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Rite of passage: Doolittle Community Center has spent a half-century as Vegas’ hoops hub

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Malik Smith, 15, receives a pass for a dunk attempt during a basketball shoot around at the Doolittle Community Center on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016. The courts have long been considered the mecca of pickup basketball in Las Vegas.
Photo: L.E. Baskow

Rucker Park hosts the best pickup basketball games in Manhattan. In LA, it’s all about Venice Beach. And in Philly, the top ballers call the court at Clark Park home.

They play without coaches, uniforms or referees on these ultra-physical proving grounds, where legends are born, guys known mostly by nicknames, like Harlem’s Herman “Helicopter” Knowings, Philly’s “Black Jesus” (Earl Monroe), and Dr. J, back when Julius Erving was coming up in the New York City area.

Here in Las Vegas folks speak of “Spiderman” Burns and “Sudden” Sam Smith. Many consider Sudden Sam this town’s purest shooter ever, and nobody soared above the rim for a dunk like Spiderman. Throughout the 1970s they dominated the courts at the Doolittle Community Center at Lake Mead Boulevard and J Street.

As on the most notable courts nationwide, the games at Doolittle are famous for their intensity. If you plan to take your shot, you’d best come ready. “Doolittle is one of those places where you can’t wear your heart on your sleeve, because it will get knocked off on the first play,” says Ricki Barlow, who grew up nearby and now represents the area as Ward 5 councilman. “It hasn’t changed. You can ask any coach in the Valley. If you want to test your players’ skill, you have to step on the floor and play at Doolittle. It’s the rite of passage."

Doolittle Community Center

Doolittle, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, is about more than basketball for the residents of West Las Vegas. It’s home to a senior center, a pool, meeting rooms and more.

Elgin Williams and Phil Thompson, both in their early 50s, tell stories of walking to Doolittle each day back in elementary school. They’d stay until after the center closed, snacking on leftover hot dogs and popcorn as payment for sweeping the court’s floor. They idolized players like Lionel Hollins, who went on to play and coach in the NBA. Other notable Doolittle alumni who reached the pros include Greg Anthony, Marcus Banks and C.J. Watson.

“This was the place to be,” says Williams, who parlayed his floor-sweeping duties into a job at the center and is now the City of Las Vegas’ community program manager.

The Doolittle faithful still speak of the time a small-framed New York kid showed up at the center and folks began lining up to see him play. That kid was playground legend Lloyd “Swee’ Pea” Daniels, and he dominated that day.

Williams and Thompson—who both work for the city—can easily rattle off players who have been kings of this court. Danny Lyles. Billy Banks. Donnie Love. Doug Stewart. Lots of UNLV Rebels played at Doolittle in the offseason,

including Freddie Banks, Larry Moffett and Eldridge Hudson.

What about Troy Brown? “The son or the dad?” Thompson asks.

Troy Brown Jr. is a star at Centennial High, projected to make it to the NBA soon, and his dad was a star at Chaparral High. They both played at Doolittle. The Seattle SuperSonics and Team USA have trained there, and President Obama has packed the gym multiple times on the campaign trail.

Watson, an NBA player since 2007, cut his teeth at Doolittle. Before leading Bishop Gorman to the state championship or the University of Tennessee into the NCAA Tournament, Watson had to prove himself in the neighborhood. Everyone’s equal when you step onto this court.

“If you were playing basketball, this is where you wanted to play,” says Watson, a guard with the Orlando Magic. “You earned your toughness. You earned your grit. If you thought you were good, this is the place you proved it.”

For Watson, Doolittle remains a special place. He hosts a camp there each summer, telling attendees stories about long afternoons on its outdoor courts. Nobody played for a scholarship or a paycheck. At Doolittle, it has always been about pride and the love of the game.

“This is where the true competition is,” Williams says. “Always will be.”

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