Sports Desk: Recalling a time when kids played their own games

With a left turn, we were on Davis Street in Oceanside, and I had taken a drive back three decades in time.

I was with my sisters and others in a car that had stopped at an intersection on Davis Street, where my family had lived for a good chunk of my childhood. While others stared to the right, my eyes kept scanning, searching for the house we used to live in before we moved to East Meadow in 1979. Then, one of my sisters pointed me in the right direction. “There,” she said, “that’s the house we used to live in.”

My gosh, how times — and perspectives — have changed. The neighborhood looked nicer than I remembered; the setting seemed much smaller. Way back then, when I was in my early- and mid-teens, this neighborhood, which I found barely recognizable, was my world. It was so big to me then.

Please forgive me, dear reader, while I continue on this path down Nostalgia Lane. Some of you who are my age, 51, or older will undoubtedly grin knowingly after reading this.

In a sense, it seemed like only yesterday, as they say, but times have changed so much and in so many ways. From personal observation and from what I hear from coaches and others, kids these days don’t play ball on their own too much any more. They don’t organize their own games the way we used to. Everything they do is organized and supervised by adults, otherwise, they don’t play.

It wasn’t like that during my wonder years. When I was a youngster, sure, we played CYO basketball, youth football, club soccer and for school teams, but the bulk of our athletic pursuits were pickup games. After school I dashed home, finished my homework and then raced outside to join friends for the remainder of the daylight hours. We played all kinds of sports. We played touch football in the street. We headed to the schoolyard basketball courts. Street hockey, soccer, baseball, you name it. We even set up a series of boxing matches among ourselves one day (with no headgear or mouth guards, I might add; I’m not sure how smart an idea that was) when someone came up with a pair of boxing gloves.

I spent summer days at outdoor basketball courts by St. Anthony’s Church, playing pickup games for hours on end, refining skills and learning from older players. Around mid-day you would have a snack and then be back on the courts playing again.

We made our own rules, solved disputes ourselves and made it work, without coaches, referees or uniforms.

Often, we played more than one sport after school until darkness descended and your mother called out your name to let you know it was time for dinner.

“O.K., mom,” I replied. “I’ll be right in.”

Then, turning to my buddies during a football game, I would say, “I can squeeze in three more plays.”

I could never get enough of it.

I remember watching Pelé’s final game with the New York Cosmos on television on Oct. 1, 1977. At halftime, a friend and I went outside to kick a ball around in the street. A neighbor chastised us for not watching Pelé play. Sure, I enjoyed watching the great Pelé’s farewell, but I wanted to play, too. I did make it back in the house in time to catch the end of the game, though. After all, he was Pelé.

Davis Street and the surrounding area was my Giants Stadium, my Yankee Stadium, my Madison Square Garden. Those were good times.

Kids nowadays have so much more than we did, in a sense, but in another sense, we had much more. We didn’t have cable television with hundreds of channels (for some reason it took a while for cable TV to make its way into Oceanside). We didn’t have computers, video games, cellphones and digital devices to fiddle with. We didn’t have the proliferation of organized youth sports that we see now.

What we had, though, was our imaginations and creativity. We made our own fun. Those were good days and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. Not anything.

R031209_Liepa_RBob Liepa is the sports editor of the Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at [email protected].