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Volunteers put on Labor Day basketball challenge for 46 years

Cloverdale Athletic Club Baltimore Basketball Association has held its annual Labor Day tournament and community celebration since 1957.

"Minute by minute, hour by hour,

If we keep our history, we'll keep our power."

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Hand in hand, dozens of children and adults stood in a circle and held hands on a bright Monday morning and chanted the motto of the Cloverdale Athletic Club Baltimore Basketball Association.

"Minute by minute, hour by hour / If truth is light, then knowledge is power."

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Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke took part in the Ring of Brotherly Love and congratulated the all-volunteer group, which has been running an annual Labor Day basketball tournament in the Penn North neighborhood since 1969.

"We don't send out invitations, and we don't post any notice," said the club's president, Earl "Rocky" Garner, 61.

"But every year, people just know to come out. Even though we play hard and foul hard, in all these years we've never had any quarrel that couldn't be solved by a handshake and an apology."

Bill Harris, who at age 80 is one of the club's founding members, said that no extra security measures were taken for their event, which is held every year at Cloverdale Ave. and McCulloh Street.

"We are our own security," Harris said. "These are kids from all corners of the community. In spite of all the turmoil of the past several months, this event has only promoted respect and love for one another."

Though the event is billed as a challenge, no prizes are given and no overall winners are declared. Instead, there is a series of games between the "youth" and the "old folks" — though there seemed to be some question as to whether old age begins at age 28 or 35.

After the games, there's a Labor Day picnic, with hot dogs, chicken on the grill, coleslaw and blueberry pie, plus music provided by the group's DJ — Donald "Duck" Leslie. (The DJ's half sister, Lisa Leslie, is a four-time Olympic gold medal winner in basketball.)

The Challenge began in 1969 when a local family held a Labor Day cookout that culminated after a few especially competitive games of hoops. Within a few years, the event had outgrown the family's backyard, so a group of volunteers asked if they could take over the nearby Cloverdale courts and recreation center. This year, about 300 people attended the daylong event, Garner said.

Harris still has photographs from the early days, which depict the center with peeling red paint scrawled over by graffiti. Now, the Cloverdale courts regularly are listed as one of the finest places to play basketball in Baltimore.

The seeming lure might be the courts and the game but the real benefit comes from the camaraderie.

"Mr. Bill and all these guys had a hand in raising an entire generation," said Walter Leslie, the brother of Donald and Lisa Leslie.

"A lot of the people who came here who were raised with just one parent, and these men became fathers to us. When we came to Cloverdale, we knew we were home."

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