Yet this perfect court won't make the following list of heavenly playgrounds. For one thing, the playing surface is nothing special. Even within the religious realm, several KC courts surpass it in aesthetic appeal (United Methodist Church, 9138 Caenen Lake in Lenexa, has glass backboards). And more important, this friendly, reliably unpopulated weekly game is a sacred ritual for its players. They don't want people showing up who throw elbows and tantrums, who treat every foul call or turnover like an unexpected tow notice.
There are places for players like that, for whom pickup basketball carries life-or-death gravity, but there are also public parks at which purely recreational players can shoot hoops at a leisurely pace. We've scouted about 50 area courts, all of which are outdoors (because indoor basketball between May and September is like summer skiing on fake slopes, a brazen mockery of nature's seasonal variations).
The parks we didn't list suffered from a variety of maladies -- rusted backboards, netless rims, terminal blandness. One alleged half-court was just a blob of concrete the size of one of those celebrity-footprint slabs, allowing room for only three dribbles in any direction. On the other extreme, one ostensible full court lacked a second backboard, giving it an overly generous out-of-bounds area.
And some of the chosen courts are far from flawless, but they work as novelties.
For example, there's South Lake Park, near 87th Street and Lowell in Overland Park, where the body of water is just a spectacularly errant shot away. Unfortunately, it bears the sinister mark of suburban sabotage: Mulch-and-pines landscaping chops the full court into halves. Even if rugged hunter-gatherer hoopsters decided to dribble through the divide, they'd be disappointed to find that one of the rims -- the one facing the lake, to add to the insult -- hangs just 8 feet off the ground. The youngsters who frequent this court ignore the pandering rim, but at Hickory Hills Park (54th Terrace and Mackey in Overland Park), the gerrymandered height of one half-court rim leads to impromptu dunk contests, which some players videotape for posterity.
Meadowlake Park (79th Street and Belinder in Prairie Village) used to host the best games. There were two courts, both of which were lighted at all hours. Players ranged from college stars to high school hopefuls, from inner-city commuters to neighborhood kids. On weekend nights, people would make post-party appearances, sweating away their liquor in celebratory after-midnight matches. Throughout most of the '90s, it was the default location for dozens of regulars. Now it's a seldom-used half-court. Nothing on this list comes close to what Meadowlake used to offer, and with local parks and recreation departments no longer building full courts in neighborhoods -- let alone permanently illuminated ones -- nothing ever will. We'd ask that readers pour some beer on the curb in its memory, but spilled alcohol was one reason that nearby residents called for its demise.
Not all half-courts are evidence of Solomon-style reasoning gone awry. Arno Park (69th Street and Ward Parkway) and Arletta Park (77th Street and Prospect) are hallowed meeting places where fathers teach their sons and daughters the fundamentals of hoops, and then, when they're old enough, match them up against adult squads in games that double as tender teaching exercises.
Some parks attach auxiliary half-courts to the side of their showcase full courts. These can be a kid's-table-style quarantine for children or a proving ground from which graduates move to the big game. But we've discovered that, although true full-court fiends can't muster much enthusiasm when they play on the B-court, they also can't turn off their trash-talking instincts -- we've seen players repeat "You've got nothing" as they go through the motions in a 12-2 loss, like street-corner lunatics predicting an impending apocalypse every day.
At Leawood City Park (106th Street and Lee Boulevard), the half-court is more appealing than the main event, mostly because one of the full-court rims is a carnival scam: It's slanted upward and hovers a foot above regulation height. The Leawood court used to jut up next to the pool entrance, which meant that players could show off for the bathing-suit brigades. Now, it's located near a stream on the far end of the facility, where only assorted insects and amphibians will appreciate the high-trajectory moon shots.
There's nothing strange about the rims at Herman Laird Park (57th Street and Cody in Shawnee), but the backboards to which they're attached resemble live re-creations of an early Atari graphic, and the nets that hang from them look like velcro versions of peach baskets. Instead of a swish, successful shots produce something between a rattle and a raspy thwap. The playing surface isn't quite as Flubbery as the material under the nearby jungle gym equipment, but it does have more bounce than most concrete courts.
Herman Laird shares space with Shawnee's City Hall, an arrangement that also works for several other suburban stops. Overland Park City Hall (85th Street and Antioch) hosts the prettiest court in the metro area: It's pro-style painted, with a scarlet lane and clearly delineated lines. Also, it has an actual bathroom stall just a few feet from its boundaries, which means players won't have to "look for the ball" in bushes while bystanders politely ignore them. And a steady stream of varsity hot shots flows from adjacent Shawnee Mission West High School, making this court a reliable barometer for advanced players looking to test their games.
For real ballers, though, the following courts are the final four.
At Weltner Park (78th Street and State Line Road) and Kensington Park (State Avenue and North 29th Street), mediocrity is not suffered lightly. Every loss means a half-hour wait for the next opportunity, which pushes the intensity levels in these contests well past combustible. Many players wisely bring friends, because this tense win-or-wait environment is no place to make them.
At Prospect Plaza Park (12th Street and Prospect) and Troost Park (31st Street and the Paseo), the backboards are marvels in concrete concavity, like interrupted slices of the St. Louis Arch. The courts themselves are almost identical, as is the top-flight talent level, but Troost Park gets the nod because of its two feeder half-courts. The moves are so mind-blowing at Troost Park that the place has bleachers, the only court in this article to assume it might invite spectators.