The bustling Cloverdale Courts of 2017 are a far cry from what William Harris and four of his buddies discovered back in 1958. Searching for a safe new spot to play basketball in a segregated city nearly 60 years ago, they came upon an abandoned clubhouse with a decrepit playground and basketball court outside off Druid Hill Avenue.
"It was abandoned and vandalized, and we came and we started taking possession of it," Harris says at the clubhouse at the peak of this past sauna-like summer.
They made it their own, first by finding entry to the abandoned building simply to use the bathroom and through a friendly agreement to meet up there every Sunday to hoop.
"It just evolved from one court, two basketball goals on each end to what it is today," he says.
Today, the courts at the northern edge of Penn North, formally renamed the Harrison Sykes Brown Playground in 1997, are a recreational refuge in a historic neighborhood oft-neglected by the city, occupied by police, and on-edge due to gun violence. Over the phone, City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, a frequent visitor to the playground during her years as council president, describes the park as "a true oasis" and a "peaceful place."
The inside of the clubhouse is humble but impressive. Rows of framed team photos fill the cramped walls from corner to corner; trophies line the shelves, distinguished by fluorescent lights overhead. Most of the room is no-frills: linoleum floors, stacked chairs, concessions supplies, and a lone wall-mounted TV.
Harris and five of his peers, most of them retired, sit in a semi-circle on a sweltering July Sunday, talking over the buzz of the air conditioner. Whistles and shouts echo in from outside, where kids compete in a refereed youth league, a prized amenity for an outdoor playground in Baltimore City.
"You come here and you see those kids, they're happy," says Earl "Rocky" Garner, president of Cloverdale Athletic Club/Baltimore Basketball Association, Inc. (AC/BBA), which funds the park's seasonal basketball leagues and organizes its year-round fundraisers. "They're in seventh heaven, they're out there playing basketball in the summertime. That's an opportunity, and we help to foster that."
Baltimore has many playgrounds and rec centers, though few have an organized club of leaders running the show. The guys behind Cloverdale AC/BBA founded their group with a motto in mind: "Teach Every Man's Child."
"Everything is really for the kids. We're trying to keep kids straight, keep them off the street, and help them out," says William Barrett, one of the men Harris counts as a "founding father" of the organization. "The ones that can't do nothing, we try to help them be better people."
Cloverdale AC/BBA operates men's and youth leagues at the park every summer. Funds for jerseys and referees come from registration fees and concessions sold at the clubhouse. Occasionally Harris will charter a bus to bring kids up and down the East Coast to face off against new competition, stopping in cities like Philadelphia and New York.
They continue fundraising when summer's over. Seated in the back office in October, Harris holds up a ream of tickets for an upcoming raffle, one of the club's biggest fundraisers of the year. Whatever they don't spend on their basketball programs traditionally goes to scholarships for students at nearby Carver Vocational-Technical High School, though Harris says they're now planning to donate to St. Phillips Baptist Church in Woodlawn.
"We support ourselves," Garner, president of the club for the last 22 years, says proudly. "We get it done by whatever means that we can conjure. These guys have to be dedicated, because as I said, there's no pay, there's no recognition."
Cloverdale's first leagues weren't for kids—they were trials where the city's best players could cut their teeth. Harris says the games were competitive from the start—competitive enough that they decided to bring in refs and scoreboards after about 15 years.
"We played basketball with one another and started arguing, and we'd hold the game up for so long," he says. "I just decided we'd make it formal and get referees."
In 1967, the federally funded Operation Champ program arrived, bringing pro players to Cloverdale and other courts around the city to get local youth out onto nearby blacktops. That league operated until 1980, according to the nonprofit Baltimore Heritage, Inc.
The City of Baltimore also ran neighborhood-centric leagues, including Unlimited Basketball and the Baltimore Neighborhood Basketball League (BNBL), featuring teams from all sides of town and games regularly set at the Cloverdale Courts. The Department of Recreation and Parks operated Unlimited Basketball for decades—Harris recalls games happening as early as the 1950s—until officials ended it around 1980. BNBL has remained active, continuously running youth-to-young-adult leagues since its inaugural year in 1969.
Those early showcases kept the courts packed every weekend and helped draw some of the first national attention to Baltimore's basketball scene, according to Cloverdale AC/BBA member James Williams.
"A lot of basketball had been playground, just choose up and run. But when you play under the whistle, you improve your fundamentals and your skills," he says.
The visits from pro players didn't hurt either. NBA-ers like Wali Jones, Gus Johnson, Ben Worley, Walt Bellamy, and Sihugo Green from the Baltimore Bullets graced Cloverdale during the '60s. Chuck Robinson, Charlie Brightfold and Aaron Johnson—their predecessors from the short-lived Baltimore Bullets (1958-'61) team of the Eastern Professional Basketball League—also stopped by to play. The spotlight benefited the locals.
"These leagues were showcases for ballplayers from Baltimore," says Williams. "We'd show 'em to college scouts, coaches. At one time, Baltimore wasn't looked at as a strong area to recruit." But as years passed, "all of a sudden schools were recruiting players from Baltimore."
As a child, Garner says he "couldn't wait" until he was old enough to hoop at Cloverdale. He lived close by, but wasn't allowed to cross Druid Hill Avenue until he was in the fourth grade.
"I used to be sitting there watching these guys, wondering when I would be big enough to play over there," he reminisces.
Aside from a hoop in his backyard, Cloverdale was his first real home court: "I played on this court in some way, shape, or form since 1963."
His time there paid off. Williams touts the club's president as an example of the talent the competitive environment fostered: Garner was recruited to play at Catonsville Community College (later merged into the Community College of Baltimore County), where he earned junior college all-American honors. That led to a scholarship to play at East Carolina University. There, he starred as a senior and graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1977.
Eight years later, he became a Cloverdale AC/BBA member. By 1995, Harris had convinced him to take on the position of president.
Cloverdale AC/BBA has existed in some form as an organization since 1980. Harris says it's actually two organizations that merged: Cloverdale AC, which he co-founded in 1958, and the Baltimore Basketball Association (BBA), a league that operated out of East Baltimore and organized intra-neighborhood games.
Lorenzo "Mike" Plater, who passed away in 2012, left behind a life of drug addiction when he joined the club in the late 1970s, Harris says. They worked together for several years until the pair had a falling-out. Plater then went east to work with the BBA, helping to organize games at The Dome in East Baltimore. The bad blood soon faded, though, and he returned to Cloverdale AC in 1980, helping to orchestrate a merger of the two organizations in the process, according to Harris.
Plater's return to Cloverdale was vital. "He brought his league back over here, his mentality over here," Harris says. "We had to get ourselves together."
Fights plagued the city-operated Unlimited Basketball league, says Dr. Warren Hayman, another club member and a retired teacher. But at Cloverdale, even as early as the 1960s, violence was minimal. This was particularly true when the playground ran leagues or programs almost daily—"and there would be as many as 2,000 people out here, double-parked, triple-parked," Hayman brags.
Cleveland Brister, a longtime club member who worked for the Department of Recreation and Parks for almost four decades, says the park's magic is fairly simple: Kids and adults alike had a reason to come play or watch basketball and stay off the streets.
He likens its effect to that of the recently shuttered Shake and Bake Family Fun Center down the road in Upton. Its track record for altercations isn't perfect, but it generally kept crime at bay as long as something was happening there.
"If you don't give people nothing to do, they become idle and then they get in trouble," Brister says. "It's like saying I'm gonna stop somebody from getting shot down the street. You can't stop that. But that same person could be up here watching a basketball game. He might be angry with somebody, but he's not gonna shoot nobody at 11 o'clock."
The city operated as many as 130 rec centers during the '70s, each providing programs to keep Baltimore's youth active. That number has since dwindled to about 40, according to a list on the Department of Recreation and Parks website.
As the operator of a focal neighborhood park, Cloverdale AC/BBA historically has a love-hate relationship with the city. Some mayoral administrations, such as those of Kurt Schmoke and Sheila Dixon, have shown more support for recreational sports than others, such as William Donald Schaefer and Tommy D'Alessandro III, Brister says.
In one particularly divisive case, Harris says Cloverdale AC/BBA was pitted against former Recreation and Parks Director Christopher Delaporte, who served from 1983 to 1987 under Schaeffer, and passed away last year. Delaporte wanted to bulldoze their clubhouse to turn the lot into a flower garden, Harris says. The city placed a bulldozer on the site for three weeks until neighborhood activists, including Helen Bradford and Lenora Hewitt of the Penn-North Revitalization Corporation, planted themselves in front of the machine. Eventually they convinced the city to abandon the plan, by Harris' account.
Clarke and current City Council President Jack Young have been key partners in City Hall, the club's members agree. As council president from 1987 to 1995, Clarke held meetings with Cloverdale's leaders about the playground and facilitated small fixes, such as removing a dangerous ledge and refurbishing the court, according to Garner.
Young, meanwhile, was "very instrumental" with the city's most recent renovation of the playground in 2012, Garner says. That year, the city used state funds to add bleachers, repave and paint the blacktop, and install a new fence around the courts, among other changes. Young and his ex-council colleagues Pete Welch, Carl Stokes and Nick Mosby also helped them retain their clubhouse when their lease on the property expired in 2013, according to Garner.
In July, after discussing the park's legacy for about an hour and a half, Cloverdale's senior leaders mull what's next for their playground. All of them are in or nearing retirement, devoting their weekends to operating their leagues, and occasionally getting out on the court themselves. Eventually, someone else will need to take it over. A new funding scheme may also be in order, if they're planning ahead.
Before they partner with another group or secure a nest egg through donations, Harris says they need to set a stable operating budget: "We need some guidance into the financial world as to what we can do, whatever we can put together and make it happen. Because right now, we're like plugging around in a windstorm."
Clarke is optimistic about the playground's future. She says Harris and the others should start looking to the next generation of leaders from their own neighborhood, as they did with Garner: "It's gonna be the veterans there who begin to mentor in a positive way to bring that generation into leadership."
The future she envisions for Cloverdale is as symbiotic as the present: The playground should remain the heart of its neighborhood, while leaders keep the neighborhood's vitality in mind.
"It's the community that runs that, it's the people that run it," Clarke says. "That's what makes it run the way it does, where people have respect for each other."