READING – There’s a ubiquitous poster of Lonnie Walker in this weary city’s elementary and middle schools, an image of the ex-Reading High star soaring for a dunk, his elbow cocked, his mouth open, his hair standing on end like an exclamation point.
Located at chest level is an inset, a letter Walker wrote last spring to the children of his oft-maligned hometown in the wake of Reading High’s first state boys’ basketball championship.
“Be true to yourself,” it reads in part, “because anything is possible. Believe in yourself. Look at me. I’m just a kid from Reading.”
On Wednesday night, seven months after Walker led the Red Knights to a title that touched off an emotional outburst in a city with little reason to smile, Walker will return for an appearance being hailed as another chapter in Reading’s nascent revival.
A folk hero here at 18, the ballyhooed University of Miami freshman will lead the Hurricanes against La Salle in a game that will bring 7,300 fans to Santander Arena, a facility that just a few years ago was a lone jewel in a drab and decaying downtown.
Residents and civic leaders have portrayed this first Division I basketball game ever here as something more than an athletic contest. In their view, it is, much like last spring’s groundbreaking championship and the parade that followed, another sign that Reading is rebounding at last.
“I’ve really seen so much positive activity and change since that basketball championship,” said Robin Costenbader-Jacobson, whose Reading roots go back 10 generations. “There’s a lot going on downtown. It looks brighter and cleaner. People are believing again. It’s wonderful to see the city being embraced.”
Last April, when the champion Red Knights were feted with a parade along 13th Street, consciously or not mirroring a route Reading-born author John Updike famously described in a short story about 1940s’ high-schoolers here, the population of this red-brick city joyfully amassed, as if drawn by an unseen force.
“[The parade] was almost a utopian moment for Reading. It was one of the most stunningly good moments I’ve seen in my lifetime,” recalled Donna Reed, a 65-year-old native and a five-term member of City Council. “For a city that’s had so much distress financially, socially and economically, and all the other stuff we’ve gone through, it was a moment where everybody got together, everybody was happy together.”
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An energetic railroad and mill city of 120,000 in the 1930s, Reading’s population had plummeted to 81,575 by 2016. The factories that employed row-house residents were empty or leveled. Crime and unemployment rates were high. And while surrounding Berks County does just fine, Reading, according to 2010 Census figures, was the nation’s poorest city.
Reading High’s basketball team, which according to a former coach, Hall of Famer Pete Carril, has “as wonderful and noteworthy a history as anywhere,” had long been both a welcome diversion and a civic obsession. The Knights regularly advanced deep into state tournaments and future NBA talents like Stu Jackson and Donyell Marshall played there.
But in the 1980s, the Red Knights, much like their city, slumped.
When they finally won it on March 26, at a Hershey arena filled with black-and-red-clad fans, Pennsylvania’s fifth-largest city seemed magically animated. The victory engendered a spirit that’s now spelled out on an electronic sign greeting Penn Street bridge motorists: “Mayor Wally Scott Welcomes You to Reading – A City of Positive Change.”
Young people have begun to move into the handsome old real estate in Centre Park. There’s a new set of imported economic-development leaders to provide hope. Goggle Works, a community arts and cultural-resource center, opened in a 146-year-old former glass factory.
“Let’s be a new Reading, one that has a strong resemblance to the old Reading that got us on the Monopoly board,” said Reading High basketball coach Rick Perez. “Our team proved we can be winners in Reading.”
Many hope this new attitude will spark the urban renaissance Reading has been seeking, as Updike, who died in 2009, once noted, “ever since the textile mills started to slide South.”
“The team has instilled a level of pride in Reading that is all too rarely seen,” a post-championship Reading Eagle editorial pointed out. “We hope this feeling lingers and extends to endeavors far beyond the world of sports.”
While it hasn’t brought back any of the industries that fled or markedly improved the economy, the victory has had an impact. Not long after the April 5 victory parade, David Farrar, Santander Arena’s general manager, got a call from a Miami assistant.
“He talked about doing this game here and we just started moving on it,” said Farrar. “We’ve had some of the biggest crowds we’ve ever had for Reading High games. Lonnie Walker has a huge following.”
According to Farrar, the arena’s largest crowds were those that assembled for the postseason games Walker’s Reading High team played there.
The homecoming of Walker, a 6-4, five-star freshman who apparently is fully recovered from offseason arthroscopic knee surgery, reflects a recruiting trend – rewarding prized recruits with a game in or near their hometowns.
But for many, the credit for this economic and spiritual gift to Reading goes to Walker, who rarely misses an opportunity to boost Reading.
“Lonnie took the initiative as a high school student to put this community on his back,” said Khalid Mumin, Reading School District’s Philadelphia-born superintendent. “He’s created a synergy and a mind-set here.”
Walker, said Mumin, was so determined to help that no one had to ask him to compose his letter to Reading’s schoolchildren.
“He wrote it himself and sent it to us,” Mumin said.
If a civic renaissance is dawning, Reed suggested, then basketball was as good a way as any to initiate it.
“Lonnie and his teammates really did give a city with a great basketball history the kind of boost we needed to put us back on the map,” said Reed. “Economically, it’s a good symbolic jumping-off point. Maybe if everybody pulls together, we can keep that spirit going. All I know is the night Lonnie comes back will be something special.”
The 7,300-seat arena where Walker’s Hurricanes will play La Salle sits at on a block Penn Street, historically the city’s commercial heart, that is itself a harbinger of optimism.
If you picture Penn Street as a long, age-worn finger extending from the base of Mount Penn down to where the Schuylkill flows beneath a 110-year-old bridge’s Roman arches, then the 700 block is its lone adornment, a sparkling ring at the knuckle.
When it opened in 2001 on the footprint of the street’s last movie theater, amid sad-sack and neglected commercial neighbors, the arena looked as incongruous as the orange Japanese pagoda that famously looms over Reading from Mount Penn. Now a tall office towers rises there as does a new 200-room Doubletree Hotel.
“The 700 block has definitely grown in the last couple years,” said Farrar. “It’s the rest of the city that’s got to start moving.”
Coincidentally, five days after Reading High’s parade, the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for drama was awarded to a play set here. Lynn Nottage’s Sweat is a dark lament for a faded industrial city.
“It’s very depressing in many respects,” said Reed. “But at the end, the very last line, there’s a huge glimmer of hope and promise.
“And when you look at what Lonnie meant to the city, that kind of hope seems plausible.”
Discussing her research, the Brooklyn-born Nottage noted that the people she met in Reading “talked constantly about the past, never the present or future.”
Farrar, a transplanted Virginian, has experienced the same.
“There hasn’t been a lot of talk about going forward,” said Farrar. “It’s all about what used to be. And when you hear people who were here a long time ago talk, it’s amazing. I can only imagine what this place was like back in the day.
“But this has been an exciting time too. This community loves basketball and especially loves Lonnie. It’s going to be an exciting night.”