The hoop stays down.
Following a spirited public comments session at the Springfield Township Committee meeting, officials announced that the basketball court at Laurel Park would remain half courts.
One of the court’s hoops was taken down earlier this summer after residents of the neighborhood near the park complained about loutish, unruly and disruptive behavior by players at the park. Similar complaints had led to the town taking down hoops at Smithfield and other parks in 2011 and 2012.
The removal of the hoop has confused and irked a number of Springfield residents. Several residents have insinuated the move was driven by racism, alleging that the neighbors are complaining because black youths—presumed to be from out of town—use the courts.
The contention of racism became a central issue in the story as it gained surprising media attention after an opinion article written by 23-year-old Springfield resident Evan Ring was published on Springfield Patch earlier this month. The article garnered over 150 comments and was subsequently featured on WPIX television news. Afterwards, the issue attracted the attention of the Newark Star-Ledger, CBS News and other media outlets.
Several residents felt that the coverage cast Springfield in a poor light, particularly a quote from resident Michael Ahrens, who told the Ledger that Laurel Park looked “like Rahway State Prison yard" when the full court hoops were up. Several speakers slammed the quote in the public comment session, including former Springfield Mayor Bart Fraenkel, who called the statement “absurd.” During the meeting, Ahrens told Patch he regretted the quote’s “terminology” and that his issues with the players’ stemmed from their actions, not race.
“I’m Jewish,” he said. “You could have 20 Jewish people with Yarmulkes. If they’re using bad language and urinating, I don’t want them out there either.”
Like Ahrens, several Springfield residents denied being motivated by race. In his introduction, Springfield Mayor Ziad Andrew Shehady said that “race did not factor into the officials decision.”
Residents opposing the full courts said that when the hoop was up, Laurel Park hosted “yelling, fights and throwing garbage cans.” They said that evidence of liquor and drugs, specifically crack cocaine, had been found in or near the parks. Other residents said they had been victims of harassment and intimidation by players and that the park wasn’t a fit place for families or small children.
“The language is unbelievable,” Alison Miller said, describing an incident where players reportedly cursed at her while she was with her young children. Another resident said she’d been forced off a court by a group of unruly players who wanted to play a full court game.
Springfield resident David Kerr indicated he didn’t understand the urgent need for full courts.
“If the worst compromise you have to make is playing half court versus full court, I don’t think you’re going through years of therapy,” he said.
Supporters of reinstating the hoops argued that full court hoops are assets for the town, in part because they attract players from out of town. Jonathan Dayton High School star basketball player Justin Grant noted that the last time he was in town hall it was for his accomplishments on the court, and said full court games against out-of-town players aided his development as a player.
“When they added the full courts, it was like adding new life to the town,” Grant said.
He added that he believed the courts should be open to everyone and worried about the consequences of trying to keep out non-residents.
“If you looked at me, I don’t know if you would identify me as an out-of-towner,” Grant said.
Springfield resident Thomas Mateer shared an anecdote about his young son reading about the hoops and how he didn’t like what the news said about Springfield. He said that he didn’t “teach hate in his home” and worried about the implications for the town.
“Taking the courts down has put a bit of a black eye on the community,” Mateer said.
Other residents argued that the town needed to avoid being exclusionary and to instead invite residents from nearby towns to use the parks. Several residents in their 20s said they regularly played on the courts and that the descriptions of thuggish behavior didn’t jibe with their experiences at the parks.
Following the 45-minute public comment session, Committee members Rich Huber and David Amlen, the members of the township public affairs sub-committee, recommended that the hoops stay down. Amlen expressed some ambivalence about the decision.
“This isn’t a great solution but we don’t have a magic solution to make everybody happy,” Amlen said.
He noted that there was still a full court at Irwin Park. In addition, he said that communication from residents indicated the majority of players at Laurel were from out of town.
Huber supported Amlen’s contention that most players were from out of town. He noted that while he has been involved with youth basketball for over 20 years, he recognized few players at the full court park.
“I’d love to put full courts up,” Huber said. “But we have to respect all residents.”
Township Administrator Anthony Cancro noted that in the last two years, significant improvements have been made to Springfield’s parks, attracting more people to the facilities. He said that removing hoops from Smithfield and Laurel had quelled rowdy behavior in both parks.
“The professional opinion of the department is to leave the hoops as they are,” Cancro said.
Springfield Police Chief John Cook said that his officers had performed regular patrols of the park where they interacted with the players. He said he had personally witnessed trash and large numbers of people. But he said that he had not personally seen much unruly behavior other than players being loud. In addition, he noted that the department had not issued any violations to the players.
“I haven’t seen any of the allegations,” Cook said. “If I had, I would have addressed them.”
In his closing remarks, Shehady took aim at the media for “making a circus” over the debate about the parks. He said he believed some claims about the players seemed exaggerated.
"I find it very hard to believe we have drunk, drugged up kids that are playing basketball," he said.
He emphasized that full court basketball was a privilege, not a right. Nonetheless, he said that the town needed to find a long-term solution, but warned that it would involve compromise. But first they have to deal with the media fall-out.
“Everyone has made this an embarrassing and public display we’re not going to be able to recover from in the near future,” Shehady said.
After the hearing, Evan Ring said that while he was disappointed with the outcome that he felt it was good to hear people on different sides of the issue speak their minds. But he added that he was particularly interested in Chief Cook’s statement about not issuing violations.
“He didn’t actually find anything,” Ring said. “I still feel that taking down the full courts in Springfield was unfounded.”
Ben Saks, a 23-year-old Electrical Engineer from Springfield, said he thought the Committee made their decision without due regard for the public’s input.
“I believe the Committee already had their decision made, which I think is unfair,” Saks said.
At least one residents opposed to full court play indicated he found the meeting to be an unpleasant experience.
"What irritates me is that they were sitting up there being called racists," he said. "We're not."