Saturday morning at Northeast’s Beltrami Park, a dozen grade school kids in bright blue jerseys ran drills on the basketball court under the watchful gaze of North High basketball coach Pete Johnson. A sleepy thicket of tents spread across the northern end of the park. Parents watched from picnic tables on the sidelines.
Johnson coaches with the North Area Basketball Academy (NABA), an organization which – along with Heritage Youth Sports Foundation, Above the Rim, and Seeds to Harvest – uses sports to give Northside kids the benefits of fresh air, teamwork, and positive social bonds.
This summer, he’s got about 50 kids. And because they haven’t had access to a designated indoor gym, they’ve been driving all over the city, searching park after park for an open basketball court ahead of each practice, parents in tow.
“This summer it was a struggle with the timing, and you can’t just go in and take over a park,” says Johnson. “So my thing is, why isn't the plan being put into effect for kids to come into facilities for the winter? … You can’t practice basketball in the wintertime outside here. That’s just not going to happen.”
At last Wednesday’s park board meeting, Johnson asked commissioners to come up with a solution for youth sports in the winter. There’s currently no plan for reopening recreational centers for general use, even though they’re currently housing the “RecPlus” childcare program and “Nite Owlz” teen nights. Despite COVID concerns, the Parade Ice Garden and Northeast Ice Arena are also open for adult and youth hockey.
Summer basketball programs have been running in the suburbs, Johnson says. “They’re taking temperatures, having people entering one door, exiting another door. Let’s do this in the city. You just have to be safe. And so as long as people are being safe, I believe you should have access to the facilities.”
Johnson and other North Side youth sports coaches want the commissioners to understand that the lack of access to public park facilities – compounded by school closures and social distance learning – has been hitting their kids hard.
“They need structure, they need air, they need somebody to tell them, ‘I love you,’ outside of the house,” says Heritage Youth Sports Foundation’s Coach Mike “Talley” Tate.
“My fear is that they're gonna become more and more frustrated because they're locked in. And mentally, it's not healthy not to be engaged with your peers at some point. I’m not a doctor, but I know kids. They need somebody other than their parents to help them get through the day, whether it’s Coach Pete in basketball, or Coach Talley in football, kickball, table tennis, if it’s just opening a building to read, to do art.”
Parks commissioner Londel French, chair of the Park Board’s Recreation Committee, did not respond for comment. Neither did Recreation vice chair Kale Severson, who represents District 2 on the North Side.
At-large commissioner LaTrisha Vetaw says she empathizes with how frustrated the coaches feel when they see COVID contradictions throughout parks and rec – tents congregated in close proximity, greater access for suburban kids and more affluent sports.
“We should accommodate these kids,” she says. “We're talking about all this violence and all these things going on in our city. These kids need something to do. They need sports. This is their outlet.”
At Beltrami Park, longtime basketball academy volunteer Tanika Reese, whose adult children grew up in the parks, explains that for some North Side kids, structured sports are the cornerstone for other opportunities in life.
“What happens when youth don't have structured activities and opportunities supervised by vested and interested adults?” she asks. “If they’re going to allow the adults to go to bars, why can’t they allow the kids to use the parks?”
Mia Johnson, a Minneapolis Police Department officer who played basketball for Michigan State, supervised her daughter Mikayla’s footwork from the sidelines, shouting encouragement and advice.
“Finding a decent park that’s open enough, where you can actually feel somewhat safe because of what’s around and so forth, it’s been an uphill battle,” she says. “Me personally, I don't think being outside on the concrete nonstop is something that's good, but at the same time I want to stress to my daughter the importance of actually being active and knowing that if there's a will, there's a way.”