More Than a Court

Eyes catch leather as the ball floats through the air. Sidelines melt under crowded feet, headlights break the darkness, and blacktop scratches the silence. The ball hits the floor, the beat takes over, and the game begins.

If you spend enough time around the last generation of White Oaks Park basketball players you’ll hear them describe nights like this. They talk about a basketball Mecca, a place where players from all over the city come to play. They’re nostalgic and they want their court back.

In recent years the court in White Oaks Park has fallen on hard times. The backboards tilt more than they should, grass grows between the cracks in the pavement, and the players don’t come out like they used to. You get the sense, talking to these guys, that they’re as embarrassed as they are frustrated. They want to live up to the White Oaks reputation, but they don’t want to host the rest of the city on a broken court.

The White Oaks Park Basketball Court in winter.

But before you despair or rush for the phone to call your local Councillor, you should know something. The court doesn’t need your help.

About six months ago everything changed for the basketball players who call White Oaks Park home. Thanks to a motivated group of players, a well timed contest win, and support from the City of London, the White Oaks Basketball Court is getting a makeover. Sure, it isn’t going to have lights (yet — if you have 250k or know someone who has it let us know) but this court is going to be amazing. It’s going to bring pride back to White Oaks, it’s going to give the community of players something to celebrate.

But here’s the thing, this story isn’t really about a basketball court. It’s about a part of the community that desperately needs people to pay attention to it.

White Oaks is a unique community in London. At last census count, immigrants make up 31% of the neighbourhood, 11% of the newcomers have arrived between 2001–2011, 31% of people identify a language other than English as their mother tongue, and 40% of community members have moved within the last 5 years.

As a comparator, I grew up in Oakridge. Oakridge has an immigrant population of 18%, of which 4% arrived between 2001–2011, 14% of people identify a language other than English as their mother tongue, and 29% of community members have moved within the last 5 years.

None of this meant anything to me until I started to meet the people in White Oaks. There’s lots of beauty here. There’s culture, kindness, connection, and shared experience and there’s friendship, passion, dedication, and resilience. But there’s also struggle, sadness, anger, frustration, and embarrassment.

I’ve heard lots of stories as I’ve gotten to know White Oaks over the last year and a half. The ones that stick with me most are the positive ones — the basketball player who grew up playing on White Oaks Park Court, who won $1000 at last weekend’s all-star challenge, just before bringing a new child into the world; the kids who got a surprise visit from former Raptor Morris Peterson; or the guy I met at the Daisy Mart who is doing everything in his power to give his younger brother a good life.

Watch highlights from All-Star Challenge:

But there are other stories, stories that I’m not comfortable telling just yet. I’m not comfortable telling them because, at the core, they’re stories about people — people not doing enough for other people. To many they’ll be heard as stories about racism, drugs, prostitution, and gangs. Some will say that they’re stories of system failure, of governments and institutions not doing enough for people — and they’re right. Others will say that they’re stories of personal struggle, of people making choices — and they‘re sort of right too. But more than anything they need to be heard as stories about people falling through cracks that other people aren’t paying enough attention to.

These stories are why this basketball court project exists.

The restoration of the White Oaks Park Basketball Court is the first part of a longterm plan, created by a group of young people from the community, to bring young people from White Oaks together to address the challenges that they are facing. It’s about bringing older generations of youth together with the younger generations to make life something a little bit easier to celebrate.

In the early phases of this project, we’ve heard that classrooms can be dangerous places, that police officers can inspire fear rather than safety, that there’s limited safe space at night, and that gender relations need work. But, more than anything, we’ve heard that young people want to be part of their community and we’ve accepted that they are the experts on what they need. We think that this court can be a catalyst for a community development process that creates hope and empowers the youngest White Oaks residents to take control of the present and future of the community.

Last week, the White Oaks Community All-Stars event leveraged the momentum started by this summer’s Kraft Project Play contest (the contest that secured 25k in funding to restore the court), to bring over 125 young people together at the South London Community Centre. The event, hosted by the newly formed White Oaks Rejuvenation Project (WORP), brought White Oaks residents together with Police Chief John Paré, City Councillor Harold Usher, City of London Area Services Supervisor Chris Green, Westminster Basketball Coach Ferras Hayek, and other leaders from across the city. Attendees were updated on the progress being made on the court and had the opportunity to connect with leaders in the community. Following the formal program, WORP contributed $1500 in prize money to local youth by holding a Basketball Skills Challenge, 3 Point Contest, and Free Throw Contest.

Watch the $500 Shot that Shook the City:

The event brought people together, it built trust, and continued relationships that are just getting started. WORP is committed to taking this project beyond the basketball court and out to the community. Don’t be surprised if you start to hear more from this group.

If you want to know more about the story of White Oaks Park Basketball Court, get ready for an epic tale, full of chapters, and layers, and characters that you’ll never forget. Track down Wadhah or Ferras — they’ll give you an introductory telling. In the last year, the story has grown to include a 3-on-3 tournament, 25k to repair the court, a partnership between the London Youth Advisory Council, young White Oaks residents and the City of London, and a new community group called the White Oaks Rejuvenation Project (WORP). Keep an eye out for WORP’s next event, a Women’s All-Star Challenge, focused on creating space for young women in the White Oaks basketball community.

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