Mount Vernon basketball court that produced NBA stars has many trying to restore its luster

The Rev. Richard Garner, 62, a lifelong resident

The Rev. Richard Garner, 62, a lifelong resident of Mount Vernon, stands on the West Fourth Street Playground basketball courts in Mount Vernon. Levister Towers is seen behind him. (April 18, 2013) (Credit: Xavier Mascarenas)

For the better part of the 1970s and '80s, the basketball courts at Mount Vernon's West Fourth Street playground served as an open-air incubator for NBA-level talent like the Williams brothers -- Gus and Ray -- or the McCrays -- Scooter and Rodney.

On a summer afternoon on the courts between South Seventh and South Eighth avenues, you could glimpse Earl Tatum -- back home from playing for Al McGuire at Marquette University -- before he went on to a career with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Or Lowes Moore, a guard at West Virginia University who scored 40 points in a 1978 game against Notre Dame and was drafted by the New Jersey Nets. Not to mention playground legends remembered mostly now by their schoolyard names "Rags" and "The Squid."


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In those days, you could wait all day for a full-court run and, if you lost, playground rules meant you had to get off -- and were likely done for the day.

"We used to watch through the fence hoping one day we'd get on the playground," said Moore, 55, now the executive director of the Mount Vernon Boys & Girls Club.

"It was the Rucker Park of Westchester County," Moore said, referring to the legendary Harlem basketball courts that were the playground for the likes of Nate Archibald and Julius Erving before they went on to be NBA greats.

Today, cracks in the two blacktopped courts at West Fourth Street are covered over by a patchwork of paint jobs, and backboards lean at odd angles. Cigarette butts litter the courts' edges and, on a recent spring afternoon, with school already out, just a handful of players milled about, playing a lazy game of three-on-three before receding to the nearby benches for a smoke.

It's the hope of Lyndon Williams, a Westchester County legislator, and other members of the county Legislature to recapture the playground's glory days with a $750,000 makeover that would involve installing new backboards and modern outdoor surfaces.

Williams envisions the park teeming with young players in a return of sorts to the old days, when summer afternoons used to attract hundreds to the courts. He's hoping to hit the reset button on the trajectory of a place where, in June 2011, a 24-year-old man was fatally shot once in the chest.

"There used to be good games here," said Aaron Rookwood, 19, a basketball player at Mount Vernon High School who on Tuesday was out on the courts schooling his 10-year-old nephew Aydan by shooting jump shots over the youngster's outstretched arms. "Not much anymore."

MONEY FOR RENOVATION IN DISPUTE

Money for the renovation work is tied up in a difference of opinion between the Board of Legislators and County Executive Rob Astorino. The board voted in favor of the funding in 2011, but Astorino has refused to budget the money.

Among the county executive's concerns is whether the park would serve as a regional park accessible to all Westchester residents or whether it would essentially be a city park. Cities and towns across the county would be clamoring for money to fix up soccer fields and basketball courts if the county started handing out money to all worthwhile projects, said George Oros, Astorino's chief of staff.

Additionally, Oros said, Westchester County never reached an agreement with Mount Vernon on how much the city would kick in to fund the project, a standard practice when the county contributes to capital projects in municipalities.

"If it's going to happen, we have to have some agreement with the city on what their contribution will be," Oros said.

Separately, with the help of the Mount Vernon City Council, Williams wants to name the playground after Ray Williams, the former Knicks star who died last month at the age of 58 after a bout with colon cancer.

"It sounds like a great idea," said Yuhanna Edwards, the City Council president.

The proposal hasn't been put before the council yet, but Lyndon Williams would like to have the playground renamed with or without the renovation work being done.

To Lyndon Williams, Ray William's life is the perfect metaphor for the West Fourth Street courts. Ray Williams was selected in the first round of the 1977 draft by his hometown team, the Knicks, and went on to play 10 seasons in the NBA, averaging nearly 21 points per game during the 1979-80 season.

His post-basketball life, however, was marred by a series of financial and personal struggles. In the end, Ray Williams found his way back to Mount Vernon, where friends helped him get a job with the city's Recreation Department.

When Lyndon Williams, who is not related to Ray Williams, went to the county Legislature two years ago to try to secure funding for the playground, the former Knick was at his side.

"It would be not only for Ray but for a lot of the young people who would enjoy playing basketball there," Lyndon Williams said of his proposal to revitalize the courts.

He vows to continue to press for money for the renovations and said he'll even consider filing a lawsuit to get it.

THERE MAY BE NO TURNING BACK

Moore and others are skeptical that, even if the money becomes available, the playground could return to its former glory. For one, they said, the best high school athletes nowadays play on organized amateur teams during the summer, where their every move is scouted and coached.

In addition, Rookwood said his high school coach discouraged him and his teammates from playing outdoors during the season for fear they'd injure themselves.

"I don't know if he'd get mad but he didn't want you playing here," Rookwood said.

Back when he was a mainstay at the courts, Moore said there were playground instructors who helped round up teams for summer tournaments. Among them was Richard Garner, a former Manhattan College star who is the pastor at Mount Vernon's Redeemed Church of Jesus Christ.

Garner can still remember the first time he stepped on the West Fourth Street court as a youngster in the 1960s. "It was like, 'I've arrived,' " he said. "I can play at Fourth Street."

"For us," Garner said, "there was no summer camp. We lived in the playground."

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