either scared of you or they’re not sure how to take you. I don't know exactly where it comes from...I guess it’s social media, or the news, or their parents. Sometimes, if we go up to the kids trying to hi-five them, the parents might tell them, “Get away from that police officer.” So, it's challenging. And who knows where it comes from for the adults. Maybe it started up when they were kids? I've always felt like any relationship, regardless if it’s with your spouse… a relationship you have with a bank or even a fast food restaurant, there has to be trust. You trust the bank to take care of your money. You trust that your food is not going to be cold and make you sick. So, regardless of the relationship, you have to have trust. And that’s what I've always tried to do with these kids. When they see me, they know I am their friend. They trust me. They know I am doing the right thing. And maybe they trust that I’m that superhero who they think I am. I try to interact with every kid, even if it's from my patrol car to an incident, and there’s kids along the way, I can hi-five those kids. That’s what I have done my whole career. What that video shows is another routine call for me. When parents see what we do with the kids, they'll come over and tell us they appreciate what we do to help the youth.
QFTD: How does your foundation, The Basketball Cop Foundation, help build a bridge of trust?
Bobby: So, the foundation is giving me the opportunity to go out there and supply police departments from across the country the tools to interact with the community. So, I send them basketball hoops and basketballs. There’s one agency who I sent a soccer goal and soccer balls so they can go and actually have an event or donate it to a church, a group home, a neighborhood, or even a family. Whatever an agency thinks is most appropriate for their communities, we’ll do what we can to supply the equipment. It's great because these police agencies can make events out of the donations from the Basketball Cop Foundation, where they bring out multiple police officers, the police chief, city officials, and the media to create a big, positive stir in the community.
QFTD: Why do you think that it is important that police officers across the country unite through efforts like The Basketball Cop Foundation?
Bobby: Some people want to doubt or question things, even the positive things. In my case, I hear people say we need more cops like you. Or they say, “All cops aren’t bad,” which by the way I hate because it could imply that most are bad. It should be, “Most cops are great - officers going out and doing what they’re paid to do.” When I highlight different police agencies across the nation from different sized cities of different demographics, people can see that we are all doing the same thing, trying to connect with communities. We are out there interacting with kids, playing basketball, playing soccer. Our uniforms might look a little different, or our cars might look different, but we are the same. This way, it doesn’t create a “good cop - bad cop” kind of situation, which could happen, if I put the spotlight on me. It’s important people know that there’s tons of basketball cops out there.
QFTD: What started the idea of using basketball hoops for cops to connect with communities?
Bobby: Last summer, when I found out there was some federal grant money, I applied for it and bought about 60 footballs and basketballs. Then, I went out and put them in the car trunks of police officers. The officers were so excited. One officer told me, “Now, I will always have a football with me so I can get out and throw it around with the kids.” It’s about giving officers more tools to help them continue doing what they’ve been doing. Most cops live paycheck to paycheck, and most of us can’t afford to buy all these supplies, so the foundation can help in that area. One early instance of bringing a community together happened in Massachusetts. I was in contact with Officer Darren Derby, and his police agency was a recipient of the first hoop I sent out of state. The foundation later sent out three hoops. After a while, they requested not to send anymore because the community started rallying around this #hoopsnotcrime initiative.
To date, they’ve had 14 hoops donated by small businesses and private citizens. The foundation just planted a seed, and good things started to grow.
QFTD: What has the distribution process been like for the foundation, donating hoops to communities to different states?
Bobby: Delivering the hoops has been the easiest part. The administrative stuff, in the beginning, has taken the most time. Like starting the Go Fund Me and getting donations from individual people has been nice, but I knew that could only last so long. So, I had to register for a 501(c)(3) status to be able to reach corporate donors. Typically, I will see a video or article about a police officer doing something to interact with kids in a community. So, what I do is I pick up the phone and call that agency. I introduce myself and let them know I saw their officer proactively engaging with their community and that I want to donate a hoop and ball for them to continue building relationships with kids. There’s an agency sponsor initiative, where anybody or company can get a package. You can sponsor any police department in the country for $200, where I will be the liaison and contact the police department. I line up the media stuff, and I prepare the shipping. We had one in Arizona and California recently. Other tasks involve things like what’s happening as we speak: doing interviews and making contacts, trying to generate donations, which is so much harder than I ever imagined. Even for $10, it’s been tough. The foundation has over 7,200 Facebook followers, and if each person just donated $10 there’s so many kids that could be reached.
QFTD: Any recent donation events happen where the Basketball Cop Foundation helped spark?
Bobby: There was a mobile home park in Idaho, where a huge event was made out of getting hoops in their community. They had about 50 kids and about 30 cops all playing basketball together. Think about all the relationships that were formed. With just one hoop! The foundation just helped build an NBA sized court here in Gainseville outside of a church. They host a free summer camp for 50-70 kids of families who can’t afford daycamp. I asked if a basketball court could be built on their property, and there was a huge community event. Six agencies were invited, and even the commissioner was there on the grill. Then, there was a grand opening of the basketball court. Even if the church isn’t open, kids can go over and play.
QFTD: Millions of people have watched your video with Shaq. What was it like meeting Shaq? Was it what you expected?
Bobby: It was a total surprise. In the initial video, when I played hoops with the kids, after it was over, I walked away and said I would be back with backup for another game. My plan was to go back when I had more time with some other cops. Leading up to Shaq’s visit, people were online saying, “We want to see the rematch.” I didn’t know Shaq would be coming. Our PIO was the one who set it all up. When it was being coordinated, Shaq didn’t want the media there. No one was to know: not me or the kids. When I was told that the rematch would be on Saturday at 1pm, I was like, “Well, I don’t come in until 4.” He said to make sure the kids would be home. He said, “If you’ve ever trusted me in your life, the rematch will be at one o’clock. But meet at the briefing room at noon. Bring your fellow officers.” Then, it happened. Shaq came into the briefing room, and it’s nothing like what I could ever imagine. Since then, I’ve talked to Shaq several times, and he’s an amazing guy. You think of celebrities that they might lose their roots and forget where they came from; he is one of them that hasn’t. His dedication to these kids is amazing. He drove up in his personal car from Orlando. Getting to know him, it’s unbelievable how busy he is. And to find time to drive to Gainesville and not request media. He had nothing to gain from this. Here’s something else about Shaq… after the video, I was contacted by a kindergarten teacher from Elizabeth NJ who was doing a Black History Month project and the kids picked Shaq as a person to highlight. They even made a cut out of Shaq… she asked me, “If you could get him to write a letter or postcard and send it to the class, it would mean a lot.” Then the class made a Youtube video. So, I sent the video to Shaq’s assistant, and his assistant sent me a screenshot message saying, “Hey kiddos, Uncle Shaq will see you soon.” Two weeks later, I get a picture of Shaq in the classroom with those kindergarten kids. That’s unheard of with the celebrity status he has and with the busy schedule he has.
QFTD: What advice would you give to young people who aspire to become a police officer?
Bobby: To be successful in life, you have to build a base. Like Shaq said, respecting your parents; staying in school; doing the right thing; not breaking the law. Kids say to me that they want to be an officer when they grow up, but they may not ask what has to be done. I tell them that you must get a high school diploma and that some agencies require you to have a college education. You have to be a good citizen. You can’t do what the bad kids are doing. You have to separate yourself from those kinds of things. It’s a huge process to become a police officer. Those original 8 kids from the video, I stop by to interact with them from time to time. They have my cell phone number. And they know if they mess up, they would disappoint me. I talk to their parents and get updates on them. Hopefully, my interactions with them leave a lasting, positive impression.
QFTD: You're doing wonderful things for the area you serve and across the country, Bobby. We wish you continued success with The Basketball Cop Foundation. Thank you for all you do to keep people safe and for trying to strengthen police/community relations.