LOS ANGELES — It is an American story that's been building since the day Henry Ford started producing Model T's.
Neighborhood kids gather in streets or alleys playing football, basketball, hockey, tag - anything with a stick, a ball, or a little mischief. Then the rumble of a truck engine, the squeal of tires on pavement, or the blare of a car horn sends them scurrying, only to regroup, unfazed, for the next play.
But now this adolescent pastime is in jeopardy as authorities across the country take aim at street sports. Their chief target: portable basketball hoops. Because the prices of hoops on wheels have plummeted, the contrap-tions are showing up on more and more streets, cul-de-sacs, and sidewalks. And author-ities from California to Kentucky, dogged by concerns over safety and liability, are dusting off old ordinances or pondering new laws.
Neighbors complain about noise, safety, and loitering. And indignant kids reply, between swoosh and dribble: "Hey, we're just trying to have a little bit of fun."
In a time of slashed state budgets, some sports and education experts lament the lack of enough community facilities for kids. And they mourn the possible end of neighborhood pickup games - and lost lessons in winning, losing, making rules, and standing by them.
"This is a problem that has been growing here for years," says Rafael Rodriguez, supervisor of the Neighborhood Preservation Unit in Modesto, Calif. Two years ago, Mr. Rodriguez's department received 37 calls about basketball hoops and impromptu courts in vehicles' paths. Last year, the number soared to 290, and this year it's already at 190, with half of summer left to go. Other portable sports equipment is also proliferating as prices drop on everything from hockey nets to skateboard ramps - and the pitch of those complaints is rising, too.
But the basketball hoops, mounted on plastic bases filled with sand or water to help them stand, draw the greatest ire. Mail carriers say they block walking routes. Street sweepers complain they impinge on urban grooming. Neighbors in cul-de-sacs say the games bring crowds that scuff up lawns and leave trash.
And Modesto is not alone in its basketball hoopla. Paulsboro, N.J., recently outlawed the devices, as did towns in Kentucky, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Ansonia, Conn., is considering a ban.
"Our concern is about the safety of children in the street," says Ansonia Mayor James DellaVolpe, who's pushing a ban on the hoops. "We are trying to be proactive instead of waiting for serious injury to occur. There is also concern about emergency vehicles responding to calls."
Beyond the flurry of new laws, the hoop problem is forcing communities to examine old legislation. Rodriguez says authorities are often caught in the middle of disputes when neighbors complain about adolescent crowds blaring music, drinking, and doing drugs around street-hoop gatherings. Because of right-of-way ordinances regarding streets and sidewalks, police must notify the young culprits.
"We tell them we are not trying to stop kids from playing, but ... to prevent loss of life or injury," says Rodriguez. Most move the hoops to a different location. If they don't - and they have 72 hours to comply - they receive a $100 fine. A 10-day delay brings a $250 fine, and after that, the penalties climb to $500 and up.
But kids sometimes move hoops back to disputed sites and leave them there, sparking complaints about blocked parking spaces and street-sweeper routes.
That's what happened in Niskayuna, N. Y., , pop. 20,000, a community of cul-de-sacs with names like Avon Crest and Hexam Gardens. "We found out two things: that these hoops are proliferating very fast and that we have no ordinance as yet to stop people from putting them up," says Lt. Lewis Moskowitz of the local police department. "Kids are getting a false sense of security by allowing this activity to go on in areas where cars drive." In winter, when hoops have been left up, they've often blocked snow plows. "We are trying to examine how to deal with this before it gets worse," says Moskowitz.
As they debate, many hope local authorities will remain circumspect. "If towns across America are going to take it upon themselves to shut down these activities, we only hope they do so with an eye on the bigger picture - namely, that they ask what alternative facilities these kids have access to," says Steve Burke, director of the Urban Youth Sports program at Northeastern University. He says that without positive, sanctioned activities, kids often rechannel those energies in a negative way, from drag racing to fighting to drugs and alcohol. He also laments the potential decline in pickup games and their lessons in "self-governance" without parental oversight. "We would recommend having some flexibility rather than a blanket ban of such devices," he says.
But while Burke and others lament new limits on urban pastimes, legal experts say towns are prudent to make laws. "It doesn't matter if the players see it or not," says Robert Pugsley, a professor at Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles. "It is a public-safety matter."