Where Hoop Dreams Die

In the land of LeBron, nobody wants a basketball court

On a sunny afternoon in the opening days of summer break, half a dozen middle-school kids rode their bicycles in loops around the lone basketball court at Impett Park, in Cleveland's comfortably middle class West Park neighborhood. The court was of no use to anybody else, not since it had been destroyed by unknown vandals in the dead of night.

Back in April, residents and cops speculate, somebody hitched a truck to the thick steel poles that supported the backboards, then made like a tractor pull — bending one hoop almost to the ground and the other to about half its regulation height. The culprit left tire tracks, but little else to go on. The police report declares it "criminal damaging, vandalism to city property."

But aside from snickers and the occasional knowing smile, nobody in West Park said a word. The crime was investigated only in the technical sense, because a Cleveland parks worker making the rounds took note of the damage and called it in.

"They did an excellent job investigating," says one neighbor, a tongue-in-cheek response to the police's obligatory knocks on neighborhood doors to see if anyone saw anything suspicious. Of course, nobody did.

For years, residents warily eyed the crowds who gathered at what had been the only public basketball court in mostly white West Park. A short walk from toddlers' swings and a tee-ball field was a hotbed of adult basketball — heated games with often heated language, and accusations of illegal activity.

"It's not kids in the neighborhood," says one nearby neighbor, who can eye the court through the chain-link fence of his well-manicured backyard. "They are ... how should I put it? They don't belong here. I'm not prejudiced. But these bozos would constantly 'F-you! F-you! F-you!'" He says he's seen drug transactions there. When he speaks of it his voice rises into an angry simmer. It's his backyard we're talking about. He's got granddaughters.

"They ruin it for themselves," he says. "I think everybody finally got fed up with the language, and one person took it upon themselves to remedy the situation. Does anyone know who did it? Noooooooooooo," he says with the sarcasm of a man who knows exactly who did it.

The vigilante groundskeeping at Impett Park is emblematic of battles that have taken place over basketball courts across the region, especially in neighborhoods where poverty rubs shoulders with the middle class and the friction of culture clash can set off sparks. After decades of pick-up games in city parks from Lakewood to Euclid, cities have quietly removed their courts in favor of skate parks, grassy fields — anything that might be less likely to attract the wrong crowd.

In a town where LeBron James is king, it seems basketball is better viewed through a wide-screen TV than a window outside your home.

You don't need a boat or club membership to play pick-up basketball, but thick skin and a repertoire of taunts sure help.

Even Barack Obama addressed the subtle generational changes that have rendered a national pastime a playground scourge. As an Illinois state senator he told a Chicago newspaper, "When I was a young African-American man and played basketball with my friends, we might get loud and boisterous, and people found it disturbing. There is a perception that if there is a large gathering of young African-American youth, they are automatically going to cause problems.

"What is true is that basketball is cheap. Young men in the inner city are not likely to afford golf clubs or ski-lift tickets. They are able to play basketball." 

Gradually over the last ten years, Lakewood and Euclid are among the numerous suburbs that have removed basketball hoops in response to neighborhood complaints about noise, fights, and other activity. Today, the two cities — with their combined population of 100,000 — have zero public outdoor hoops. In Cleveland Heights, courts can be found in the city parks, but you can't be a baller unless you've got a pass to play from the city rec department. Parma once had 14 courts at nine city parks. Today it stands at half that number — though the city has still managed to become a magnet for pick-up games among players far and wide.

"I think the game has changed from back when Elgin Baylor and Larry Bird wore those short shorts," says Euclid mayor Bill Cervenik. "With that came more aggression and lots of aggravation to the neighbors." Under Cervenik's watch, the last hoops in Euclid came down about six years ago.

"They were taken down typically because someone at a house near the park would file a complaint because the kids playing there got unruly," says Euclid parks department program administrator Mac Stephens. "I understand both sides of the equation. I also was a kid playing at outdoor hoops. Too often we forget that when we were kids, we used to play outside in the streets and in the parks and sometimes get loud."

Cleveland councilman Kenneth Johnson knows it's not just about noise. "What is actually happening is young adults going from site to site, causing problems — not only looking for a game, but they are involved in drug activity," he says. "The reason they go where there's a hoop is that there's a larger clientele for the stuff they want to do — drugs and whatnot."

Johnson says Cleveland hasn't taken down hoops wholesale, but removes them when enough complaints come in to make it clear that their presence is a problem.

His colleague, councilman Terrell Pruitt, recently introduced legislation to make it easier for police to confiscate the portable basketball hoops some players have resorted to for street games. Yet he knows the shortage of hoops is a problem. He remembers growing up in the neighborhood around West 130th and Bellaire, and having to go to other neighborhoods to find hoops. That was back in the '90s. Now he lives in Ward 1, and his 16 year-old son has the same problem.

Lakewood resident Nadhal Eadeh recalls the games that took place in his town a decade ago, when he was a senior at Lakewood High School. Perhaps 50 people a night would converge at the "Harding cages" — three courts surrounded by a chain-link enclosure that once stood on school property on Madison Avenue toward the western end of town. When the school was rebuilt three years ago, the courts vanished. The same thing happened in parks and schoolyards across town, where pick-up games had flourished for years. As parks were reconfigured, hoops were removed and not replaced. And as the schools — which maintained some of the city's busiest courts — went through major reconstruction, those hoops came down too.

"Basketball — that sounds innocuous," says Lakewood councilwoman Mary Louise Madigan. Her ward includes Madison Park, which sits on the city's eastern edge in its poorest neighborhood. Madison was the city's most notorious court for noise complaints and ballers behaving badly, and by 2007, it was Lakewood's only remaining park with basketball hoops. By the end of that year, they too were history.

Madigan says she wasn't consulted by the mayor's office prior to their removal, but she sounds like a public official who doesn't miss the complaints of fed-up neighbors either.

Now she and her council peers are hearing complaints of another variety: a nascent push to return courts to the suburban parks that purged them in recent years. In Lakewood, the charge is led by Stephanie Toole, co-founder of the Lakewood Outdoor Basketball Committee, which is bending the ear of city council.

To her, having courts doesn't mean inviting the wrong crowd, but inviting children to get activity. "There is nothing free for these kids to do after age 8 or 9, unless they play tennis," says Toole, a mother of 7, the oldest of which are in college. "Summer's here, and there's no place for them to go and just let loose."

"Free" would seem to be the operative word. "As a mom, if you can write a check and drive there, you can get anything," she says. "We are so desperately in need of safe, healthy, free physical activity for our kids. If you have issues in the parks, do you close the parks or manage the problems?  It's penalizing all the kids for these problems. When college kids come home, they see that all we have for them is these bars."

Toole is joined on the committee by Eadeh, a Palestinian-American who believes outdoor basketball courts can help the city manage its diversity — a boon to a city whose high school hallways resonate with banter spoken in more than 30 different languages.

"Basketball is a global culture," he says. "When you're on a team, you become friends with the Albanian kid, the poor kid, the rich kid, the African-American kid."

The committee counts among its supporters Lakewood High School varsity basketball coach Phil Argento. "When I was a kid, the goal was to find where the good games were. Now the goal is just to get some hoops up so you can have a game," says Argento, whose team posted a record of 0-22 last season.

Lakewood Mayor Ed FitzGerald sees the absence of courts as a space-management issue brought about by the fact that Lakewood, like Euclid on the other side of town, has parks nestled in tightly packed residential neighborhoods. Even in the city's largest park, a pool, tennis courts, a skateboard park, playground equipment, a baseball field, and a historic house are all crammed together. He dismisses the idea that racial tension has anything to do with the challenge of finding a place for basketball.

"Lakewood has become so integrated that any validity that argument would have is outdated," he says. "You cannot go into a park in Lakewood and not see African-Americans. The idea that if we didn't have basketball we wouldn't have African-Americans is outrageous and offensive and illegal. If people haven't accepted that, then they have to get over it, because that's what Lakewood is."

Councilwoman Madigan is not opposed to returning basketball courts to Lakewood. She simply lays forth a series of conditions for doing so that paint their own picture of the trouble they brought to the neighborhood in the first place.

"What would be ideal is a fenced area where kids and adults had an ID, and there was tracking, and you could tell who was there at what time, and it would be documented by cameras," she says, describing a hoops paradise George Orwell might have envisioned.

She estimates that such a setup would cost "a couple hundred thousand" dollars — a lofty price to regrow a game whose original calling card was its cost-efficiency. It's also money that neither Lakewood nor its first-ring suburban sisters have.

But both Lakewood and Euclid are in the midst of planning park space, which both mayors expect will result in the return of hoops — at least on a trial basis. At a recent meeting about Lakewood's centrally located Kaufmann Park, some neighbors initially bristled at the notion of adding basketball courts. They dropped their objections when it was suggested that half-court hoops could be installed within the caged enclosure that currently surrounds a tennis court. Doing so would enable the city to close up shop at 8 p.m. each evening. Monitors from the parks department would be hired to keep tabs on the action. FitzGerald says the parks plan is due this week, and that he expects to install hoops at Kaufmann Park before the end of summer.

Euclid's plan is to build a new court from scratch in Memorial Park, a space large enough that hoops can be erected far enough from houses to avoid potential conflicts. It's likely no coincidence that the court will sit near the police department.

The city began work to clear land in preparation for pavement last fall, but the project was halted when neighbors learned that new hoops were in the works. Mayor Cervenik says the outcry inspired the city to start the process over, taking input from the neighborhood this time. Euclid will employ some of the same strategies as Lakewood, including supervision. But he puts some of the burden on players to keep the neighborhood happy and the courts open.

"Some of that will [require] the users of the hoops to take into a little consideration the concerns of the residents and other users of the park," he says. "There has to be etiquette. I know it's a tough game and tempers flare, but there needs to be some restraint on the users as well, regarding litter and language and otherwise. If we want to make our future hoops in Memorial Park successful, we're going to have to have a discussion with the users. It's my responsibility to do that."

The mayor estimates building the new court from scratch will cost as much as $80,000. He expects it to be ready for use in 2011.

The odds of hoops coming back to West Park are not so good.

Martin Keane, the area's councilman, says he was there when police investigated the hoops destroyed at Impett Park. "It's certainly horrible anytime our parks are vandalized," he says. But he also concedes that the will of the people should be carried out.

"I guess I've had complaints about behavior at the park," he says a bit reluctantly. "The rugby fields, the soccer fields, football games. I've definitely had complaints specific to the hoops, but it's hard to differentiate." Gripes about noise and language come to mind, as do objections of families with young children who couldn't get time on the court.

Residents say that Keane acted quickly to have the broken hoops replaced. He backed down when the prevailing sentiment was that West Park is better off without them.

Are there still plans to install a new hoop? "Not that I know of," says Keane today. "It's the parks' budget. I'd like to see a six-footer for the little kids if they are going to put the hoops back at all. Or a re-use of the space that the community as a whole would embrace — maybe a batting cage, or bocce ball."

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