Court of public opinion

Published 12:52 pm Sunday, August 29, 2010

Staff Writer

In basketball circles, the legend lives.
Long before he became an NBA Hall of Famer and two-time Slam Dunk champion, Dominique Wilkins would dunk at the 15th Street court next to Oakdale Cemetery. His nephew, Minnesota Timberwolves guard/forward Damien Wilkins, perfected his moves on the same court.
Collegiate legends, too. Local players shared the court one day with former N.C. State guards Dereck Whittenburg and Charles “Hawkeye” Whitney. Whittenburg is best known for his alley-oop pass to Lorenzo Charles for the last-second dunk that propelled the Wolfpack to the 1983 NCAA championship over Houston.
In a state known around the globe for basketball, the 15th Street court has become legendary along the Eastern Seaboard for the better part of 50 years.
But after complaints from some Washington residents, the Washington City Council has asked the city’s Recreation Advisory Committee to consider options for the court, which might include shutting it down. Most players who use the court were left wondering “Why?”— or, more specifically, “Why now?”
“I’m 43 years old, and I’ve been playing out here since I was 13,” said William Conner, a building maintenance worker with the City of Washington who also owns Conner’s Cleaning Service. “My older brother was the first one who brought me out here and started playing out here. And it’s a great court and people like coming out here because it’s a good environment.”
Complaints concerning the basketball games range from disrespect for funerals, a Port-a-John, loud music and alleged drug use.
“I just don’t understand what everybody is talking about,” Conner said. “None of the burials now are even in that section. Everything is done all the way over in the new section. And they’re claiming that they can hear the guys from out here? There’s no way.”
Conner also addressed the question of alleged drug use.
“In my neighborhood, I’m known as the mean guy. If someone is doing drugs (at the basketball court), I will pick up the phone and call the Washington Police Department.”
For many, basketball at the 15th Street court has become more of a rite of passage and family tradition.
“Basketball is one of the only sports I know that unites everybody,” Conner said. “It doesn’t matter what color you are. It doesn’t matter really how big or how small you are. It’s just a love for the game. My kids still come out here. I have a 22-year-old and a 17-year-old. They don’t want to play anywhere else in town but out here. So, when my kids tell me they are going to 15th Street, I never worry about them.”
Mickey Cochran, Washington resident and former Beaufort County Commissioner, addressed the City Council on Monday in support of relocating the court to Havens Gardens.
“I want my position made perfectly clear,” Cochran said in a recent interview. “That basketball court never should have been placed there and should be closed and moved to a better location.”
Cochran’s parents are buried at Oakdale Cemetery less than 40 yards from the basketball court. That fact, he said, that does not drive his opposition.
“I would have an interest regardless of whether my parents were buried there or not,” Cochran said. “The issue is simple: should you have a basketball court and Port-a-John in a cemetery. It’s a very simple thing.”
Former Washington High School basketball coach Dave Smith, who led the Pam Pack to back-to-back state championships in the 1970s and still coaches for the recreation department, was puzzled about all the fuss after all these years.
“If it’s been there 50 years, why all of the sudden does it need to be closed down?” Smith asked. “Why would it have been put there to begin with? If it’s been there all this time and it has not caused a problem, then I think it should continue. If it’s been disrespectful for 50 years, what’s the point?”