I was on my way to a meeting one recent evening when I drove past Baton Rouge's Expressway Park. It sits in midtown, under crisscrossing elevated sections of Interstate-110, bounded by South Boulevard, South 11th, Myrtle and East Boulevard.
The park is famous because, one morning many years ago, it was the landing spot for hundreds, perhaps thousands of pounds of sides of beef. The sides of beef did not last long on the ground, if you get my drift.
As I drove by, it was a little past sundown, and the park was mostly dark and looked empty. But, as I got closer, I was stunned by what I saw. There were young men and boys playing basketball on a lighted outdoor basketball court.
I was so excited, I turned the corner and returned to scope out what was going on.
I lived in that area of town during my teenage years. Back then, the park would shut down at dark. But nearby, at the former South Boulevard Elementary School (now Baton Rouge Foreign Language Academic Immersion Magnet School), we would play on the court as long as we could, assisted by a weak beam from a security light attached to a nearby building.
On several occasions, we would climb onto the building or get a ladder to change the security light ourselves when a bulb died. I think the Baton Rouge school system owes us some remuneration for that.
This might sound like a minor thing to some, but I found the lit court at Expressway Park both thrilling and encouraging.
Think about it. Here were young men having fun, doing something they like, at night. There were even a couple of guys standing on the side with “ups” (aka, waiting to play after the current game was over).
There were even a couple of guys waiting to play after the current game was over.
I called BREC, Baton Rouge's parks agency, to ask about that park and the lights. Communications director Cheryl Michelet said the court and the lights were paid for by fundraising efforts a while back by Walk-Ons Restaurants and then-LSU Head Basketball Coach Johnnie Jones’ Courts for Kids program. Kudos.
It is the first park in the BREC system to receive lighting for a basketball court. Michelet said that BREC had spoken with the community, and the lit court was something residents asked about.
If I wasn’t a bit out of shape and a tad past 50 years old, I would have gone over that night and asked, "Who's got 'ups'?,” or, as the young folk say now, “I got next.”
Then I started thinking. What if you could start a league there, holding short, 15- to 20-minute games in the evenings, when it's not freezing? And maybe have a police officer, in the interest of community policing, sitting by to watch and deter any bad stuff.
What about representatives from the city making occasional visits to discuss job training programs for those young men who may need a little help to get a job?
And, maybe someone could come by once in a while from the education community to briefly offer tutoring programs and other educational opportunities to some of the younger boys and men in the league.
Once in a while, it might be good for some of the city leaders to visit and cheer on the boys and girls who will be playing. Show them that the city’s leadership cares about them. Occasionally, there could be food, soft drinks and conversation for the youngsters with church and community groups.
If something like that had been around when I and the fellas were playing at South Boulevard, who knows if it could have provided us that little spark to help us race toward our potential? Or, maybe, deter a couple of my friends from doing some things that they would never recover from.
This seemingly small thing — a lit basketball court — has so much potential for creative and caring people and organizations.
In the meantime, I want to warn those folks playing over there now that one evening, they might see a 5-foot, 7-inch, experienced hoopster walk out there to play. That guy, because of his mature game and old fame, will command instant respect. Don’t be surprised if his moves, though slow and unsteady, are deceptive.
But, more than anything, don’t hurt him.
Email Edward Pratt, a former newspaperman who writes a weekly Advocate column, at firstname.lastname@example.org.