Behind Lincoln Center, at the heart of a semicircle of tall brick buildings with a dome of leafy trees, on the dull playground of the Amsterdam Houses, the basketball league playoffs were underway.
Youth basketball has been a tradition in this public space on the Upper West Side since at least the 1960s, when Samuel N. Bennerson II, whose name is engraved on a sign along the iron gate, created the Betterment League. The leagues that followed continued to voice their mission in their names: the Brotherhood on Urban Survival in the 1970s; Amsterdam Action in the 1980s; and Positive Influence Basketball, which the league’s commissioner and game commentator, Andrew Blacks, founded nearly a decade ago. Summer is the only time the league gets to play; its teams are essentially shut out of playing a winter season. The indoor basketball courts of nearby schools, Mr. Blacks said, have been booked up by adult leagues.
Most of the playground’s swings are gone. So is the sandbox, and the chess and checkers tables. The small jungle gyms, layered in paint, are chipped and rusted. Programs for teenagers at the Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center across the street dried up years ago.
But none of that mattered on a beautifully mild summer night as spectators hung by the fence. Others watched from cloth folding chairs on the sidewalk or courtside benches, including Rose Daise, a gray-haired woman known as Miss Rose. As legend has it, she has never missed a league game. “It’s my entertainment,” she said. “It’s good to see them doing something.”
“Oh, baby,” Mr. Blacks yelled as the ball sailed out of bounds. Four minutes 10 seconds remained in the two-point game. “Let’s get back at it,” he shouted, pacing the sideline.
Success for the league is measured outside of points. It is in the stacks of college acceptance letters; the teenagers who help keep the game books; the 14-and-under home team, the Amsterdam Sonics, who once brought back a Rucker Park championship, a high honor in playground basketball; peer mentoring; and the young men who show up from as far away as Albany with fresh confidence. The night before, with his team down by 15, a 19-year-old shooting guard from Harlem took over the game and scored 42 points to lead his teammates into the playoffs.
“I always tell them,” Mr. Blacks said of his players as he set up before the game last week, “ ‘It’s not about your last play. It’s about your next play.’ ”
The season ended last Friday with an awards ceremony on the court. Mr. Blacks handed out navy blue Nike sweatsuits and book bags adorned with the Positive Influence Basketball league logo to the top two teams.
The league will not return until next summer. During that time, some of the players will scatter, Mr. Blacks said, some of them for good. The league used to run winter games in the gyms of nearby Martin Luther King Jr. Education Campus and Public School 191, Mr. Blacks said. But in recent years, he said, those courts have continuously been booked by private adult leagues.
“The neighborhood was changing,” Mr. Blacks said, “but they were forgetting the youth here. They got more money than us, but we’re still here.”
Mr. Blacks, 38, is short and stocky, with an easy grin. He grew up in the Amsterdam Houses playing point guard in the Amsterdam Action Association and in the Public Schools Athletic League. Most people in the community know him as Peach, a nickname given to him as a boy by his aunt, he said, for the roundness of his head. He tours the world as a member of the production crew with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, a field, he noted, that he entered through a relationship he formed on the basketball court.
One summer, when Mr. Blacks returned home from college, he found that the league had ended and that the playground “was going to waste.”
He started the Positive Influence Basketball league with about 60 children from the Amsterdam Houses. The league has been funded through donations like backboards and rims from Spalding, coaches’ fees, fund-raisers, grants, offerings such as ice from a nearby grocery store and his own money.
The league now has more than 800 players on 68 teams. They play for eight weeks during the summer in six divisions that include elementary school students, high schoolers and college students. Most are teenagers from Manhattan, but they also come from the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island.
Mr. Blacks has watched many of them grow up. “They’re not my kids legally,” he said, “but these are my kids.” He added, “The main thing in this league is confidence and hope.”
This past season, the Positive Influence league had to cancel at least eight games because of rain. And in recent years, Mr. Blacks said, he has turned away hundreds of youths because he does not have enough court space.
At Martin Luther King Jr. Education Campus one recent evening, in an adult league, a team from a finance company in Manhattan played basketball against a pickup squad of solo players, organized by the Fastbreak NYC sports league.
Fastbreak NYC plays at the gym three nights a week and has rented the gym for about six years under an Education Department permit, said Ren Hsieh, a commissioner of the league, who was sitting in the bleachers, watching the first game. The league, which also organizes and funds youth programs in Chinatown, typically renews the permit season to season, Mr. Hsieh said, and plays in the gym year round.
Other leagues like New York Urban Professionals and Lawyers Basketball League, he and Mr. Blacks said, are able to pay permit fees up front for the year and automatically renew, reducing available indoor space. When a previous lease at Chelsea Piers ended, Mr. Hsieh said, Fastbreak NYC had to scramble. “When we got into here, it was a big get,” he said. “You have to know someone, basically.”
In public schools, the process of obtaining gym space is generally first come first served, said an Education Department spokesman, Harry Hartfield. Permit fees vary depending on the amount of space, amount of time and type of space requested. School principals have the authority to approve or reject permit applications.
Mr. Blacks said that when he had visited the nearby King and LaGuardia high schools to ask about gym space, he had repeatedly been told the spaces were booked. “It makes me highly upset,” Mr. Blacks said. “I don’t mind anybody using the gyms. I just think the community should be able to get something.”
At the Positive Influence game, Rafael Montalvo watched as his 16-year-old son, Jaylin, long-limbed in light blue shorts and topped with a thicket of curly hair, arched in a three-pointer.
“Get that money, boy,” Mr. Montalvo shouted. He clapped his hands as the game wound down. Jaylin, a B student, is preparing for the SATs, Mr. Montalvo said. Sports has long been a commitment for both father and son. The two drove to the game from Long Island. Mr. Montalvo also has a 17-year-old son who plays football.
Mr. Montalvo, an inspector with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said that when he was his sons’ age, one thing occupied his time. “The streets,” he said. “But I made sure their life was different than mine.”
Edmon Archer, 68, sitting on the sidelines, grew up in the Amsterdam Houses, he said, before there was a Lincoln Center. He founded a league at the playground in the late 1970s. Even though the team he helps coach in Mr. Blacks’s league, Tri-State, was knocked from the playoffs, he returned night after night. “Every other generation, someone has picked it up,” Mr. Archer said of the history of leagues at the playground. “It’s beautiful.”
Mr. Blacks said he still hoped to find a gym to hold a winter league in October. He had started looking in the Bronx. “I will see what works out,” he said. “Hopefully somebody will offer us some gym space.”