Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Oakley still hoops hot spot

Got game? Get to Oakley

By Zachary Fox
Enquirer contributor

Brooks Posta of Mt. Lookout, left, tries to pressure John Watts of Clifton.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
| ZOOM |
Pickup basketball is becoming something of a lost art in many communities in Greater Cincinnati and across the nation, but you can usually find a game at Oakley Playground.

There's no schedule, no official organization. Just a lot of intensely played basketball.

"This court's always crowded. It's just a neighborhood thing," explains Chayne Kroeger, 17, an Oakley resident and frequent player. "You know, coming down here is just a good way to stay out of trouble and get away from all the drama. It's like every day, it gives you something to do."

In his search for the nation's best pickup basketball courts, author Chris Ballard called Oakley Playground the "best outdoor court in the Queen City" in his 1998 book Hoops Nation.

Its reputation has continued to grow, and lures not only locals but players from around Greater Cincinnati, including players from both the University of Cincinnati and Xavier University's basketball teams. Among drop-ins has been former UC standout and current Dallas Mavericks star Nick Van Exel.

"We got everybody coming down here," says Kroeger. "High school players, some UC kids. We've got adults coming down after they get off work. It's a real melting pot."

While it may be easy to take a trip to the Oakley Playground and get into a game within minutes, pickup games can be elusive elsewhere, in part because of the increased popularity of "extreme sports" such as skateboarding. And some communities, including Forest Park and Springfield Township, have taken steps against outdoor basketball, citing reasons from noise to safety hazards.

Only a couple of teens honing their one-on-one games could be found one recent summer afternoon at Middletown's Sunset Park, once a mecca for pickup games. Players would come hundreds of miles to compete on the court, which became famous in the 1950s as Jerry Lucas led Middletown High to state domination before going on to star for Ohio State and in the National Basketball Association.

"It's a different game today than it was back then, because there are so many other things going on for kids today," said Jerry Nardiello, longtime sports columnist for the Middletown Journal. "Kids' days are so structured today for all the things they do. Back in the day, they would just get up and go out with their friends to play basketball."

And that suburban icon, the portable basketball goal at the end of the cul-de-sac, has been under fire. The Associated Press reported in June that communities in at least seven states have banned portable hoops. Forest Park, considering the hoops a dangerous, unnecessary obstruction, passed an ordinance prohibiting any "permanent or portable recreational equipment" from being placed in driveway aprons or roadways.

In Springfield Township, trustees are considering a resolution for action against nuisance basketball hoops. If more than half of residents within 300 feet of the basketball goal sign a petition requesting the goal be removed, the township may remove it.

"It's something the children are going to have a stake in," said Joseph Honerlaw, a trustee. "If the kids are going to be totally out of control, the residents living nearby can petition us."

Pickup games also have gotten blocked in some urban areas nationally, where outdoor courts were attracting gangs and drug activity. The city of Chicago has taken down rims from some outdoor courts because of such problems.

But Cincinnati encourages use of all its courts, city officials say.

"We haven't had any issues," said Mike Thomas, regional director for the Cincinnati Recreation Commission.

"And we encourage people to play at all of our outdoor and indoor courts."

Oakley's showcase has a good reputation. "Within the past five years we haven't had too many problems," said Mark Celsor, the service area coordinator. The complaints Celsor has heard from neighboring parents are relatively tame - the most common being curfew violations at the playground, which is next to the Oakley Community Center and within a few blocks of the Hyde Park Golf and Country Club.

A pickup game is inherently impromptu. It just happens.

"Everybody knows what time to come down. And if there's no one down here, you just start playing with a ball and a hundred people will show up," says Kroeger, who will be a senior at Withrow High School this year.

Pickup basketball is a club where everyone is a member. Membership simply entails finding the meetings.

Oakley actually has two basketball courts, and it has its pecking order.

"Down there, that's where you develop your skills," says "Adidas" Blass, as he points to the back court, "and once you're good enough, you can play up here. This is the main event."

For these players, the game has developed into something more than just a way to improve their skills or kill time during the summer. It has become a social event, and making friends is just as much a part of the game as the game itself.

"If you want everybody around town to know you, just go around playing ball at different parks," says Blass, 20. An Oakley resident and regular, he sometimes plays at other courts in the Cincinnati area.

"You talk to people and they'll tell you where the places are," Blass says.

"It's the best way to meet people. I've got more friends here than I do on my street. We all grew up together here on the courts," Kroeger says.

"Once the sun goes down and everyone starts to come off work, there'll be a whole lot of people down here playing," Blass says. "Everyone will be standing along this fence watching and calling 'Next!'"


Reid Forgrave contributed to this report.

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