Hoop Nightmares

It's 5 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, prime time for basketball at Hollywood's Jefferson Park. A dozen men are shooting basketballs at two half-court hoops. The players are a refreshingly diverse bunch, running the gamut from middle-aged white men to black teenagers to a young Hispanic dude whose two small children are watching the game.

Jim Nolan, a tall, 55-year-old man with white hair and Paul Newman blue eyes, is the group's informal coach -- as well as its most aggressive player. "You all right, Frankie?" he asks a young black man, who slammed to the ground after a failed lay-up. "Easy, easy, don't hesitate, man," he tells another aspiring point guard who holds on to the ball too long.

The game at the other end of the court is a bit livelier. For long stretches the only sound is the squeak of rubber as sneakers meet pavement. No sooner does the action end than the recriminations begin: "I didn't touch that shit!" protests one player. "Yes you did," retorts another. A half-dozen young black men in sleeveless jerseys, shiny shorts, and high-top sneakers sit on two benches facing the courts, teasing the participants and waiting for their turns on the court. A half-empty plastic jug of water sits on the ground next to them.

But just as the games are heating up -- around six o'clock -- darkness descends. Most of the players retreat to their cars. One group continues playing. But the endeavor is a struggle: Lights from the adjacent tennis courts shine in their eyes when they head to the basket.

The players on the tennis courts, some 20 feet away, face no such problem. There four sets of players briskly volley. All are young white men, dressed in polo shirts and tennis shorts, with trim haircuts. Their games radiate a certain well-heeled decorum. "Sorry," says one player to his partner, apologizing for a poor shot. "Your serve," calls another, who momentarily stops the game to answer his cell phone.

The nearby bocce-ball courts are also awash in light. These courts, used mainly by French-Canadian and Italian tourists who winter in the area, remain empty for most of the year, including tonight.

Why are the lovers of some sports provided lights in Jefferson Park -- and the ability to play until 9:30 at night, prime after-work recreation time -- while others are not? The answer to this question very much depends on whom you ask. Hollywood city officials insist they've been reluctant to place lights on the hoop courts because of the concern expressed by homeowners who live near the park. Their complaint: The nighttime basketball crowd disturbs the peace and quiet of the neighborhood.

But those who want lights reinstalled say the city's crackdown on nocturnal games has less to do with the players' actions than with their skin color. "Every indication is that it is racial," says Roosevelt Walters, president of the Fort Lauderdale chapter of the NAACP. "Look at where the lights are and where they aren't. This happens all the time. It has to do with black folks doing things in white communities."

Those who support the players note that Jefferson Park is special precisely because it provides one of Broward's few public spaces where athletics transcend race. But the dispute over its basketball courts has transformed the surrounding neighborhood into a war zone -- one fraught not only with charges of racism but with incidents of vandalism, physical attacks, even death threats. Neighbors who once chatted amicably now cross the street to avoid each other or wind up in long arguments over the issue. City efforts to mediate the dispute have only made matters worse.

Jefferson Park is a small park by city standards -- about two acres. In addition to basketball, tennis, racquetball, and bocce courts, it has football and baseball fields, a playground, and a small meeting room with bathrooms where preschool and summer programs are held. It's located in the Lakes section, Hollywood's oldest and second-wealthiest neighborhood, which extends from the Intracoastal to the beach. In fact Jefferson is the only city park with athletic facilities in the entire Lakes section, an area of 8800 homes, and one of the few public spaces where basketball is played. In 1994 while devising a neighborhood master plan for the Lakes section, a group of residents suggested the city buy privately owned land for a community center with indoor sports facilities. But the city did not want to spend the $1.5 million.

Nor is the Lakes an isolated example. Hollywood faces a shortage of park space in all its neighborhoods. Unlike newer cities such as Pembroke Pines and Weston, which still have open spaces on which to build parks and sports facilities, Hollywood, an older city, is almost entirely built-up.

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Julie Kay