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Basketball players face challenges trying to play sport

Coach, former player discuss benefits of AAU leagues, public park games

  • 3 min to read
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EMPTY — The basketball court in Foster Park remains empty after the Kokomo Parks and Recreational Department took down the backboard and rim. All recreational areas at the park are set to reopen this Sunday, May 24.

With the cancelation of sports leagues, both school and recreational, many athletes have been left to come up with ways of practicing on their own time.

The Western High School boys’ basketball team typically spends the month of June practicing together, according to Head Coach Mike Lewis. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, high school teams will not be able to practice together until July 1 under the current orders given by the governor.

Additionally, without the ability to spend time with individual trainers or Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) teams, athletes are experiencing a much different world in sports currently, said Lewis.

“Almost all of these kids are either going to a personal trainer or playing on an AAU team. Now that those opportunities may not be as abundant as what they were prior to the current landscape with the COVID. These kids are going to have to readjust and now find time on their own. A lot of that is going to come down to whether [they’re] intrinsically motivated to get better,” Lewis said.

Before high school teams met frequently in the summer and the AAU basketball leagues started becoming more popular in Indiana, many athletes spent their summer days playing informal games in outdoor parks. Although the recreational areas in Howard County currently are closed due to COVID-19, the public will see a reopening of the playgrounds and courts May 24, according to Kokomo Parks and Recreation Superintendent Torrey Roe.

Lewis, who graduated high school in 2002, said he was an avid supporter of unstructured basketball games played at the park as long as it was safe under the current restrictions. He credited the improvement of his own basketball skills in high school from playing against men who were older, faster, bigger, and stronger than he was at the time.

“I think informal, unstructured play is where you can really have a lot of skill acquisition because kids are learning how to play with these older guys that are bigger, faster, stronger, and understand the game,” Lewis said. “You just don’t see that as much anymore. It’s not the kids’ fault. It’s just the environment they’ve grown up in with technology. They just operate in a different framework than we did.”

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Like Lewis’ hometown in Greenfield, Kokomo was home to many competitive outdoor games at Foster Park, according to Jim “Jimbo” Rayl. A 1985 Wildkat graduate, Rayl spent every summer throughout the 1980s and mid-1990s playing heated games of basketball with not only other local players but also players who came from out of town to participate in some quality matches.

Around 5 p.m. was the time to start showing up, according to Rayl, because that was when the adult men would get off work and immediately head to the park. The “legends” on the park court at the time were Tim Harrison, Rick Yard, and Dave Tickfer, a trio known as “Harry, Rick, and Tick,” who were all in their mid-20s at the time, said Rayl. They started the games in the evenings with the next seven players who showed up.

While the game was being played, several other players would sit in the bleachers, waiting to play in the next game. Players never wanted to lose, according to Rayl, because of the possibility of having to wait a long time before getting picked to play again. The games went on until between 9 and 10 p.m.

“You’d have 10 guys out there who’d get out there and start playing. Then you’d have to call next game. There would be five or six people waiting to get into a game. Once you got into a game, you didn’t want to lose because you’d be sitting out if they didn’t pick you up for maybe an hour,” Rayl said.

While Rayl had some stiff competition playing in the parks, he said kids today have good competition as well playing AAU and being able to play indoors.

“It’s going to help you more to play indoors because you’re playing in like a real setting that you’d be playing in in high school, whereas outdoors you’re dealing with the wind, the elements. I think you’re better off now than you were back then,” Rayl said.

However, Rayl agreed with Lewis that playing outside in the park made him a tougher offensive player individually. Additionally, he said with the option of playing in the public park always available, it encouraged him to constantly work on his skills.

“It benefited me because it made me want to go down there and play every day at the park … When you know you can ride your bicycle or get in the car with your buddy and drive down to park, you got a game every single night of the week,” Rayl said. “You’re always going down there to play because your friends are down there. You’ve always got a place to play basketball when you want to go play.”