WEST WARWICK- It is early evening at Riverside Park and the joint is hopping, but that is nothing new. Midway through yet another season of the West Warwick Summer Basketball League, teams are rotating on an off the courts as the night progresses.
McCarthy Field, just a stones throw away is vacant on this particular night, with Legion and Connie Mack teams either on the road or off all together, the same going for the little league fields. When they are in use, the entire area becomes something of a sports mecca for those in the area with an array of events to choose from. Tennis courts just up the hill are in full use as well.
The crowd grows as the night wares on, more and more people getting off work, stopping by to catch a glimpse of the action. Less than two miles away, more games are taking place at Maisie Quinn Elementary School with the two courts at Riverside Park not being enough to handle all of the activity.
For Steve Lawton, who took over as president of the league some ten years ago, the revitalization has been something he takes tremendous pride in. Both of his sons, Trevor and Ryan came through the league and now serve as referees, though not on this particular night. As he mans the grill, serving hot dogs and hamburgers to fans, Lawton discusses what has led to the rise in popularity that the league has seen over recent years.
“There was a summer league, but it was just West Warwick kids and it was small,” he said. Along with the assistance of people such as Chip Carley, who happens to be down on one of the courts serving as a ref, the league took a new approach towards attracting more people.
“Slowly but surely, we expanded it,” he Lawton said. The biggest key was opening the league up to people from out of town, from all over the state. “It’s just taken off,” he said, noting that there are people from communities all over the state, some even from Connecticut who come to West Warwick to play summer basketball.
Carley, who is currently on the board of directors, has been involved with the league for about fifteen years.
“My kids came through this league and played in middle school and at West Warwick High School,” he said. “It’s always been up and going,” he said, but added that Lawton was key in taking it to the next level.
Having gone through some difficult times regarding the health of his spouse, Lawton said that there is a personal reason he has stayed so close despite his kids no longer being players.
“For me, it’s an outlet. I love basketball,” he said. The league is broken up into subset divisions determined by age. The boys have a league for players aged 9 and 10, 11-13 and 14-16. Girls are 9-12 and 13 and up. Tom Fitzgerald, a former player, now coaches an 11-13 year old team with his son Caleb on it.
A resident of Coventry, but a native of West Warwick, Fitzgerald has seen the value of the league and what it can provide, as he has been coaching in it for the past five years.
“You’ve got kids with great skills sets and kids that are trying to develop,” he said. “They do a good job with allowing all the kids to develop at their own pace and basically allow them to work with each other.”
He too has seen first hand just how much the league has expanded since Lawton took over.
“It’s grown so much, we have fourteen teams in each division now,” he said. “When I first started, we had probably seven or eight teams.” It has grown not only in size, but regionally as well. “My team right now has probably one or two kids from West Warwick,” he said, adding that the rest come from all over.
Games are timed and monitored by a scorer’s table, while paid referees dressed in black shirts and shorts make sure everything is kept within the rules, though the atmosphere is generally more relaxed than that of a game during the school year. Frozen lemonade and ice cream trucks are parked nearby, with players treating themselves after a hard earned effort on the court.
Fans bring foldout chairs and sit along the sidelines or up on the small, semi-circular grassy slope conveniently resemblant of stadium seating. Eventually, the lights overhead come on, but the action does not slow down. The older kids play later on in the evening. It has been this way all summer and will continue well into August when the playoffs take place.
“I don’t think there is another place in the state like this,” Lawton said. He is probably right.