Volume 19 Issue 33 | Dec. 29, 2006 - Jan. 4, 2007

Just playing ball on a break from umps

By Judith Stiles

At first glance, the term “structured free play” seems like an oxymoron. However, city kids are getting a welcome dose of it during the holiday break from Christmas to New Year’s Day. Hudson River Park Trust and the City Parks Department provide the structure by opening their gates and doors at no cost to families, while kids create the free play with a ball, no referees, no uniforms, no complicated rules and no ogling parents to scrutinize their games. Even mother nature chipped in a streak of unseasonably warm weather, adding a giddiness to Saturday night softball and soccer pickup games at J.J. Walker Field, where parents and children showed up to play in T-shirts and shorts.

The beauty of this precious unstructured week is that young athletes and even sports dabblers feel free to play ball just for fun.

“In these type of games, kids can experiment and relax as they play basketball with a few dads, sometimes moms, and friends,” said Ray Pagan, founder of the Greenwich Village Basketball League, which he started 49 years ago. “From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. our courts are open for people to just show up and play basketball,” he added while sitting on the sidelines, soaking up the fun.

During the holiday break the veterans of the Tony Dapolito Recreation Center, on Seventh Ave. and Clarkson St., returned from college to catch up with old friends and shoot some hoops. Ava Thomas, who grew up playing basketball at Tony Dapolito (formerly the Carmine St. Recreation Center) hustled over to Women’s Night to show her former mentor, Pagan, the M.V.P. award that she was given at a recent tournament playing for Utica College. She met up with Carmen Guzman, who also took a break from the pressure cooker of college games, where she has been a star at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, scoring 33 points in her last game.

Bill and young Billy Tietjen took over a half-court upstairs at the rec center with a few friends and uncle Tommy Norton, for a three-on-three game of basketball. Coach Tietjen got a chance to show the 12-year-olds some new moves before the full-blown G.V.B.L. season begins on Jan. 6. As their free-flowing game of fun rolled along without anyone keeping score, Coach Tietjen emphasized the importance of moving on the court and finding the open space.

“I’m open! Watch me and the ball,” he explained to Noel McLeod, 12, who will play on his team in the upcoming season.

Relaxing on the sidelines was revered sports mom Leslie Gallagher, who has earned the admiration of Greenwich Village parents for shepherding her four boys to all their soccer, lacrosse, basketball and baseball games throughout the year. With Liam at 12 years old, Aren, 11, Niall, 8, and Owen, 5, they were playing in another three-on-three game on the other half-court, with one of the brothers rotating out as a sub.

“If you have four boys in the city, you have to find sports!” said Gallagher, as she watched her youngest sons dribble and prance up to the hoop, straining with all their might to sink one.

“But I nixed the idea of ice hockey because of those early-morning games, no way,” she added, laughing at the new trend in which some of the moms go to the 5 a.m. games in their pajamas and an overcoat.

At this time of year, there is nary a referee in sight and the players don’t seem to need one.

“In pickup games the kids resolve their own issues themselves,” remarked Coach Tietjen during a water break. At Pier 40, the courtyard field is a patchwork of different games, including players of all different skill levels and ages, learning about soccer in a roundabout way, without a formal coach.

“In the end, best teacher or coach is the ball,” said Ben Boehm, veteran youth coordinator and former pro goalkeeper in Germany.

Soon the referees will return and the serious side of playing ball will bounce back on the scene, when 60 teams resume league play for G.V.B.L. in January. Formal soccer leagues will kick in at Chelsea Piers and indoors at Pier 40 through the Downtown United Soccer Club. But who knows? With this unusually balmy weather, there might be many more pickup games outdoors in 2007. So if the indoor fields start emptying out all of a sudden, it means that the kids can’t help themselves from gravitating toward some more old-fashioned “structured free play.”

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