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Dirt Bowl participants reflect on the tournament's importance after high profile Shawnee Park shooting

B-Roll of Washington, D.C. on June 2, 2014.
Adam Wolffbrandt
B-Roll of Washington, D.C. on June 2, 2014.

Champions will be made at Shawnee Park this weekend. 

The 2022 Dirt Bowl basketball tournament will hold its final games Sunday. The community event took a week break after Louisville police shot Herbert E. Lee while attempting to serve a warrant following the conclusion of the July 10 games.

According to Louisville Metro Police Department spokespeople, when officers tried to arrest Lee on an outstanding warrant, Lee fled before firing at an officer and striking him in the chest. That officer was wearing a bullet-resistant vest and was not seriously injured. 

LMPD officers returned fire and hit Lee. He recovered after hospitalization and has since been charged with attempted murder of a police officer, receiving a stolen firearm, possessing a gun as a convicted felon and fleeing arrest. Additionally, a federal grand jury indicted Lee for illegally possessing a firearm.

“We understand that that’s part of Dirt Bowl lore now, so to speak,” Dirt Bowl organizer and commentator Ravon Churchill said. “We wanted to take a week off to heal and to let people gather their thoughts.

He said people he spoke with were also concerned about the safety of spectators and LMPD officers after the shooting. 

They hoped the week break would allow things to settle.

Not letting it ‘define us’

Games returned, despite unanswered questions about the shooting, on July 23.

“We couldn’t let that define us because that wasn’t something that happened at the Dirt Bowl, that was something that happened at Shawnee Park,” Churchill said.

Churchill has been involved in the Dirt Bowl since childhood. As a child, he was a spectator. Then he became a player, then a coach. 

He’s seen what the tradition means to thousands of people. It’s more than a sporting event. It’s a community reunion, and he wants to help it continue to thrive. 

“It’s a place to see people and to be seen,” Churchill said. “You see you haven’t seen maybe since last year at the Dirt Bowl, or the year before at the Dirt Bowl or you only see these people every year at the Dirt Bowl.”

Deshondre Watter said it’s the people and atmosphere that keeps people coming back. He said the Dirt Bowl is a place where people can be safe and welcome. 

“You know like the old song Cheers, ‘Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name’,” Watters said. “And that’s what it is at the Dirt Bowl.”

The event plays an important role for local businesses.

“When we don’t have Saturday and Sunday [games], not only do players not get to play and not only is there no entertainment for basketball fans, but economically people suffer and struggle too,” Churchill said.

Dirt Bowl planners hope to rebuild the momentum the season lost after the shooting.

“I just want people to feel comfortable coming down,” Coach Jason Rushin said. “It’s a tradition, so we can’t let this go down the drain.”

The Dirt Bowl being a decades-long tradition has kept several invested in its continued success.

“One of the sacred things we have is the Dirt Bowl,” Watters said. “We’re not just gonna let this thing overtake us.”

53 years of community

The Dirt Bowl is historic in Louisville. It started in 1969, when Ben Watkins and Janis Carter wanted to add a bit of summer fun to their jobs at the parks and recreation department.

In the summers following, the Dirt Bowl became a staple of the West End. It brought together a community that had been historically divested in and on the receiving end of negative news coverage.

It has continued to be a summertime staple for the community. Churchill said the community is what brings the teams, vendors and spectators back.

The tournament's place and impact on the community are difficult to understate. For decades, the event has brought together the people of west Louisville and beyond.

“It’s an institution,” Ravon Churchill said.

The Dirt Bowl championship, known as Super Sunday, is planned for Aug. 7. There will be vendors, music, food and other games before this year’s champions are crowned.

Breya Jones is the Arts & Culture Reporter for LPM. Email Breya at bjones@lpm.org.

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