Children cry foul after basketball hoop is removed

July 02, 2005|By ROB KASPER

THE BEST NEWS I heard this week was that a basketball hoop is back on my neighborhood playground just in time for the Fourth of July weekend.

It is the hoop that wouldn't die. It appeared to be gone for good when new playground equipment took its old spot. But it was resurrected, reappearing this week in a new location, after a plea for its reinstatement was issued by its fans, many of them teenagers.

While the particulars of this hoop tale come from a downtown Baltimore community club where I am a member, Bolton Hill Swim and Tennis, it touches, I think, on some of the larger issues of playground life, ones that play out anywhere that kids share space in the summertime.

The old hoop was not much to look at. It was a single rickety basket attached to a metal pole, surrounded by a patch of dirt. During dry periods the dirt court resembled the Great Dust Bowl. To my eyes, however, it was gorgeous. I had put that hoop up, along with a handful of other dads, on a hot Saturday in 1993, during a time in our lives when our kids virtually lived on the playground.

It was a deliberately low-key setup. Games could not get too serious if the basket was wobbly and the dirt court uneven. But over the years, kids played there and so did some parents, sometimes shooting a few baskets barefoot after eating supper on the playground's picnic tables.

The old hoop came down to make way for some gleaming new playground equipment. The equipment, which includes a climbing wall, a tunnel and a plastic slide that won't heat up in the sun like the old metal slide did, is aimed at entertaining the growing throngs of younger children who frequent the playground. Installation of new equipment was part of a redesign of the area that, according to pool president Andrew Lacovara, was trying to make the playground "more passive" than it had been. I think that is a polite way of saying that some parents of young kids were worried about their offspring getting trampled by thundering herds of older kids.

Being president of a community pool and balancing all these competing interests is a pretty thankless job. I found this out several years ago when my wife held the post. The home phone rings all the time and rarely are the callers saying, "Just wanted you to know we appreciate your volunteering your time and effort."

The plan for the playground redesign had been in the works for two years, Lacovara told me, but it wasn't until changes started taking effect that people paid much attention. The sandbox was moved and downsized, new playground equipment was installed and the playground natives grew restless. Among the disenchanted were some kids who had grown up with the old playground configuration, playing capture the flag, Wiffle ball and basketball on its once-open spaces. They didn't want these activities to go away from their summer. They thought there was room on the playground for big kids and little kids. A teenage girl drew up a petition saying essentially that coexistence of big kids and little kids was a central component of playground life. It asked that the hoop be returned. In the space of a few days, the petition gathered about 70 signatures, many of them from teenagers and preteens.

It got the attention of the club's presiding powers, who took advantage of an offer from a club member to donate a portable hoop, one that has a goal that can be lowered to accommodate beginners, or raised to regulation 10-foot height for older players.

Shortly after this hoop for all ages appeared, it drew customers. The other night I watched two teenage boys shooting hoops, setting the goal at a height more appropriate for younger, much shorter kids.

Meanwhile on another part of the playground, some young diggers, who apparently did not know that they were supposed to be delighted with the new sandbox, were happily excavating at the site of the old sandbox.

This reminded me of another instance of the vagaries of playground life, one from a summer some 20 years ago, when my kids were about the age of these young diggers. Back then a bunch of us parents had spent a lot of effort and money getting new playground equipment for the kids. The kids, however, ended up spending much of that summer playing in the bushes and dirt that ringed the playground.

Now that my kids are in their 20s, I don't spend nearly as many hours on the playground as I once did. But a few weeks ago, when the old hoop was still up and my older son was in town for the weekend, we went down to the playground to play hoops. Two boys, about 10 years old, quickly joined us. We played a short game, with one of the old guys choosing one of the "shorties" as his teammate. After the game came to a dusty conclusion, the old guys gave the youngsters a few tips, telling them to bend their knees when they shoot, to use the backboard.

It was no big deal, just a casual interaction between a couple of kids and some old guys who happened to be members of the same community, the same playground tribe.

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