Mark Hayward's City Matters: No place for hoop dreams
ON THE CITY'S website, you'll see a note from Mayor Ted Gatsas urging residents to take advantage of everything Manchester has to offer in the summer. Things like children's plays at the Palace Theatre and summer concerts in city parks.
Manchester is a city, the biggest in northern New England. Summer in the city means shorts, tank tops and overcrowded pools. It means hot apartments and cars that throb to the beat of J. Cole or Eminem. And it means basketball.
Not the refereed, league basketball played on foot-friendly hardwood floors in January. Summer basketball takes place during those precious evening hours after the blacktop cools and before the sun sets.
It's played on asphalt that amplifies the rhythmic dribble of a ball while players trash talk and shout out when they're open.
And this year, a year where the Zimmerman trial has re-opened chasms of race in this country, summer basketball binds people of all backgrounds, ages and abilities. People can play their hearts out and judge one another not for the color of their skin but for the content of their jump shot.
But summertime basketball is in danger in this city. Over the last decade or so, the city has shut down court after court, succumbing to pressure from neighbors who complain about after-hours dribbling and strangers at their neighborhood parks.
Livingston Park. Harriman Park. Enright Park. Howe Park. All have seen basketball hoops come down.
"The ones I closed were basically at the will of the alderman of whatever ward I was in," said Ron Ludwig, the former parks director for the city (who is an alderman himself now).
Ludwig disagreed, he said. But a bureaucrat can only do so much when an alderman and his constituents are harping for something to be done. One of those aldermen is Ed Osborne, whose Ward 5 is in the center city.
"I have a problem with basketball," Osborne said. He said basketball players damage the parks. He said they smoke weed and leave cigarette butts, needles and condoms behind. And they stay at the park way after the sun goes down, dribbling the basketball into the early morning hours.
In fact, Osborne is eyeing the courts at Sheridan-Emmett Park across from Beech Street School. He's suggested removing backboards and rims during the summer months.
"All my constituents say they can't sleep," Osborne said. "This is not right, 3 o'clock in the morning playing basketball. They should get a job or go to school."
If Beech Street closes, Manchester would have one outdoor full-court on the east side of the river — Pine and Bridge street.
"They get dudes out here who really play ball and go hard," said Stu Lee, 30, after playing a pickup full-court game at the Pine and Bridge street court, the undisputed TD Garden of summertime basketball in Manchester.
The games there are competitive, no doubt. Gary Rouillard, 63, brings a folding chair and watches courtside, enjoying the trash-talking and confrontations as much as the game.
"This is life or death for some of these guys," he said. Most important is the location.
"My favorite thing is there's two (traffic) lights here. Everyone's watching," said Mike Lowe, 26, a freelance Web designer, as he laced up his sneakers.
Rouillard and Lowe say the city needs more courts and that about 20 people wait to play on a summer weeknight. The people who lose out are the younger ones.
"Besides the YMCA, there's not that many places to go and practice your shot," said another player, Jim Terrero, 23, a talent recruiter for Kelly Services. He organizes tournaments at the Beech Street courts, the ones the city may end up shutting down.
Peter Capano, the city parks director, said Manchester is not short of courts and points to the four full-courts on the West Side. But two at Wolfe Park have grass growing in cracks. And all lack the profile of Bridge and Pine. (East side players say you can find good game at Rock Rimmon on occasion.)
So what's the alternative? City Hall seems to favor white-sneaker sports. Tennis is big — the city opened courts at Derryfield, West High and Memorial High while it was shutting down basketball courts. Walking and bicycle trails are always being built. And the West Side hosts ping-pong-like pickle ball leagues.
Capano said he doesn't want to close the Beech Street courts. He thinks the neighbors at Beech Street should call police if they can't sleep. And Osborne said the problem would go away if police enforced the park curfew.
Osborne rebuffed my suggestion that, instead of calling the cops, he visit the park and speak to curfew-abusing players.
"They don't listen. You ever talk to a wall? That's what you do in this ward, you talk to a wall," he said.
Close Beech Street, and people like Esteban Andino, 35, may find even more people lining up at Pine and Bridge. He said he's amazed at Manchester basketball etiquette; everyone stays peaceful despite the rough play.
"You'd rather have people playing basketball and enjoying themselves," he said, "than selling drugs out here."
Mark Hayward's City Matters runs Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He played pickup ball for about two decades but has not settled into tennis and bicycling in the summer.