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They’ve Got Next:

Where Basketball Matters Most, Full Courts Are Hard to Find by Jacob Nantz

It’s nice to have a place to go. I don’t mean a scheduled event, something on your calendar that you are expected to attend. I don’t mean dates with the pressure of obligation. I mean a place indifferent to your attendance, an operation that will proceed in perpetuity because it must, because those who allow it to persist need it to survive. Few places offer a revolving door into refuge. Barber shops and diners with cheap coffee have long been considered places where one could simply drop in and belong to the conversation without feeling lost. But in some corners of America, and especially for the young people of those corners, a full basketball court is a needed yet disappearing sanctuary.

I first met Justin Vahl at Barber-Greene Park in Aurora, Illinois when we were both teenagers. Greene was a gym rat’s escape for a good stretch of my adolescence, and it drew local basketball players from every school around the area. The two full courts sat side by side, imperfect and unmaintained. The painted lines had faded and sprouts of grass clawed their way through the cracks in the concrete. One of the rims was slightly bent forward and always without a net—good for those trying for their first dunk. But the courts were full courts, and there were two of them, and so they became an informal social club for much of the summer.

I’ll make a quick distinction as I emphasize full courts. A full court is preferred because it dictates the rules for you—pick a number to play to, stay on if you win, and honor whoever called next game from the sideline. It’s basketball in its purest form, and in places where the game informs identities, this is important. A half court is just fine, especially for smaller games with fewer than the standard ten players, but a modified court lends itself to a modified game. There are always unknowns, house rules to learn, or potential gimmicks. A half court is, put simply, restrictive to a player’s instincts, which is why parks like Greene were cherished. Over the past ten to fifteen years, however, accessible full courts have become more difficult to find.


Vahl’s Instagram is rife with videos of his sons playing basketball. At the top of his feed is a pinned photograph of more than forty middle schoolers posing at half court of a gym, sweat dripping from their shirts and skin. “Over 40 middle school players (and some little brothers) from all over the suburbs came out tonight for Vahl Bros Open Runs. Some of the best young talent in the state of Illinois” the caption reads. “No coaches. No refs. Just some good, competitive basketball.”

At the start of the pandemic—as his eldest son was becoming busier in the Amateur Athletic Union and travel basketball circuit and lockdown was keeping kids inside—Vahl made it his mission to keep his sons active. He teamed up with other parents and friends to organize a full-court run (read: endless game) at a local park, where more than seventy kids showed up to play. Since then, he has worked with owners of gyms, personal trainers, and other people from his network to find new places to roll out the ball for his kids and their friends.

“It all started as a way to keep them active,” Vahl says. “But now I’m trying to keep them productive. Keep them motivated through something positive as opposed to the alternatives. Almost all my relationships are through basketball. I’m adamant in teaching my kids that sports teach life skills and provide meaningful relationships.”

Vahl acknowledges the changing landscape of outdoor courts, citing safety as a concern for many of the places in his area. There are also fewer full courts available than when he and I first met in high school.

In 2020, the Chicago Reader published an article about the growing disappearance—or “repurposing”—of full courts in Chicago, a trend that has spread into the suburbs. If an area becomes too violent, the courts are removed. If the area becomes too affluent, the result is the same. For some kids, having access to a court is the easiest way to join a community that makes them feel safe and accepts them for who they are. “The thing I love most about basketball is the inclusivity,” Vahl says. “It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. If you can ball, you can ball. I love that it’s teaching my kids that.” Everything that comes with the community of a full court is what keeps him seeking new places for the kids to play. “It’s always hard to find somewhere to go.”


A shooting did Greene Park in. A car pulled up to the corner of Lancaster and Illinois Streets as a little league baseball game leaked into sunset on the other side of the park. A man hopped out, pointed a gun toward a group playing basketball, and fired multiple rounds into the crowd. The city wasted no time razing the courts down to rubble and repaving two half courts with stiff rims. A once-beloved haven for full-court runs became a ghost town overnight.

Sports dominate American media, which can sometimes deter and disgust those who didn’t grow up competing on a team. Sentimental promos and films bludgeon us with reasons athletics are important. Hard work. Teamwork. The same rah-rah message on repeat. But what I’ve learned and what Justin Vahl is trying to teach his sons is that sports can be a safe, educational outlet for coping and communicating.

“Getting cut from a team or losing games can teach you how to cope with not getting jobs you interviewed for. Some kids don’t learn this at home or school,” Vahl says. What better place to learn how to play a role within a team, to lead vocally or by action, to get yourself noticed in a sea of people, than on a court or field? Plenty of places will serve you rejection, but few will teach you how to weather it while retaining your confidence. The growth and strength—and networks—fostered through sports are why Vahl and his friends work tirelessly to provide space to play, a place for the kids to go.


Harry H. Barber and William B. Greene founded Barber-Greene in 1916 and set up shop in Aurora, Illinois. As the automobile evolved, asphalt roads began to suffer and were expensive to repair. The duo developed machines that would simplify and cheapen this process, and over the course of their lives they had a great impact on the asphalt and manufacturing fields. According to the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, Barber alone was awarded seventy patents for construction and equipment handling. The company dominated the market and went public, eventually selling off to a conglomerate. The world of asphalt was growing and in need of solutions, and these two men provided them. There are many homages to their impact in the community where they set up shop, including Greene Park.

During the day, Justin Vahl owns and operates a landscaping company. His sons sometimes work with him, and in the summer his nephews and their friends help out. “I want them to know anything can be accomplished with hard work.”

Between the work and the play, and the work behind the play, an impactful industriousness is on full display for anyone in Vahl’s orbit. I suppose some of that is inherited, but entrepreneurship is often born from a place where new paths must be—and always have been—forged by the people, where solutions to problems are treated with urgency and as a necessity. There is a resourcefulness and communality among those who must rely on themselves and their peers to make change, especially when that change is often linked to survival.

This winter, Vahl’s company hung Christmas lights on houses and businesses in the area near his home. As spring thaws the ground he’ll get back to landscaping, and in the evenings he’ll cart his kids around to their different games and practices, every yard, every place left a little better than before he arrived. On some nights, dozens of kids will gather to play basketball. No officials. No coaches. Just kids playing ball on a full court serving its purpose as the cornerstone of its community, a place to go for whoever needs one.


Jacob Nantz is a poet and essayist based in Northern Virginia. Originally from the Chicago area, he received his MA in Creative Writing from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Follow him on Twitter @JacobNantz and Instagram @Jwnantz.


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