Net loss in the suburbs Unruly behavior, racial fears lead to removal of hoops

April 21, 1996|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, Kim Wallace glanced out the front window of her Towson home and was jolted by a drama unfolding on a crowded basketball court across the street.

A player in a heated pickup game ran to his parked car, grabbed a handgun and chased another player through Highland Park, up an alley and out of sight, while dozens of others scattered like a routed platoon. No shots were fired, but the incident shocked a neighborhood already weary of noise, litter and profanity at the court.

That night, residents slipped onto the court with a ladder, hammers and screwdrivers and removed the orange hoops. And today, three years after the gun incident, the concrete court -- like many in Baltimore's inner suburbs -- is the scene of roller hockey, but no basketball.

Playgrounds and schoolyards across Baltimore County bear the ruins of basketball courts -- poles and backboards, but no hoops. From Edmondson Heights to Pikesville to Towson, more than two dozen rimless suburban courts stand as rusting monuments to the city game. In one Towson-area neighborhood, residents recently gave county officials a long list of suggestions for the new Regester Park -- and one caveat: no basketball courts.

Suburbanites say the courts attract increasingly unruly players. And many acknowledge an undercurrent of racial fear that turns empty courts into a social metaphor: no basketball, no young black men coming into mostly white neighborhoods.

"We would all be sitting with our heads in the sand if we said there weren't people who didn't have feelings of racial fear," says Justin King, president of Greater Towson Council of Community Associations.

Regester Park fears

"I have heard comments which seem to indicate that fear exists specifically in regard to proposed Regester Park and people coming from the city. The buzz word is 'outsiders' -- I cringe every time I hear the word," Mr. King says.

Says Patrycia Pickett, a retired math teacher and president of the Coalition of Concerned African-Americans of Baltimore County: "The outsider syndrome is basically a catch-all for covering up what people don't want to say, what they feel. That kind of type-casting leaves the impression that only certain people play basketball and that, in itself, frightens me."

Some find irony in the dismantling of basketball goals or in preventing them from being put up. Playgrounds were created at the turn of the century to help new immigrants socialize and allow young people to exhaust their energies while learning teamwork and self-discipline.

And Baltimore has featured splendid playground summer leagues. In the early 1960s, the games included players from the Baltimore Bullets -- and a team from the Maryland Penitentiary, which, of course, played only home games. In recent years, a number of schoolyard players, including the Houston Rockets' Sam Cassell and Muggsy Bogues of the Charlotte Hornets, have reached the National Basketball Association.

"White guys came into black neighborhoods to play and vice versa back then," recalls Charlie Moore, who played for Dunbar High School's powerhouse teams in the early 1960s and who last year was the Maryland Scholastic Association's coach of the year at Lake Clifton High School. "Everybody got to know one another, and that carried a lot of value."

Admittedly, today's climate on the outdoor courts is different. "But everybody is getting labeled, and all black people don't have Uzis or a pocketful of crack cocaine," Mr. Moore says. "We have kids go on to be great citizens. Leadership and responsibility come from that basketball court; dreams can start there."

At the crowded courts off Towson's Kenilworth Avenue, Kenny Walker laments the shrinking number of places to play.

"The message is clear: Don't build more courts and we won't come," says Mr. Walker, a UPS driver from White Marsh who plays several times a week. "On warm evenings here, it's not unusual to see 50 or 60 guys waiting to play."

More players in fewer places

Chris Bullock, a Towson State University graduate who plays at Kenilworth, says removing the rims from neighborhood courts "means more players in fewer places. And people are always saying playground basketball is rough, and it sometimes is. But has anyone ever gone to England or Scotland for a soccer game?"

Molefi Kete Asanti, who is writing a book on the cultural aspects of basketball, says efforts to keep the sport out of some neighborhoods are "racist."

"Basketball players are no worse than soccer players, but you don't hear protests to keep soccer fields from being built," says Dr. Asanti, who started the nation's first doctorate in African-American studies program at Temple University in Philadelphia. The phenomenon occurs outside other American cities, he adds.

Some say race is not an issue.

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