At first, it was just a peach basket nailed to a telephone pole. Vincent Frye was 12 in 1952 when he begged his parents to put up a basketball hoop outside his Oak Bluffs home. All the other kids on Wamsutta avenue had sporting equipment in their yard. So the “net” went up on the pole across the street, at the corner of Niantic Park. Neighbors came over to play ball, and the rest, well, is history.
Generations of Oak Bluffs kids followed suit, starting with the construction of a real court while Mr. Frye was in college. Seven decades later, the park is known as training grounds for many young athletes from town and abroad. “You can go by the courts any summer day, and you’ll find people age eight to 45, even 50, playing basketball,” said Mike Joyce, basketball coach at the regional high school who first played Niantic basketball when he was seven.
“For me personally, that’s been a focal point of summer activity since I started going there,” he said. “I met kids from all over New England and the United States . . . . We live a sheltered Island life here, but that’s a place where you can come in contact with people from very different walks of life in a venue that’s pretty casual — I mean, it’s basketball.”
But the court has never been resurfaced, and the long cracks that have formed have a reputation for twisting ankles. Two of four overhead lights no longer work, and the same warped, rusted fence has outlined the court for at least 35 years, Mr. Joyce said. “It’s in desperate need of some help,” he said.
The town parks department aims to fix all that with a restoration project slated to replace the basketball court, purchase new playground equipment, install water and electrical lines, and build a public rest room, among other improvements. Use of the senior center bathroom by parkgoers has annoyed the center for years, said conservation commission chairman Joan Hughes, whose committee voted in September to commit $400,000 in community preservation funds to the park project.
At a special town meeting in November, Oak Bluffs voters will be asked to approve that $400,000 expenditure for park renovations, as well as authorize the town to raise an additional $350,000 in loans to be paid back by community preservation funds over three years. The plan calls for completing the construction in two separate periods flanking the summer months, allowing the park to remain open during the summer.
Niantic is used by residents and visitors of all ages throughout the year, the parks commissioners say. “I think Niantic is probably the most heavily used park in Oak Bluffs,” Mr. Joyce said.
Senior citizens visit the park because of its proximity to the council on aging, also situated on Wamsutta.
Parents of young children like Bethany Lambos frequent the park because it’s convenient and spacious, she said. On a recent afternoon, Mrs. Lambos pushed her twin eight-month-old sons back and forth to the rhythmic screech of the rusted swingset.
She doesn’t mind the sound, and it even seems to soothe her boys, but her friends complain about the deteriorating equipment.
The renovation won’t relocate any of the recreational sites, but it would include new playground equipment for younger and older children. There is a plan to designate additional parallel and diagonal parking along the three sides of the park. “The whole aspect of the park is going to stay the same,” said parks commissioner Amy Billings. The parcel of land closest to Circuit avenue, a triangle populated by evergreens, is low-lying and vulnerable to flooding, so no renovations beyond landscaping are planned for that area. The four tennis courts will also remain untouched. Money raised from the $20-per-hour court fee charged in the summer months pays for maintenance.
Basketball camp runs daily in the summer, and at night, the courts fill with older kids as well as women and men’s pickup leagues. Mr. Joyce said the proposed half basketball court, which would go in at the site of the current tennis backboard, can be used for drills and casual shooting while formal games are taking place.
Mr. Frye still lives on Wamsutta, in the house adjacent to his childhood home, and he said he’s sorry he ever put up the basketball net. The courts bring lot of noise to the neighborhood at night. He hopes the renovation will repair the chain link fence to enable locking, so that kids can’t shoot hoops at two in the morning, with the car headlights on. “If it’s all supervised and all under control, it should be nice,” he said.