Philadelphia Youth Basketball, with the backing of some of the pillars of the community, including Mayor-elect Jim Kenney, is confident it can succeed in revitalizing Logan.
Once upon a time, the Logan section was at the heart of the Philadelphia Jewish community. Not only were there a number of synagogues in the area to complement an array of Jewish businesses, but much of the populace was Jewish, too.
But that cultural heritage is not the main reason why three Jews are behind a current movement to restore the downtrodden neighborhood to respectability through a proposed $25 million basketball center with surrounding health and education facilities. Neither is the fact that the Jewish influence on basketball has always been significant around these parts.
That legacy goes all the way back to the SPHA (South Philadelphia Hebrew Association) of the 1930s and ’40s, which featured players like Cy Kasselman and Harry Litwack, who would go on to become the Hall of Fame coach at Temple. And when it comes to pro hoops, that tradition has been enriched by a trail of NBA owners of both the Philadelphia Warriors (Eddie Gottlieb) and 76ers (Ike Richman, Irv Koslov, Harold Katz, Ed Snider and currently Josh Harris).
But according to Doug Young, who was senior captain at Lower Merion High School when current Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant was a sophomore, that’s not why he, Jewish Federation head of marketing and Jewish Exponent general manager Steve Rosenberg, and Philadelphia Youth Basketball CEO Kenny Holdsman have founded a project which is expected to take close to three years to complete.
“Basketball has always brought communities together, and Jews have been a big part of that narrative,” said Young, a board member of the Kobe and Vanessa Bryant Foundation, in addition to being an assistant coach at Lower Merion the past 13 years. “So is giving back to the game. Folks like Kenny and Steve have a sense of pride we’re carrying on that lineage and leadership.”
“In lower-income communities and communities of color, kids need more opportunities and support to reach their potential,” added Holdsman. “My sense of tzedakah and tikkun olam gives me a strong feel for community development in lower income areas.”
The area they’ve selected is the infamous Logan Triangle, which has been essentially a massive vacant lot for nearly 30 years since homes began sinking into the ground in 1986 following a gas main explosion. That led to mass evictions and, ultimately, demolition of nearly 1,000 homes over a 10-year period for safety reasons.
Despite various attempts over the ensuing years to revive the neighborhood, nothing’s been done since. But Philadelphia Youth Basketball, with the backing of some of the pillars of the community, including Mayor-elect Jim Kenney, is confident it can succeed where those others failed.
The plan basically is to turn the Triangle into a bunch of rectangles — eight indoor and six outdoor courts — as part of a 120,000-square foot redevelopment project that will include classrooms, a library, computer lab and a health and wellness center.
With the group having already raised $600,000 behind the scenes before the project was formally launched at a Dec. 3 press conference at Cooke Elementary —attended by such basketball luminaries as Temple coach Fran Dunphy, former Owl and Sixer Aaron McKie and former Olympic gold medalist Dawn Staley as well as Kenney — it’s off to a promising start.
“I think fundraising is always competitive and difficult, especially for a startup organization,” said Holdsman, whom Young describes as the “point guard” of the project.
(He’s had similar success building the Legacy Tennis Center in East Falls.)
“However, I think the attractiveness of our project and the range of people involved with us as board members, volunteers and supporters will help us have success in the donor community,” he added. “We’ve entered into an agreement that gives us 6.5 acres to use at a lease of $1 a year. We’re the anchor tenant of a bigger redevelopment. “We hope to break ground in two years — we’re going to need every bit of two years to raise the money.”
At the same time they’re doing that, the Goldenberg Group, which specializes in putting together large scale construction projects, will need all of that time preparing the site. Studies subsequent to the disastrous events in the ’80s, when all those houses came down, showed the Triangle was built upon an area filled with coal ash.
To make the site suitable for construction will require remediating that ash, a complicated, time-consuming process, in addition to having to factor in traffic, parking and other concerns.
Heading that effort is Jeremy Fogel, whose other prime responsibility during this span is lining up prospective paying tenants alongside PYB in what could add up to a $150 million project.
“As the developer, we have the responsibility to find all the individual retailers, design the space, finance it and build it,” explained Fogel, who grew up Lower Merion and who also serves on the executive board of the Jewish Federation Real Estate Group. “As related to the coal ash, it’s a geo-technical issue that needs an engineering solution. But there are a lot of options.
“There are normal development concerns anywhere you’re in close proximity to a neighborhood and have to deal with traffic, parking and noise,” he added. “I’m going to say it will take two years to get the site ready and 12 to 18 months to build it.”
Goldenberg’s efforts are separate from those involved with PYB, including the three cornerstones whose relationships date back to a Jewish staple: summer camp.
“Doug, Steve and I were counselors at Camp Kweebec in 1985-86,” revealed Holdsman, who grew up in Elkins Park, where he attended Rodeph Sholom. “My mom grew up in Olney — her father had a gas station in Logan. The place where we launched, Cooke, a number of Jews in Philadelphia may have attended.
“Some of them were probably at the press conference. My passion has always been around creating opportunities for urban kids and my Jewish identity greatly influences my professional involvement.
“I had been running Legacy for 6.5 years,” he continued. “During that time, a lot of basketball people visited the center. I kept hearing their observations that the facility was spectacular, and the diversity of kids and families we had was powerful.
“I started wondering, ‘Why did a city with such a deep tradition of basketball not have anything comparable?’ ”
It may soon — and, quite possibly, Kobe Bryant himself could play a part in it.
“I’m a board member of the Kobe and Vanessa Bryant Foundation and one thing we talk about is looking for vehicles to get involved with in the city,” said Young, who got to spend about 15 minutes with Kobe last week when he made his final Philadelphia appearance after recently announcing he’ll retire at the end of this season. “This [PYB] is an ideal forum. Kobe’s always been thinking about next steps. One of the things he’s always excited about is for kids to learn the game the right way.”
Young, Rosenberg and Holdsman, along with former NBA guard Alvin Williams and PYB program director Eric Warley, would also love to have the current NBA team join their efforts.
Despite cordial meetings, though, the Sixers have yet to come on board.
None of that will slow down the process, with PYB even inviting basketball fans throughout the area to go to their Twitter feed, @PhillyYouthBB, and use the hashtag #IAMPYB to offer their own personal hoops reflections. In the city where the late, legendary Dolph Schayes, the greatest Jewish player of all time, became the current franchise’s first coach and Larry Brown once guided them to the 2001 NBA Finals, there’s bound to be plenty of them.
“In many ways, basketball is an urban game that disrespects the lines of race, ethnicity and economic circumstance,” concluded Holdsman. “It’s all about ability and hard work.”