Shrubs? What kind of an outdoor basketball court has shrubs where the midcourt line should be? The kind located in a very white Johnson County neighborhood that wishes to keep young black athletes away.
The basketball court at Cherokee Park is one of three in Johnson County where the parks and recreation department has removed a six-foot-wide swath of concrete from sideline to sideline through center court. Now railroad ties and shrubs prevent full-court basketball games.
Neil Sader is councilperson for the Overland Park Second Ward, where Cherokee Park resides. He voted against the shrub beds last year when the matter came to a vote of the city council "because I believed it was racially motivated, and I said so at the time," says Sader.
Gerald Winchell has lived across the street from Cherokee Park for 31 years. His front steps are no more than 150 feet from the court. He was the driving force behind getting the railroad ties installed. He says the basketball players were a disruptive force in the neighborhood and misused the park. "There were a lot of things going on over there besides basketball," says Winchell. "It was gross, just gross." His petition drive garnered forty signatures and led to the end of full-court basketball at Cherokee Park. "It was not racially motivated," says Winchell. "Some of the white players were just as bad as the blacks."
When asked about players urinating in the park, using vulgar language and leaving behind excessive litter after games, Sader has a ready answer. "There were no police reports of people complaining about any fights or any ugliness from the players, which to me spoke volumes."
Bob Waldorf has lived across the street from Winchell for 28 years. Their homes share the same proximity to the newly divided basketball court. When asked whether he thinks the courts were broken up because many of the basketball players were black, he stops packing his pipe and fixes his stare forward. "Yeah," he answers.
The crunch of basketball players' cars parked along the streets around the park was one reason for converting the court into two halves, says James Cox, the Johnson County director of parks and recreation. "There were complaints from people living across the street that cars were blocking driveways and driving on the grass. This stops the full-court players from coming to that court," says Cox.
Waldorf says the cars were numerous at times but he never saw driveways blocked. Still, police wrote tickets.
"They could have easily put in a parking lot up at the top of the park," says Waldorf's wife, Mary Jo. "The neighborhood didn't go down because of the full-court basketball players," she says. "I never had any of the players say anything hateful or racially motivated to me. They were just basketball players here to play their game."
Now the courts receive little use. "I was against it at first, but I like the way it is now because it's quieter," admits Bob Waldorf.
"I know the park is quieter now, but it was still the wrong thing to do," says Sader.
Cox contends that there are plenty of Johnson County parks with excellent full-court facilities. "We have full courts with parking in the park at 137th and Lamar, 123rd and Metcalf and right here at City Hall on Santa Fe," explains Cox. "That basketball court [at Cherokee Park] was put in during the '70s. We don't put basketball courts in neighborhood parks anymore."
There is something very sad about Cox's last statement. When did recreational sports become something neighborhoods fear? If Venus and Serena Williams had grown up playing tennis in Johnson County, would they have one day arrived at a park to find a sunset maple in the middle of the tennis court?