Michael Siegel was tired of ending up with his shirt yanked over his head and a bully’s foot in his ribs every time he tried to play basketball.
The 13-year-old boy also didn’t want to watch thugs near the Underhill Park courts push drugs, or see prostitutes plying their trade.
Knowing how tight money is with his disabled mother, he didn’t want to have a hard-to-come-by basketball swiped out of his hands at the crime-infested East Central playground.
So he begged local missionary and Altamont neighborhood “grannie” Leone Johnson to help him put a basketball hoop on his block.
For three weeks, the street court near Fourth and Haven was packed from dawn until well into the night with kids looking for a game without the garbage.
“If you want to play on their hoop court, the rules are ‘No cussing, fighting or being a bully,”’ Johnson said.
The fun ended Tuesday when the hoop came down, under pressure from city code enforcers. It was illegally installed in the city right of way, they said.
But the next game may be literally right around the corner, thanks to the efforts of a city councilwoman, a cop and neighborhood children.
A dirt driveway off the Fourth Avenue alley, they believe, would make a perfect court if it were paved. The Siegel family, which owns the property, doesn’t have the cash.
Donations of cement and manpower would seal the deal. In its quest for contributions, the group has rallied support from Hoopfest honchos, social agencies and city employees.
The proposed compromise got angry children excited and motivated frustrated adults who felt the city undermined the efforts of good kids.
But some think it shouldn’t have come down to having to remove the hoop.
Johnson and her young friends knew from the beginning that playing ball in the middle of a public street could cause a problem.
The hoop didn’t go up without questions. Johnson asked around. City workers and police told her it was illegal. But as long as there were no complaints, they said it could stay.
A week ago, someone complained about the swarm of children in the street.
The kids were devastated and indignant that someone would spoil their fun. What did they do wrong? How could they fix it?
Neighbor after neighbor wrote letters to the city pleading to save the court. Again, it was bringing the residents together.
When the hoop went up, about 10 families and 20 kids got involved. Men did the lifting; kids the digging.
“Before we even got it totally up there were 17 kids playing,” Johnson said.
Neighbors spent evenings in lawn chairs around the “court.” Parents could keep an eye on children, unlike when they were at the park a few blocks away.
And thanks to the crowd, the drug dealing that had plagued their stretch of Fourth vanished.
“Come to our streets and see why the children need to be at home,” said Johnson, a Valley resident who usually does her ministering in jail. She adopted the Altamont children about a year ago to keep more kids from turning to crime. “We have thrown away kids today, and let the bullies use them and abuse them.”
On Tuesday, Johnson was joined by police, city workers and City Councilwoman Cherie Rodgers in the Siegel kitchen.
“It comes down to a safety concern,” said East Central Neighborhood Resource Officer Bill Shaber. “I think it’s less important that the kids play ball than a kid doesn’t get killed.”
Michael Siegel offered options.
“We can move it back here,” he told Rodgers, pointing closer to the sidewalk. “We can move it anywhere. Just don’t make us take it down.”
City officials were sympathetic, but unbending.
“We don’t make the laws. It’s not our intent to hurt children,” said city code enforcement worker Terry Clegg. “We don’t want to suggest that you can’t have a basketball hoop. But there are drunk people and people on dope out there that will run kids down.”
“The bottom line is parks are for kids and streets are for cars,” Shaber said. “But I’ll see what I can do.”
While kids and parents fret over their downed hoop and wait for a solution, 11-year-old Pam Siegel itches to score a basket or two. But she’s afraid to go to the park.
“Every time we go down to the park there are two kids that mess with us. Once they chased us and surrounded the house.”
The lost hoop, she said, was “the only thing that kept us out of trouble. This time, we were being good. But we’re still in trouble.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo