Basketball controversies 

In the name of protecting kids, there's a movement to take their sports equipment away

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Oz Park, Lincoln Park: While school officials want the hoops removed or locked up during weekdays, community leaders and the Park District have balked. - ANDREA BAUER
  • Oz Park, Lincoln Park: While school officials want the hoops removed or locked up during weekdays, community leaders and the Park District have balked.
  • Andrea Bauer

Oz Park


Hoops on lockdown

Oz Park is a lovely place—13 acres of ball fields, flower gardens, and wooded space in the middle of Lincoln Park. Its basketball courts are popular—whenever the weather is even remotely hospitable, someone's usually out shooting hoops, and once the school day is over for Lincoln Park High, the courts are often packed with back-and-forth full-court games.

In June, though, all four rims were taken down.

Michele Smith, rookie alderman of the 43rd Ward, says she had them removed at the behest of Michael Boraz, the principal of Lincoln Park High, after fights had broken out on the courts on four occasions as school was let out this spring. "To keep his students safe and to send a clear message that such behavior will not be tolerated, he and I asked the Park District to take down the hoops," Smith wrote in a note to constituents.

Oz Park advocates were not pleased. "We found out after the fact," says Judy Johanson, president of the Oz Park Advisory Council, who has lived across the street from the park for 30 years. She noted that the police had no record of violence on the courts, apparently because none of the fights had been reported. "Our position was that the hoops should remain up and open for all of the community to use."

The advisory council and other area residents gathered nearly 500 signatures opposing the move, presented them to the Park District, and demanded to know what on earth Smith was doing—and why she hadn't run it past them first.

But Smith argues that the situation is more complicated than it might first seem. Lincoln Park High School has several highly regarded honors and arts programs, but "it also has some issues around school discipline that makes some people concerned about going there," Smith says.

What she didn't say is that while the neighborhood is well-off and white, the student body is neither. Neighborhood parents typically send their kids to magnet or private schools, and most Lincoln Park High students, commuting from other areas, are under a spotlight as they come and go.

Smith says it's one of her goals to help improve the high school. So when Boraz, the principal, called her to say that fights had broken out on the courts and "they're a magnet for trouble," Smith says she had little choice but to back him. "When he said we need this to happen, what am I supposed to do?"

Before the advisory council piped up, Smith says, the community response was muted: "I did not get a storm of protest on it at all."

Still, the petitions made an impression, and Smith agreed with Park District officials that the rims should go back up, at least until the school year. The courts were back in action by early August.

The alderman also agreed to convene a meeting to hash out what to do after the students returned. So late last month, members of the council, Boraz, a parks official, police, and other community leaders gathered in her office and agreed to a compromise: from 11:30 AM to 4:30 PM on Mondays through Fridays the rims would be locked up with a device like the steering-wheel Club.

Afterward Smith said she was "thrilled" that everyone had come together. Boraz, she said, had convinced the skeptical community members that something needed to be done to ensure the safety of young people in the park.

"He felt he needed to send a message that they had a certain measure of expectations for his students when they're in this neighborhood," Smith said. "But he understands where the community is coming from. And I think the community really heard what he was saying."

Boraz didn't return our calls. But while the Oz Park Advisory Council went along with the agreement, its members weren't happy about it, arguing that the hours right after school might be the most important time to offer kids recreational options. They were also irked that they'd been asked to help cover the costs of paying someone to lock and unlock the rims each day.

Though Smith said Park District officials signed on as well, they were apparently not comfortable with the agreement either. By mid-September, a couple of weeks into the new school year, the rims still hadn't been locked up. The alderman attributed that to bureaucratic delays and said the locks would be installed any day. But Jessica Maxey-Faulkner, the Park District spokeswoman, said they might not be coming at all: "We would not want to move forward without evidence of community support."

To Johanson, the Oz Park Advisory Council president, this was hardly a disaster. "School has been going for more than a week, and kids are playing, kids are having a good time, and things are just fine," she says. "I don't know what to tell you. There've been no problems."

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