LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- Say the words "Dirt Bowl" to people of a certain age from West Louisville and you get the same faraway smile and shake of the head. They don't just miss the event; they miss the way the community was then. It wasn't perfect, but compared to today? Well, all you need to do is scan the headlines.
So when Mayor Greg Fischer and community organizers stood up today to announce that the Dirt Bowl will return -- and quickly -- to Shawnee Park where it flourished for most of its 41 years, there was a wistful eye to the past with a wary eye on the present.
The shot clock has expired a couple of times on the famous tournament -- which played host to such players as Jim McDaniel, Darrell Griffith, Wes Unseld, Dan Issel, Clem Haskins, Derek Anderson and a host of others in its time. It fizzled after violence marred the scene in 2004 and no game was held in 2005. It made another attempt in 2006, and again in 2009.
This year, there is a fast-break feel to the event. The press conference was held on a Monday. Tournament registration ends on Wednesday. The first games are on Saturday.
There's more than basketball on the minds of the people putting this together. Gun violence is escalating in West Louisville. News reports of shootings are becoming more common.
"I'm not going to sit here and say that the Dirt Bowl will stop all the violence that's been happening," event organizer Neal Robertson said. "But what it could do is subside it. I know a lot of people will be in this one area. And we will have a lot of law enforcement down here. So I don't think they'll be breaking the law right in front of them."
Shawnee Park is one of the most picturesque in the city. On a sunny Monday morning, groups of young people met in a covered area with adults leading activities. Others were cutting away dead growth from trees.
Robertson looked around and remembered how it was growing up in this area of the city. He said when he was a kid, "I always looked forward to going to Boy Scouts, going to Vacation Bible School, going to the Dirt Bowl, going to the YMCA on 38th and Broadway, because all those things were available for me. Now I'm looking around for my kids and my grandkids and none of these things are available for them. And they have to try to think of ways themselves to spend their summer vacation. It doesn't always work out right when kids are managing themselves."
Officials know they can't bring the Dirt Bowl back to its full influence. In his remarks, Fischer said, "We hope to recapture some of that former glory." Seventeen teams have signed up. No main sponsor has come forward, even though Fischer said he's been working with community leaders for months.
Losing the Dirt Bowl was a blow to this area of Louisville, Robertson said.
"It's almost like taking a bottle from a baby," Robertson said. ". . . It was one event people always could look forward to during the summertime. You know, even while some of us were in school we always knew that the Dirt Bowl was going to be happening and a lot of people were going to be coming down here, some of the best basketball talent was going to be down here."
This year's tournament will be played on June 30, July 1, 7, 8, 14 and 15, as well as August 4, 5, 11 and the championship on August 12.
Metro Councilwoman Cheri Bryant-Hamilton said the event can be an important activity toward bringing people together, and urged residents not to come with the divisions that have caused so much violence lately.
Recruiters from the Army and Navy will set up stations in the park. A Kentuckiana Works Job Fair will be held to assist people looking for work. There will be signing by gospel groups.
"Hundreds of young people and their families, maybe even thousands, will be here, and I want to encourage families to come out to the park, and enjoy the sprayground that we opened last year, to have picnics," Hamilton said.
"But I want to make a special request. I want everyone to come and feel safe. I want everyone to come and enjoy themselves and to keep this park peaceful. We've already gotten off to some tragedy in the community, and we don't want it to continue down here in Shawnee Park. I'm asking you, please, don't bring any weapons. If you've got a feud with someone, stay home. I'm going to ask you about three 'd's.' No drugs. No dice. No dogs. Don't bring them down here. . . . A lot of times people say there's nothing to do in the West End, (that) there's no services down here. We're bringing the Dirt Bowl back. Let's not blow this opportunity."
That plea probably describes the challenges facing this event -- and this community -- better than anything I could write.
Previous attempts to revive this event have failed to take hold. But as the stakes become higher, and stories of violence from this part of the city begin to become more common, more and more a realization is setting in that many of the institutions and organizations that might have been taken for granted for a long time were more important than many realized.
Multiply the Dirt Bowl by a dozen and the effect on this area and its youth of losing so many services and traditions is becoming more pronounced. And fearful.
It's no game. But it does reflect a hope that reviving some of these institutions from the community's past might speak to its troubled present.
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