Lower East Side, New York — Beautiful Saturday afternoons draw Lower East Side ballers to Hester Street Playground. This is where some of the neighborhood’s best basketball players bring their Nike sneakers—and their game faces. All three courts were full on a recent Saturday, with two teams of five players on each court. The sun beamed down on the players, who battled for loose balls, rebounds, and ultimately, for a victory. Above the courts along the sidewalk, residents watched and gave their criticisms of every misstep.
Though the 80-degree weather was perfect for hoops, the players had to overcome the less than ideal court conditions. Cracks ran through the concrete and across the withered-away half-court line, causing the ball to bounce in unwanted directions like a football. The hoops were naked with no nets. And there were barely any distinguishable boundary lines; a feud broke out after a player stepped out-of-bounds during an acrobatic lay-up, but no one was sure where the boundary lines actually were to decide whether he stepped out of bounds or not.
“Maybe you should paint the lines,” said the player whose move was under question.
This is New York street basketball. It has its own rules, its own quirks and its own traditions—and it’s the way the game has been played on these streets for decades. Here in the Lower East Side, basketball stars learned how to shoot and dribble at the Hester Street Playground and built toughness while fighting for rebounds at the Lillian M. Wald Playground.
But basketball on the Lower East Side could change this summer. A new $12.5 million basketball haven, situated between the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges, is set to open after five years of community negotiations. Once a gas depot for city vehicles, the facility, called Basketball City, will feature seven pristine hardwood courts, all of which will be lit by bright overhead LED lights. Each court has two NBA-quality Spaulding hoops with perfect nets. The newly installed air conditioning system will keep players cool during the summer, and a second-floor bar area will refresh players while giving them views of the East River. This is not a venue for streetball. The courts are level, the hoops are all at regulation size, and there are no game-altering craters in the court.
“It will be a great place for kids to hone their games,” said Bruce Radler, the president of Basketball City. “Playing on outdoor courts deals with a lot of variables, and they’re unusable in the winter. Basketball City will be reliable.”
It’s also much more expensive. It’s tough for local families to spend $250 for youth basketball programs that span six weeks. And the five-day summer camps for kids ages 8 to 17 will cost more than $300. Basketball City will run 13 of these sessions.
The adult recreation leagues are more costly. For a 10-week season with playoffs, a 10-member team has to come up with $2,150. Each player then has to pay nearly $100 for uniforms, lockers and other fees. Recreation leagues are attractive to big companies; Monday leagues at Basketball City’s Chelsea Piers center matched teams from the New York Post and Daily News with squads from the Food Network, Goldman Sachs and Ernest & Young.
These costs may not seem so extravagant at first, but 40 percent of the households surrounding Basketball City (three surrounding census tracts) make less than $20,000 income, according to the American Community Survey (five year estimate, 2006-2010). There isn’t much room for a recreation team that represents the nearby Valdeck Houses when the costs are so expensive.
But Radler has discussed his intentions on helping the Lower East Side residents in need. This includes holding free summer camps, sponsoring sponsorships and running clinics.
“Any time you have kids in an organized activity, not on the street,” Radler said. “They’re better off they’re better served, they learn life skills, being part of a team. That’s why we think the organized activity is so much more important than just free play.”
Though Basketball City is a pricey luxury, Radler is working with the community to give them services, according to Tom Parker, a Community Board 3 member. Parker worked with Radler to offer $25 basketball clinics to community children ages 7-16 on Sundays. For at least nine hours a day, the courts are open for local schools, not-for-profit organizations, and other local groups.
“It’s a multi-million dollar facility,” Parker said. “It’s like a Madison Square Garden in our backyard, and we have access to it.”
But Victor Papa, president of Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, a Lower East Side advocacy group, views Radler’s Samaritan side differently. It took too long to get some programs that benefited the Lower East Side, Papa argues, adding that he believes Radler should be more willing to help.
“Radler has made arrangements with schools with groups would use the facility,” Papa said. “But no effort was made to secure free time for our individual kids who are not part of institutions. Kids who need it most are the kids not attached. They’re aimless and the most likely to get in trouble.”
Many of these kids are also unaware of Basketball City’s eventual presence in the neighborhood. Basketball players at Henry M. Jackson Playground on Henry Street were baffled when asked about the new seven-court facility not too far from the playground. They had never heard of Basketball City. During an audit and report of city playgrounds, Comptroller John Liu cited the Henry M. Jackson Playground for having “tripping hazards or cracked safety surfaces.” These are all problems Basketball City will never have.
“I know a lot of people will probably love it,” one Jackson Playground player said. “But it sounds expensive. I’ll probably stick to my slanted hoops and cracked concrete.”