I spent the summer of 2013 playing pickup basketball on courts in Riverside Park. As a 13-year-old girl standing under five feet tall, I was an unlikely competitor. I came to expect and almost enjoy the invariable glare that boys at the park would give me from afar, reluctant to be on my team or to defend me. These boys learned a valuable lesson that summer, however, which is to not judge someone based on their gender or size; I may not have looked like a basketball player, but I had game.
I could dribble as well as anyone else on the court; I could see the floor and pass better than anyone else; I had a decent shot, I played defense, and I hustled. I had honed these basketball skills at MoMotion — an Upper West Side youth basketball organization. As one of its many programs, MoMotion runs a summer camp that takes a group of middle school boys and girls to Riverside Park to play bona fide New York City hoops.
I learned a lesson that summer too. Fending for myself on the Riverside Park courts gave me grit, thick skin, and the courage to speak up for myself — characteristics that all too often are elusive in teenage girls. I look back on that time as formative. Without public basketball courts like the ones in Riverside Park — courts that bring together New Yorkers from all walks of life to play a game of pickup — I may not be as confident or fearless as I am today.
A Worthy Cause Six years later, in addition to hosting clinics and private lessons, MoMotion still brings kids to the Riverside Park courts to play pickup. To celebrate its 10th anniversary, MoMotion — which enrolls approximately 750 kids — is fund-raising to improve the conditions of the courts located at West 76th Street. The first phase of the project is raising $28,000 by August 1 to replace the courts’ seven rims and backboards by this fall ($15,000 has been raised so far). The second phase is raising $50,000 to repatch and repaint the ground.
MoMotion is collaborating on the projects with Riverside Park Conservancy, a non-profit committed to the maintenance and restoration of the park. Dan Garodnick, president and CEO of the Conservancy, said that without MoMotion’s efforts, the courts would not get the fix-up that they deserve. “We’re happy that Mo[Motion] is stepping up to help us to get this done because [the courts are] clearly in need of a refresh,” he said.
The city installed the courts at West 76th Street in the 1960s, explained Department of Parks & Recreation spokesperson Crystal Howard. The courts were restored in the early 2000s and only small improvements have been made since.
The need for a makeover is apparent to anyone who plays on the courts: the rims are crooked and under regulation height. They don’t have nets to catch the ball; when someone sinks a shot, the ball continues on its trajectory and hits the nearby fence rather than dropping nicely to the ground. The backboards are rusted, turning an attempted kiss-off-the glass shot into an ugly bite. The pavement is laced with cracks.
Despite these conditions, the courts continue to host boisterous pickup games.
Nathan Cates, 20, who lives on West 70th Street, said that he has played pickup on the courts almost every weekend for the past six years. Cates — who attended Booker T. Washington Middle School and the High School for Math, Science and Engineering — described the courts as a fulcrum of community for the neighborhood. “These are the best courts in the neighborhood for competition. 50 to 100 people are out here on weekends. People pull up with lawn chairs and speakers to watch,” he said.
The Mo of MoMotionMaureen Holohan, 47, known by kids and parents around the city as just “Mo,” is the eponymous founder and executive director of MoMotion. Born and raised in Wynantskill, New York, Holohan received numerous accolades for her achievement on the court, including high school All-American and New York state MVP. She received a scholarship to play Division 1 basketball at Northwestern University, where she earned All-Big Ten honors for three seasons. After college, Holohan played professional basketball overseas before returning to New York, where she has coached in various positions.
In 2008, Holohan founded MoMotion after a group of seventh grade boys she had coached asked her to start her own team. “It was accidental. I didn’t think it would be the biggest program arguably in New York,” she said.
With no gym space and a group of middle schoolers eager to play basketball under Holohan’s instruction, she used the courts at Riverside Park to grow her program. At the time, she was living with her sister and her sister’s boyfriend on West 73rd Street because she had “no money.”
“It all sort of started there, which is why we’re renovating it. I’ve always thought to myself, ‘It’s such a shame that these courts have so much potential to bring people together. However, they’re not the greatest rims and boards.’ I’ve been waiting for years for people to change them and then I realized that person should be me,” she said.
The Benefits of Pickup Even after establishing MoMotion as Manhattan’s preeminent program in youth basketball development, Holohan often prefers to bring kids to public courts to play pickup rather than playing in state-of-the-art indoor facilities. She is a believer in pickup basketball’s ability to develop kids as both basketball players and problem solvers — in ways that organized basketball cannot.
“I really believe in the kids interacting and solving problems,” Holohan said, “like how do you get through a bad pickup game? How do you figure out how to guard the old sweaty guy who doesn’t move or the high school kid. How do you figure out how to guard the girl?” Mo said.
MoMotion player Mary Ashley Groot, 14, a rising ninth grader at The Dalton School, said playing pickup at West 76th Street has instilled confidence in her. “As an eighth grader playing pickup it’s a little weird at first because you’re playing with a lot of guys who are older, stronger, and bigger, But it’s also a really empowering experience to know you can play with people of all ages and all genders,” she said.
Pickup was also influential for Holohan. “That’s how I learned about myself — on the playground, solving those problems, without someone fixing them for me.”
These are not the first courts that Holohan has fixed up. Over the years, her organization has financed improvements to courts at P.S. 191, P.S. 75, Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, West Side High School, and Dunlevy Milbank Center.
Groot’s mother, Ashley Stevenson, said that by improving the Riverside Park courts, Holohan “will help not only the Upper East, Upper West Side typical private school kid, but she’ll also reach thousands of more kids.”
Tax-deductible donations to restore the courts can be made on the Riverside Park Conservancy website’s donation page by including “West 76 St Basketball Courts” in the gift line.