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Improvements -- And Concerns -- In Shawnee Park Ahead Of Dirt Bowl

The players and fans who pack Shawnee Park every summer for the Dirt Bowl basketball tournament will have some nicer amenities this year. The Dirt Bowl courts are now covered in new rubberized surfaces and feature fiberglass backboards and a new scoreboard.

But at a press conference unveiling the improvements on Tuesday, the city's ongoing struggle with violent crime was clearly on people's minds as summer approaches.

Dirl Bowl Commissioner Neal Robertson said the tournament would kick off on June 17 with a balloon release in honor of Dequante William Lamar Hobbs Jr., a 7-year-old who was killed in late May. A stray bullet from a nearby fight entered his home in Russell, about three miles from Shawnee Park.

"It hurts me inside to see all the crime and violence that's going on in our city," Robertson said.

He hopes the Dirt Bowl and other events that unite the community can somehow help.

"I don't have any answers to what we can do," he said, "other than try to come down here to get to know each other -- to be involved with one another."

Ben Watkins and Janis Carter founded the Dirt Bowl in 1969 while home from college, working summer jobs with Louisville Parks and Recreation.

That summer was an uneasy one in Louisville, too. Just a year before, protesters at 28th & Greenwood destroyed homes and a police car when word got out that a white police officer who had beaten a black man was to be reinstated to his position on the force.

Both Watkins and Carter were present for Tuesday's announcement, and both expressed concern about violence in Louisville.

"Our kids need to be able to the park and feel safe," Carter said. "The adults need to make sure that the kids feel safe this summer."

Watkins opened his remarks with a moment of silence for those who have lost loved ones to violence. He said he's also hopeful that the Dirt Bowl can help ease tensions in the community today, as it did in 1969.

"It helps kids to understand that you can play ball and have fun, and you don't have to have a knife or gun," he said. "You can be down here with family and friends, to love one another and play the game of basketball."

Laura is LPM's Director of Podcasts & Special Projects. Email Laura at lellis@lpm.org.