He was alone at first: A tall, lean young man with the hood of his cherry-red jacket pulled over his head, shooting baskets as a light rain fell at the North Philadelphia basketball court late yesterday afternoon.
But minutes later, Timothy Jones, a 6-foot-5 student at Temple University, was surrounded by four pint-sized boys who barely came up to his elbows.
The kids zigged and zagged as they dribbled to get around Jones, a pre-med major. The sound of their shouts and laughter filled the early evening air.
There was a time when hundreds of boys and young men came to these courts at 15th and Susquehanna to play in the old North Central Philadelphia Basketball League.
Several of them later earned a name for themselves in college or the NBA.
"Hank Gathers, Pooh Richardson, Ollie Johnson, Rasheed Wallace, they all played there," recalled state Rep. Jewell Williams.
But Williams said that after league co-founder Omjasisa Kentu died, in 2004, no one else kept the league running.
"So now we have a basketball court that's unorganized," Williams said. "There's nobody there to monitor the courts."
That's why Williams is supporting a controversial plan in which the city plans to sell - for $1 - the entire stretch of land along Susquehanna, between 15th to 16th streets, to NewCourtland, a company that specializes in building and operating senior-citizen housing. The complex would mean the end of basketball and other outdoor activities here. The subject of the land deal is expected to come up at a City Planning Commission community meeting at the Duckrey School, at 15th and Diamond streets, at 6:30 tonight.
David Fecteau, a city planner, said that the meeting is designed to ask community members for their input for a neighborhood plan. But community activists say that they will attend the meeting to object to selling the basketball court.
"We are going to oppose this plan," said Danita Bates, a parent of a child at Duckrey. Bates also leads a community drill team.
"There are a lot of issues about the development around the school that the community doesn't know about," Bates said.
"I contacted Rep. Jewell Williams to let him know the community is very upset with him and [City Councilman Darrell] Clarke for doing sneaky things behind the community's back," Bates said. Clarke left a message at the Daily News last night, but could not be reached for comment.
Until last December, the 67,150- square-foot property belonged to the Philadelphia School District; it's behind the Duckrey School.
The Daily News has obtained a letter from Clarence D. Armbrister, Mayor Nutter's chief of staff, dated Sept. 29, 2009, asking the School District to "transfer the property to support NewCourtland's mission." The letter says that the city will pass the land through the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development to NewCourtland.
On Oct. 21, the School Reform Commission passed a resolution giving the land to the city for $1. By Dec. 17, the City Council passed an ordinance accepting the land .
It has not yet been transferred to NewCourtland, city officials said. Angela Brown, a spokeswoman for NewCourtland, said that the company is still interested in building a senior housing complex at the site. But because the company does not control the property, it can't accept HUD financing to build, Brown said.
Bates said that it's not true that the property is "unused." She said that her "Caution Youth Community Drill Team and Marching Band" - with 80 boys and girls from ages 4 to 18 - practices on the old tennis courts, near 16th Street, "every day in the summer." Young men use the basketball courts, at 15th Street.
According to transcripts of a City Council committee meeting in December, Clarke said that the city would have community meetings in the future and would spend money to improve the nearby Winchester Playground, on 15th near York. When the Daily News visited Winchester yesterday, it was shuttered, and an empty lot across the street was filled with trash. A dead rat, or small raccoon, as big as a small cat, lay squashed next to the curb.
Closer to Susquehanna Avenue, a boy who gave his name as "Trane," said that kids from his charter school play against boys from Duckrey School, all the time. But a woman entering the senior-citizen apartments on the northeast corner of 15th and Susquehanna said that there is a waiting list at her building. More senior housing is needed, said the 60-year-old woman, who asked that her name not be published.