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The competitive gene ages at a slower rate than your joints. That’s why John Spearmon is walking on crutches outside the tennis courts at the Takoma Community Center, where he tore some ankle ligaments in a match last week.
“I’m in this four to six weeks, then, we’ll see,” he says, pointing to the brace on his foot and lower leg. “I made a move and pop! Maybe October I can play again.”
No matter how long his rehab takes, Spearmon, 61, will still be showing up at the park pretty much every day that the weather’s nice. It’s been his personal ball yard and hangout for a half-century, and he’s got obligations. The tennis portion of the facility, six courts on three levels, is named after Henry Kennedy, a now-deceased activist for children’s recreation in the District. But Spearmon is the man here.
“He’s the mayor of this place,” says Rolf Barber, a regular at the Takoma courts. “There’s tennis, but it’s also about more than tennis here.”
Takoma has always been a place to find good tennis. U.S. Open and Wimbledon champ Jack Kramer gave a clinic at these courts back in 1956, when clay was the dominant surface at the District’s public courts. And this summer, the best youth players in the city—three-time DCIAA champion Arnaud Ba of Wilson High School and Eric Chavous of Gonzaga—have been showing up to hit with longtime Wilson coach Spyke Henry. (Henry, who has won 10 city championships as Wilson’s coach, was inducted into the D.C. Coaches Hall of Fame last month.)
“Whatever level of tennis you want, you can find at Takoma, from kids like us all the way up to old school,” says Chavous, son of former Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous.
The older regulars also stage their own annual tournament, where trophies and bragging rights are bestowed.
But, again, at Takoma, it’s about more than tennis.
Drive by the park on any weekend or clear weeknight from spring through fall, and just outside the tennis courts there’ll likely be grills fired up, coolers all over, a boom box blaring, and the same several dozen mostly middle-aged folks enjoying the scene. Their scene. Those who aren’t playing will razz those who are and talk among themselves about how much they miss licking the cones from Polar Bear Frozen Custard on Georgia Avenue or sipping lime rickeys at the counter of Nick’s deli on Kennedy Street.
“I call this place the adult
day-care center,” says regular Roger Hylton.
Barber, 43, says, “I told my ex-wife that this was our neighborhood country club.”
Spearmon, like many of the informal club’s members, grew up playing ball at Takoma. His family home was at 9th and Kennedy Streets NW, south of the park. He played on teams in the rec center’s baseball leagues and pickup basketball on these courts. He went to high school at Coolidge, which borders the park.
The place has been a part of his life for so long that, even three years into retirement (he put in 35 years with the D.C. Public Schools as a teacher and coach), Spearmon refers to Takoma as “the playground.”
“A lot of us have known each other since junior high school,” he says, after getting help loading a cooler big enough to double as a horse trough into the back of his truck. “Basically, we’re ex-jocks who have been competing against each other on the playground since we were 11 or 12, here and at [nearby park] Fort Stevens, at baseball, football, basketball, and tennis. The wear and tear on the body says you can’t play basketball or football, and we took to tennis about 35 years ago for our competitive juices, and we have a very stable crew of folks who come here all the time. You play tennis, or just watch and talk and get entertained.
“I think most of us know how lucky we are. Where else can you go and put your hand on 20 or 30 people you’ve known for 40 or 50 years? We watched each other’s kids grow up here. What we have here is the epitome of community.”
In its infancy, the Takoma crew took on a nickname: the Wild Bunch. And though that moniker still stands, Spearmon explains how the crew has toned down its act over time.
“This really started out as a guy thing,” he says. “You know, a place to get away from the madam…an escape. But one lady in particular couldn’t understand, How could [her husband] leave home in the morning and come home at 10 at night every weekend? It was like, ‘Where you been, honey?’ ‘At the playground!’ So she started coming by to check us out, found out that we were firing up all the grills and eating better here than we did at home. So then the ladies started coming, and they understand why we’re here all day. Now we have to use forks to pick up our food instead of sticks or toothpicks.”
The regular crew supplies the courtside tables, chairs, grills, and even wood chips that give the hangout its ambience.
Since the folks who convene at Takoma have strong and longstanding ties to the rec center, the Wild Bunch has gotten little grief from local residents. But Spearmon says he expects that the gentrification that’s altered so many parts of the city could present problems. He says that a few years ago one newcomer to the neighborhood started working behind the scenes to hassle his merry crew.
The first step of that effort, he says, was to try to petition the city to put up no-parking signs on the south side of the 300 block of Van Buren Street NW. Officially, that side of the street—which borders the tennis courts and is where Spearmon’s crew parks and hauls its racket bags, food, and coolers from—is zoned as no-parking during daytime hours.
But while the petitioner had a good technical argument, the Wild Bunch had neighborhood history on its side.
“This person wanted to run us out,” Spearmon says. “But the problem is, we knew all about that no-parking rule and why it was here. Van Buren used to be on the bus route. But after a kid was struck by a bus here [in 1974], they rerouted the bus and stopped enforcing the parking rule, because there was no point to it. So the signs faded away, but this person who wanted us out did their homework and saw that the signs were there once and tried to get them put up again.
“We went to a community meeting and said, ‘Listen, we know the whole story. We were already hanging out here when all this happened.’ And it went away, and we haven’t had any problem since. Their assumption was, ‘They’re just guys hanging out. We’ll steamroll ’em.’ But, I think folks finally recognized that we’re not going anywhere.”