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Former SU basketball star Lazarus Sims wants to revitalize Syracuse’s Kirk Park in new role as parks commissioner

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Syracuse’s South Side is home to three of the city’s largest parks, a thriving presence that’s very much needed, residents agree — whether it’s a pair of 9- and 10-year-old cousins, a park aide or the man at the top of the ladder: the new parks commissioner and former Syracuse University basketball icon.

“If they don’t have the parks, they’re going to have the streets,” said Edward Mitchell Sr., a park aide at the Southwest Community Center and the athletic director for Syracuse’s inner-city little league baseball. “The kids that don’t utilize our parks are the ones in the streets, because they don’t have anything to do.”

Mitchell noted that’s a different role than parks in more affluent neighborhoods. When a 55 percent poverty rate combines with some of the lowest education, housing and economic opportunities in Syracuse, parks matter more as not just a place to go, but an organizing and emotional force.

While Central New York Fair Housing data shows many Syracuse residents live close to parks, an apparent indicator of a healthy community, problems such as recurring violence can negate proximity as a benefit. Lazarus Sims, the former SU basketball star and new parks commissioner, must tackle that challenge in parks such as Kirk Park, where he recalls playing basketball on the courts at night, something that would never happen now. Indeed, those courts are closed. Sims intends to see them reopened.

Funding for a park’s community center is based on the traffic it gets, Sims said. For Syracuse’s proposed 2015-2016 budget, three centers on the South Side have a combined $38,000 in funding, putting all of them among the top five.

While the Southwest Community Center is its own nonprofit serving the South Side, the city gives it about $20,000 annually for park aides to assist with the programs for kids.

Kids can find a free meal, a place to be safe, an adult role model, and an alternative to dangerous lifestyles at the center, Mitchell said.

Mitchell said he’s seen children come up through the parks, drift away from the positive things they learn there, and end up in prisons. But he’s also seen park success stories, like Sims.

Former SU basketball player Lazarus Sims became parks and recreation commissioner for the city of Syracuse this March.|Alfred Ng, staff photo

At the end of March, Sims became the parks commissioner for Syracuse. His first summer job was at the Southwest Community Center, under Mitchell, in 1989.

His nickname was “Basketball Head,” because he’d always try to play basketball at the center’s indoor gym before finishing his homework, Mitchell recalled.

Basketball Head ended up becoming a point guard for the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team, going to the Final Four in 1994. He traveled the world playing basketball in European leagues, as well as playing with the Harlem Globetrotters, but the first place he shot hoops was in Kirk Park.

Sims grew up on Mark Avenue, about two blocks from the park.

“I grew up learning and loving basketball through the parks and rec system,” he said. “We didn’t grow up a rich family, we didn’t have a lot of money, so the parks were my avenue to participate in sports.”

He remembers growing up with Mike Kitts, the Kirk Park aide who inspired him to play basketball. Kitts challenged a young Sims to a friendly wager: a game of basketball for a can of soda. This went on once a week for several years before Sims said he actually “earned” the soda in junior high school. It was an Orange Crush.

Sims remembers practicing his shots using the monkey bars as hoops, because he wasn’t allowed to play with the big kids on the “pro” courts.

Today, kids are still doing that.

Lazarus Sims’ first job was at the Southwest Community Center in 1989. He is now Syracuse’s commissioner of parks and recreation.|Alfred Ng, staff photo

Joe’l Dedeaux, 10, and his cousin Deckyse Bridges, 9, were playing behind the Southwest Community Center, by the monkey bars, one day in late April.

“We call this the slam dunk contest,” Dedeaux said, as he leaped at the bars, grabbing it with one hand, doing his best to impersonate Michael Jordan. He hung on it for a few seconds before he let go, then let his cousin take a turn.

They said kids need parks, somewhere to go and have fun and be active. The two go to parks about four times a week, to play football, basketball or hide and seek. Bridges bragged about being able to roam every park in the city, but one – Kirk Park. He can only go for football practice, and always with an adult.

“When I was having a football game, they started shooting,” Bridges said. “We were facing the Bulldogs. They almost shot two of us.”

Bridges was talking about an incident on Sept. 7, 2014, when bullets flew from the basketball courts across from a Pee Wee football game, hitting two parked cars, according to the Post-Standard.

In the aftermath of the shooting, then-Parks Commissioner Baye Muhammad agreed to close down the basketball courts, removing the rims and locking the courts away.

Sims was upset to see this when he returned to Kirk Park for the first time in two years in April. These were the same “pro” courts that he had practiced so much on.

“Hopefully we can get this changed because it’s a beautiful park, and it’s a beautiful facility that they’re not using,” he said as he looked at the empty basketball court during a spring visit.

Lazarus Sims wants to restore Kirk Park’s basketball courts, where he grew up playing. The courts were closed after a shooting.|Alfred Ng, staff photo

Shootings have consistently plagued Kirk Park, forcing the park’s youth football league to relocate its last two home games in September last year. On Sept. 26, 2014, Jenna Sweeting-Vigliotti, 21, was shot at Kirk Park, suffering critical wounds. She died while on life support three days after, the Post-Standard reported. In December 2014, a 17-year-old boy was shot nine times near Kirk Park, in his arms, legs, foot, back, stomach and chest.

Sims said he hopes to work with Police Chief Frank Fowler to bring Kirk Park back to its “old days.” In recent months, parents and children – like Bridges and Dedeaux – have been avoiding Kirk Park because of its dangerous reputation.

The parks, Sims said, provide a place of community, resources and growth, but as long as people are too scared to use them, they won’t be able to help provide anything.

Terry Stewart, Kirk Park’s football coach for the Pee Wee league, said kids are safer in the parks and have more opportunities for positive growth in the parks than on the streets. Shaquoya Howard, the park’s cheerleading coordinator, agrees.

“Can you imagine what would happen if there were 400 children out in the streets who had nothing to do?” she asked.

As people begin to avoid the parks because of crime, it begins to hurt the children’s opportunities, Stewart said.

The Southwest Community Center had the same issue about a year ago, Mitchell said. People were drinking, doing drugs and bringing “negative activity” around the center, he said.

The park staff let the neighborhood know how much of a resource the center was, and they were hurting the community by letting this continue.

“We had to take the center back, because the neighborhood had taken it,” Mitchell said. “That’s the same thing we need to do at Kirk Park. It’s not the people that are involved on the football teams or the coaches or the parents. There’s no reason for anyone to have a gun at a Pop Warner game.”

Stephen ConnorsFormer SU basketball star Lazarus Sims wants to revitalize Syracuse’s Kirk Park in new role as parks commissioner
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