On the former citrus office site, the park is now a place to exercise and socialize
by Des Delgadillo
photography by Noel Cabrera
Frantic foot stomps fill the court as players maneuver, trying to find the perfect shot position. A ball bounces rhythmically up and down, and with every dull thud, the players become more and more possessed by its hypnotic cadence. There is the unmistakable swish as the ball jets through the air, followed by a reverberant clang and a disappointed groan as the ball ricochets off the rim. “So close!” These are the sounds of a pickup basketball game at the new Leo Park where students and community members alike take part in the action.
Leo Park sits at the corner of D Street and Arrow Highway on the footprint of the former historic Orange Association business offices, later re-purposed as the Educational Management building. The park project was initially championed by former ASULV Vice President Michael Wahba, who felt students needed a space to play recreational basketball other than the Athletic Pavilion’s intercollegiate gymnasium, where priority often goes to the multitude of La Verne’s NCAA sports teams. At the University of La Verne, recreational areas are scarce. After the historic old gym was demolished in 2009 to make room for the Campus Center, students were left with little room to play basketball. Leo Park helps alleviate that problem, giving students a place to get their game on, as well as providing a wide array of workout amenities.
“The passion really developed after all the hurdles we had to jump through,” Wahba says. “Because of Leo Park’s location, there was a lot of bargaining back and forth between the University and the city.” During his run as ASULV Vice President, Wahba spent time at La Verne City Hall meetings trying to push the Leo Park project through the city’s litany of loopholes. Not only were there permit concerns, but there was history to preserve. The site played host to the citrus industry’s main headquarters. La Verne’s economy centered on its oranges and lemons for nearly 100 years. “Looking back at it, I definitely feel there was a lot of bureaucracy involved,” says Wahba, who now works in Ohio for the national chapter of his La Verne fraternity Phi Delta Theta. “But at the time, it was more of ‘Why can’t we make this work’?” After more meetings and compromises, Wahba stuck to his plan and promised himself he would see it through before he graduated. Ultimately, January 2014 came, and Wahba took the commencement walk, with nowhere for students to “exercise and socialize,” as he describes it. Two months later, Wahba got the call telling him the project had at long last been approved by the city.
Since its grand opening in November 2014, Leo Park has become the ideal destination for a quick pickup game, but the space is not fenced off and often plays host to non-University guests sharpening up their hoop game as well. “A number of folks felt it should be restricted,” says Paul Alvarez, professor of kinesiology and director of the athletic training program. “But I think the practical element is as long as community members come out here and treat it with respect, I think we would like to be good neighbors.” Alvarez says ID checks could theoretically be implemented in the future, but right now there are no plans to do so.
For now, Leo Park has become a hub of activity, especially after sundown. High school youths use the park after school, with students and community members dominating the court at night. Often, the lights are kept on until midnight, giving players time to perfect their B-Ball craft.
For some of Leo Park’s non-University visitors, the space provides an opportunity to relax and appreciate what ULV has to offer. “We were actually coming out here to play basketball, but it’s a little too hot for that,” says Vanessa Koehl, a Citrus College humanities major interested in making the jump to ULV. On this September day, though, jumping is the last thing Vanessa feels like doing. Instead of a sweaty game of B-ball in hundred degree weather, she and her friend Peter sit laughing and enjoying the sights and sounds around them, not unlike many La Verne students on a muggy September afternoon. They tend to be chatterboxes, trading tidbits of gossip from their own school, occasionally muttering a “No way” or a “No she didn’t.” Perhaps they’re not exercising, but they certainly seem invested in the latter part of Wahba’s Leo Park mantra: “Exercise and socialize.”
“We probably come here about twice a week,” says Jonathan Fahy, a little winded from his skirmish with his three friends—Mark, David and Alec. “It’s just a great place to play and forget about work and life for a while.” It is also common to happen on a younger crowd shooting hoops in the lazy afternoons when most University students are still in class. Michael and Alec, two Bonita High school freshmen, took advantage of the empty space one afternoon for a few uninterrupted one-on-one games. For the slightly smaller Alec, the afternoon was more of a lesson in humility than anything else. “I’ve lost every time!” he almost yells in frustration. “I quit.” Alec’s retirement from basketball may not have been as graceful as Kobe Bryant’s, but it was certainly unique in its own boisterous way.
Back in June, Leo Park had another surprise visitor. After bidding farewell to ULV six months earlier, Michael Wahba managed to take the court for the first time, a feeling all the more satisfying since it is a court he helped erect. “All of my friends would send me pics, but I was really excited to actually see something that I had helped come to fruition,” he laughs. Wahba and his friends played into the comfortable June night, and as Wahba took his shot, he felt the adrenaline, the release, the familiar routine of being back in college once again, knowing nothing else but the thrill of the game. Leo Park, too, began as a long shot, but it ended up being nothing but net.