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Holding court

Hoop, there it is. In Jamaica Plain, unlike in some 'hoods, b-ballers win their basket case.

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ric Kahn
Globe Staff / June 29, 2008

In his head, 14-year-old Cerone "Pwee" Davis is Celtics shooting star Ray Allen, cradling the basketball behind the three-point arc with the NBA title on the line.

As he recounts it, Davis says he sounds off the remaining seconds as they tick off the clock: Five, four, three, two . . .

Davis head-fakes right, and lets it fly.

The ball finds its mark - swish! - and Davis raises both hands in triumph. "Yeah," he announces. "We won the championship."

The buzzer-beating role-playing heroics are part of Davis's pregame practice ritual, and as the b-baller walks off the South Street court in Jamaica Plain alone after school, he imagines the other Celtics burying him in hugs and fist bumps.

This season, after a long drought, every Boston ballyard fantasy finally found reality, as the Celtics won their 17th championship banner earlier this month at the Garden, despite being pegged as underdogs by national hoop pundits.

In what might be seen in some areas of the city as another upset of sorts, Davis will be retaining his homecourt advantage at the South Street Mall and Courts - simply "the court up the street" to Davis and the group of teenage players who wear out their Nike Air Forces and Jordans up to four hours a day there.

"This is my court," says Davis, happy to hear the news that, after months of discussion, the city is going to renovate the rundown basketball court, and not remove it.

At a time in the city when there's been a flurry of gang activity and summer jobs remain as precious as ever, parents say they'd rather have their children shooting baskets on that court than getting trapped by trouble somewhere else.

"They need that thing to go play at," says Mary Reid, a 64-year-old foster mother who lives down the block at the South Street Apartments. For the public housing development, "The Court" serves as its backyard hoop.

Fifteen-year-old Romario Joseph says he grew up at the South Street Apartments. But even as he and others like Davis moved out of the neighborhood, they still consider "The Court" their base, and come back all the time to play at it.

"If we don't have that," says Joseph, "we'd be out here doing some violent stuff."

At another time, another place, the crowds of kids congregating at the court could have scared off a neighborhood. "The Court" might have been flattened to make way for a tot lot, or a village green.

Not here, not now.

"It's one of the things about JP," says Michael Epp, 57, an architect and neighborhood resident who helped push to keep the court. "It accepts a lot of people."

When it comes to the role of basketball courts in the urban quality-of-life quotient, there are two major schools of thought: One is that they attract troublemaking youths. The other is that they keep youths out of trouble.

"There's not many places to do something as normal for kids to do as playing basketball," says Epp, describing the community's mindset in advocating for "The Court."

In other sectors of the city, it hasn't played out that way.

At Ryan Playground in Dorchester, neighbors complained to the city that the courts were a magnet for drunken young roughnecks and rowdies.

First, the court was cut in half, to try and lessen the crowds attracted to full-court games. By the time the park was rededicated in 2004 after a city makeover, the court was totally vanquished, replaced by more tot-friendly structures.

As a postscript, some of the residents who favored preserving the hoops pointed out the continued presence in the park of ne'er-do-wells - albeit of an older kind.

Last year, according to court records, police arrested two homeless men after conducting surveillance there: one, 33, for drinking beer out of a bag at 10 in the morning, the other, 52, for bolting charges filed in Brockton District Court that he possessed heroin and a hypodermic needle.

At an earlier seminal hoop throwdown in the South End, the subtle suggestions of racism that can hover over these b-ball debates flew into open rage.

In a well-publicized 1998 letter to the South End News, a Waltham Street resident wrote of the joy he found watching basketball games at Ringgold Park. Until he talked to a neighbor.

"We're trying to get rid of this basketball court," the neighbor allegedly said.

Why? the Waltham Street guy asked.

"Because it brings the wrong kind of people into the neighborhood," the neighbor is said to have replied.

The Waltham Street man wrote: "As I turned back to watch the game and the row of young black men who sat watching on sidelines, it became painfully clear what my neighbor meant by 'the wrong kind of people.' "

Though other South Enders insisted they were objecting to commotion, not skin color, the full-court venue was eventually sliced in half.

Lately, though, Boston ballers and their backers have been on a roll.

This year, at two city parks that saw major renovations - Ronan in Dorchester and Mozart in JP - neighborhood input led the powers that be to hang onto, and redo, the basketball courts, according to the Boston Parks and Recreation Department.

"It keeps kids busy in an activity that hurts no one," says Mary Hines, a Parks and Rec spokeswoman. "It's good and healthy."

To be sure, there were other factors besides pure basketball that helped prevent the South Street hoops from turning into green space - a suggested alternative that never gained traction during public meetings held over the last year.

In minutes of those meetings, it was noted that the nearby Agassiz elementary school plays on the hardtop, and that the tennis court next to the hoops is used by a youth development group. And residents envisioned the court hosting activities besides basketball, from a farmers market to outdoor movies.

Still, the urban hoopsters were on the minds of community activists when, as part of its routine upgrades, the city floated plans to remake the half-acre park site that contains the hoops, one of 144 city-owned basketball courts in Boston.

Epp says b-ballers are not a constituency that usually shows up to lobby at community meetings - and, in this case, they didn't. But rather than use their absence as an excuse to shun them, neighbors embraced the urban hoopsters' use of "The Court."

"It's like a silent minority," says Epp, who got involved with the park as design committee chairman of JP Centre/South Main Streets, part of a city program that also uses private funds to revitalize local districts. "To pretend that it doesn't exist is wrong."

Joy Silverstein owns the Fresh Hair salon on the corner of South Street and Carolina Avenue, about 65 feet from the basketball court. She wants it to stay in her backyard.

Silverstein volunteered to document whether the hoops were a neighborhood necessity, and during a sample of several weeks she chronicled their popularity.

"I always saw kids playing basketball," says Silverstein, 54, a JP resident.

In some places, that's been enough to kill a court for luring too many hoopin'-it-up teenagers to one spot. In Jamaica Plain, where the last census figures show a 50-50 split between whites and nonwhites, many residents see the children playing hoops as their own - even when they're not.

"This is JP; we like each other," says Silverstein, whose 15-year-old daughter does not regularly use the park. "We're the ones who try do the right thing - for the environment, for the people, for the world."

Pending final funding, the city hopes in the fall to start a $400,000 refurbishing of the South Streets Courts and Mall. According to landscape architect Ray Dunetz, plans call for curved metal benches instead of the worn wooden ones; a swirly sculpted fence to replace part of the rusty chain link; cafe-style tables and chairs; and a fixed-up tennis court. It might even get a flashier name.

But the hoopyard is staying put in all its full-court splendor. Its cracked and bumpy surface is scheduled to be smoothed out, and fresh backboards installed.

Pwee Davis says that's a sweet surprise.

"I thought they would make it something else," he says.

Now, he and the Celtics can both try to repeat as champions on their courts of first resort.

Ric Kahn can be reached at rkahn@globe.com.

Basketballer's bible

Four items you need to become an urban hoopster:

Stylin' Snyx Hightop Nike Air Forces, or Jordans, for support and grip, says South Street b-baller Cerone Davis.

Hops "I can touch the rim," says Davis, a 5-foot-8-inch 14-year-old.

Trash Talkin' Davis tries to throw his opponents off balance, for example, by encouraging a teammate to blow past the guy guarding him, saying, "Go by her!"

Game Most importantly, you have to be able to handle, shoot, or defend the ball. If not, your role is to sit on the sidelines, and learn. "You watch," says Davis. "Try to get better. Steal somebody's moves."

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