It was loud. The sound in the basement gym of Shawmont Elementary was the kind of cacophony that could wake the dead and scare away evil spirits. Each sneaker squeak and every cheer reverberated powerfully off the tan bricks of the old school walls as kids kicked off the 35th year of a neighborhood tradition.

It was opening night for the Shawmont Orioles basketball league.  

"It's all positive noise," said Bud Ryan, who has run the program since its inception. "It never bothers me."

He is especially happy for the racket because up until October, it was unclear whether or not the winter basketball league would exist. 

Last June, Ryan learned that school budget cuts would prevent him from getting playing time in the public school gym. So, he contacted local politicians and ward leaders for help. Then, just before practice was set to begin, he got the 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. time slot plus Saturdays. That forced him to reduce his usual schedule from three to two games a night, but it was enough for him and his volunteers to field 20 teams with 200 players.

The first game was held on Monday night with Team McManus in green versus Team Fitzpatrick in blue. The second was Team Alosi in orange against Team Fleming in maroon.

The evolution of the league 

The Orioles are part of the 21st Ward Athletic Association and they took their name from the Ward's baseball team.

When Ryan's son was 10, he searched for a basketball program in the neighborhood. At the time, there was a CYO Friday night league for older kids, but nothing for the younger ones, so he decided to start one.

At first, the program served fifth to eighth grade students and they played at W.B. Saul High School. Thirty years ago, it moved to Shawmont and expanded its age range. This year, 10 of the 20 teams consist of students from kindergarten through first grade, reflecting the preponderance of young kids now living in the area.

The program has become a multigenerational affair as well. Not only do parents coach kids but many of the parents were once players in the program themselves. Kristen Hindley learned the game on the Shawmont court and went on to play NCAA ball at Gwynedd-Mercy College. Now, she is back training the next generation and watching her son Ethan learn how to dribble, pass and shoot. On Monday night, she was joined by her sister Katie Rizzo with her son Rocco and her brother George Kletzel, who had his boys George and Luke on the court.

"Get open Gavin," yelled Joe Ross to his son in orange, who got the ball and passed it. Ross played with the Orioles when he was a kid. He brought Gavin to Shawmont because it is a friendly environment where kids learn teamwork and the rules of the game while getting plenty of playing time. Before the game finished, Gavin scored a basket.

League loyalty and team equality 

Family loyalty to the program contribute to the health of the Orioles. 

These deep rooted neighborhood folks have invested themselves in the Orioles. Joe Baillie has coached for over 20 years. Lisa Rizzo has been keeping score for 15 years. Mike Flood has organized the referees for 30 years blowing the whistle himself much of the time. One rule has stood above all others: equal playing time for every child.

This is not simply the spirit of their philosophy. Ryan has his coaches stick to a complicated and precise rubric that divides playing time into four and two minute increments scattered across four quarters, each also divided by half, with actual court appearances affected by whether a team has six, seven, eight, nine or ten players. Ryan gives his coaches a form—he used to design them for GlaxoSimthKline—to help them keep to the complex, but exact system.

"It's a good bit of work," said Ryan, "but I just love working with the kids."

Tip off was at 6 p.m. on Monday, just as it is for the first game of every night and has been for three and a half decades. The clock in the gym is broken. It perpetually reads 6:39, but somehow seems fitting. It is as if, after all these years, it is always time for basketball in the Shawmont gym.


Photos by Bas Slabbers for NewsWorks