A funeral remained in progress inside the Harold O. Davis Baptist Church on North 10th Street, just off Roosevelt Boulevard. Out back behind the venerable church, the neighbors were quiet, because the only neighbors were overgrown vegetation, almost as far as the eye could see. It’s been that way for decades, infamously.
The last several years, a basketball vision has risen for this space known as the Logan Triangle, where a neighborhood once fell into the earth.
The vision sounds like a layup. A city sanctuary for hoops. This being Philadelphia, however, there are no open layups. The sanctuary remains a vision in progress. The players involved remain as committed as when they began and they have added a deep knowledgeable bench. Their progress is legit — the time line has just changed a bit, game still in the first half.
Philadelphia Youth Basketball, as the group called itself from the beginning in 2015 — wearing its ambition on its sleeve — recognized immediately that attaching its aims to a development project on this spot was a “high-risk, high-reward strategy,” as PYB executive director Kenny Holdsman put it.
One attractive part, Holdsman noted, is that PYB would be given a 99-year lease for six acres for a dollar. The spot met several of the organization’s criteria, including that it would be close to mass transit, so ballplayers could get to it.
The intention is to build a $25 million facility with eight indoor courts, five outdoor courts, five classrooms, a library, and a computer lab. Other cities have them, said PYB program manager Eric Worley said, “these great basketball hubs, and we have these run-down rec centers to come home to.”
“We’re building a coalition of business leaders, governmental leaders, philanthropic leaders,” Holdsman said, “and then just a really wide array of basketball people that think that there’s some real potency to the power of the game when you blend it with academic support and leadership development and health and wellness.”
If the idea is to build a kind of a super rec center, that’s no coincidence. Board member Bill Ellerbee, who coached Simon Gratz High and ran the Belfield recreation center for years, said the services offered by those facilities just aren’t there anymore. Worley, who played at Central High and West Chester, agrees, noting that he is on the board of Waterview Rec Center in Germantown, where he grew up playing, that it isn’t staffed the same as he when he was young, and he sees the difference in the entire neighborhood because of it.
“Whether it is less funding for middle school teams in the public schools, parishes closing and fewer CYO programs, and rec centers not being what they were and creating that need,” said PYB board chairman John Langel, whose son Matt, a former Penn star and Penn and Temple assistant coach, is the head coach at Colgate University.
This need for opportunities is especially heavy in the city on the girls’ side, Worley said. He runs the Triple Threat program, he said, because he looked around for a program for his daughter and found he had to travel outside the city.
The building time line is a bit out of their hands. The Goldenberg Group, chosen by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority in 2015 to develop the site, needs to raise public money “to deal with the sub-surface issues that would then enable them to deliver us a construction pad,” Holdsman said. “So it’s their public funding chase in an environment where public funding is more competitive than ever, especially in Harrisburg.”
There is optimism that the process is moving along, but it makes sense that trying to raise money for the basketball facility can’t be front-burner until the site is formally approved. Now the hope is to break ground for the basketball facility in early 2019, a little over a year behind the original plan, with a 2020 opening.
At a meeting to explain themselves to the local Division I college coaches, it was Temple coach Fran Dunphy, they remember, who spoke up back in 2015, hearing the time line for the building: “OK, that’s three, four years down the road before that gets built. What are you going to do in the interim?”
They took that to heart, the PYB folks said, and began running academic programs, with Temple as the hub. They ran summer camps and are working on a middle school partnership program.
The gist of this, Holdsman said, was when some prominent basketball players and coaches visited the Arthur Ashe tennis center and asked why there couldn’t be something similar for the city’s most iconic sport.
“I thought I had to jump in,” Ellerbee said.
Ellerbee’s initial concern was on the fund-raising side. Big donors, he theorized, give to the sports they grew up playing. He could see that helping golf and tennis, but basketball?
“I think a bunch of us have set out to prove that hypothesis wrong,” said Holdsman, including Ellerbee himself.
At this point, they estimate they have $500,000 secured, — about only 2 percent of what they need — with a capital campaign now going to get to $2.5 million by the end of the year.
Reaching that goal, Holdsman said, “gives us the opportunity to go to some larger donor prospects who are paying attention to us, and tell us they like us, but they want to see some deeper levels of local support to prove viability.”
The same for “what we call basketball royalty,” Holdsman said. Some current NBA players have expressed interested in committing but want to know which other players who can afford to write a check intend to do so.
Asked about the city’s being splintered with different shoe companies sponsoring elite travel team programs, Holdsman said that isn’t their intended space.
“Those programs are about elite player development,” Holdsman said. “We are about the bottom and the middle of the pyramid. … We’re more worried about the thousands of kids in this city who no one might ever know their name, not the kids who have already been declared the next great one.”
He talked of “porous walls,” not looking to keep any level of player or program out. PYB plans to have a main gym capable of seating 1,500 for games at all sorts of levels.
“We seek to take kids from age 4 to 20 and teach them, and not control who they play for, whether they play for Under Armour or Adidas or Nike, or control what colleges they talk to,” Langel said. “We will be mentors and counselors and advisers, but not controlling their basketball lives. We want to help their entire lives.”
The idea of being a super rec center is appealing — and to train coaches, they said, not just players — but it would be interesting to see how much programming they could take on their plate given the sheer number of young ballplayers in the city.
“There’s all these constituencies we’re trying to bring in,” Holdsman said. “As Eric always reminds me, we are not going to convince everyone to get on the train. They might jump on down the line or not at all.”
“Not at all is not an option,” Langel said. “At least for me.”
As these men talked just outside the church, the funeral continued inside. Right now the weeds out in back of the church remain thick. But in addition to the support of the mayor and the local City Council member, this whole effort has plenty of high-profile basketball lifers supporting it. Former NBA player John Salmons and former WNBA player Brooke Queenan just joined the board. Rasheed Wallace, who played for Ellerbee at Gratz, is paying close attention.
“With 28 months under our collective belts, we believe that the organization and program which we have built is sturdy, inclusive, and of high value,” Holdsman said. “Now our board, staff, and a growing coalition of supporters are hunkering down with the hard work of raising $25 million” to “empower literally thousands of kids for the next many decades.”
These men recalled the words of former 76ers coach Billy Cunningham when they grabbed a sandwich with him, telling him about their goals.
“Be careful,” Cunningham told them. “You will be the second home to hundreds of kids.”
“That’s what we want,” Langel said.