Writer Perry King sees Toronto through community sports

If you want to get a feel for a community, pay close attention to the sports it embraces. Writer Perry King got his first inkling this was so, eight years ago, while watching an impassioned audience cram into a basketball game at Oakwood Collegiate, in Toronto's St. Clair and Vaughan Road area.

Author explores politics and priorities within Toronto's sports scene

Perry King explores the participation in sport within many of Toronto's communities, and finds home truths about diversity, fairness, and public space. (Author photo by Jalani Morgan)


Sports, Community, and the inclusive city

By Perry King 

If you want to get a feel for a community, pay close attention to the sports it embraces.

Perry King got his first inkling this was so, eight years ago, while watching an impassioned audience cram into a basketball game at Oakwood Collegiate, in Toronto's St. Clair and Vaughan Road area.

The writer has long paid attention to grassroots sports, but on that day, he started seeing big picture connections between clusters of people, sports facilities, and urban politics.

Populations hungry for greater belonging in society, public space management, ideals of diversity and inclusion … King sees all these 'liveable city' themes at work on rinks, pitches, gyms and playgrounds, far and wide.

Rebound is a loving portrait of Toronto, drawn from close observation of its Tibetan basketball tournaments, West Indian Cricket leagues, Sikh ball hockey festivals, nine-man volleyball games in Chinatown … King's ideas flow from events which few major media outlets cover.

He is particularly strong on the tides of immigration, and the sports infrastructure that ebbs and flows with them. After WW2, for example, an influx of Italians left a legacy of Bocce courts all over the GTA. The sport has faded in popularity, but the facilities remain. Which sports, pleasing which constituents, will the city move into Bocce's old footprints?

The GTHL enjoys top notch arenas and publicly funded spaces all over town. At present, there are precisely zero regulation-sized indoor public basketball courts in the city. Outdoor courts are often in disrepair, off-limits after dark, and subject to noise complaints. As hockey wanes in popularity and basketball ascends, are rinks becoming basketball gyms?

In recent years, basketball has been a magnet for new Canadians, in a way that hockey's expense often precludes. King describes a group of Hijabi ballers, part of an effort to bring Muslim women together through basketball. He quotes organizer Fitriya Mohamed, who says, "it's truly just a matter of having space for us."

Flags raised about exclusivity

Questions abound in nine-man volleyball. It's a gritty game, played on streets in Kensington market and Chinatowns across North America. The players are almost all Asian men, usually Chinese. So that raises some flags about exclusivity. But the sport grew in an era when Chinese immigrant bachelors had few outlets for recreation. And it continues to give players a swagger that has stereotypically denied male Asians here.

The same holds true among cricketers. The game gave many marginalized West Indian, and more recently, South Asian players much more than healthy exercise in their new homeland. Cricket leagues gave players status and social capital. That led to employment, companionship and middle class permanence in Canada. When the larger society underfunds these "ethnic" sports, hidden opportunities are squelched too. Two hundred thousand people were on waitlists for recreational cricket programs in 2016. Toronto predicts that number will double in the next four years.

King talks about multicultural sports history with Yuka Nakamura, a professor from York University's School of Kinesiology & Health Science. She tells him, "what was so important about these spaces is that [they welcomed] those individuals who couldn't access sport through the mainstream sport system — it could have been because of discrimination, because of limited opportunities, or it simply could be because they just didn't understand the sports system."

Rebound was well underway in 2021 when private sports facilities started becoming COVID testing spaces, sites for mass vaccinations, voting stations, kitchens and distribution points to feed frontline health care workers. "Sports, in other words, didn't stick to sports. These organizations became civic partners. And, pushed by disaster, a rethink became a possibility — a window on how we can create a more inclusive culture of sports in the future."

King taps into University of Toronto research that describes community sport as a significant source of resilience. The U of T team said the pandemic would likely further lower the participation of girls and women in sport. But not all is doom and gloom. The researchers also saw that Toronto adapted well to the changing virus, creating "new activities appropriate to restricted environments; closing streets and opening new bike lanes to enable physically distanced walking, running, and cycling; and working with public health experts to develop safe 'return to play' guidelines."

While Canadians are daring to hope that just maybe, Omicron is the beginning of the end of all this, King is not alone in suggesting "the disruption the pandemic caused gives us the opportunity to rethink cities and neighbourhoods, to imagine a new ideal."

3 questions for Perry King, author of Rebound

Q. One of your points is exploring who gets what in the big city. Disc Golf and Pickleball are both popular with middle class white folks … and new places to play are popping up all over town. How are we doing for new basketball facilities?

A. It depends on where you go. In Rexdale, some well-used courts need massive facelifts and renos. In private schools across the city, basketball courts are pristine, because private schools can afford to build competitive programs and facilities that mould kids into elite athletes.

I think in Toronto we're creating a sports culture that provides the utmost opportunities for those who can afford it and somewhat neglecting the value that the public sector can provide. Don't get me wrong, we have ongoing pressing priorities, but the public sphere is about providing equal opportunities for all to access elite athletics. Think about it as a simple matter of labour — public space offers equal access to the best jobs on an even playing field.

This is why public schools like Eastern Commerce and Oakwood and Bathurst Heights were helping underprivileged men and women gain collegiate scholarships in the USA — and even the NBA. Now public school kids are accessing those opportunities in the private sphere — spending tens of thousands of dollars, in some cases.

It's all connected. When we invest in public space, we transform opportunities and we transform people and cities. 

Q. Picking one example of an 'ethnic' community sport: The Khalsa Cup (ball hockey) is fascinating. What does it tell us about sports priorities in Toronto?

A. Those who have a say and influence in how the city creates spaces and develops sports policy are simply too passive and hands off. While it is fair to say the city gives citizens free rein to create opportunities and push for collective needs (sometimes), it also doesn't provide enough resources for communities who wouldn't be able to access facilities or fund programming. Private entities rule the day, and it's reflected in what goes forward and what doesn't.

Hockey leagues/communities are more flush with money and resources (and possibly contacts) while some other communities struggle to organize and gain for themselves. Hockey facilities are in a state of good repair while many basketball courts, for example, are not pro size (94 feet by 50 feet), have structural flaws (open grates, uneven surfaces) and any number of other issues.

The Khalsa Cup tells me that communities will do anything to build up sports. Ball hockey has become so big in Sikh Canadian communities because those communities love hockey and will overcome barriers to access and discrimination to create that world — which is extremely competitive and tight knit.

Those who make sport policy decisions would be wise to continue being conscious of how its citizens partake in sport and develop solutions that are custom-fit for those communities.

Q. You called the book Rebound and there's optimism in that title. What's giving you cause to see a brighter future for sport in our communities?

A. Sport is inherently a positive space and a place to experience joy! I think our propensity to engage with people, organize and socialize helps, but sports also can make it easier to broach inequalities, discrimination and things that people habitually disagree over. In fact, sports, active play, and city building are topics that help people find more solutions to political impasses. I think sports can be an environment for change and thoughtful growth.

(answers edited and condensed)

Rebound — Paperback $21.95. Coach House Books. 224 pages.


David Giddens produces and writes and edits for CBC Sports. POV writing and podcast are his main areas of attention.

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