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Score One for the Union Rescue Mission

Times Staff Writer

Basketball is called the city game, and you can’t get much more “city” in Los Angeles than a parking lot south of the Union Rescue Mission on Main Street.

The mission’s chaplain, Jim Bray, thought putting up a backboard and basket there would be just the thing to let some of the 150 men at the mission work up a sweat, burn off some tension.

After the lot’s owner agreed to let the men play after the lot closed at 6 p.m., Bray, 46, scrounged up “less than $200" to put up the backboard, and the Union Rescue Mission Basketball League was born.

Even the mission’s staffers were surprised when more than 50 men turned out for the first night of three-on-three, half-court league games on Monday.

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“Let’s check ‘em,” one spectator encouraged his team. “Come on, you got him. If it was a bottle of wine, you’d have him.”

Norm Fritchman, 46, came off the court gasping for breath and coughing after a 15-minute stint. “It really feels strange. It’s been 25 years since I played.”

But Michael Teniente, 27, was right back in his element on the court, scoring easily on reverse layups and 15-foot jump shots.

“I’ve been playing since the third grade,” he said. “This gets you in good shape.”

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Looking around at the crowd gathered to play and watch, he added: “Everybody comes out to play. They must like it a lot.”

Jack Guzay, one of the league organizers, beamed from the sidelines in his cowboy boots, jeans and leather vest.

“Since the basket was put up, temper flare-ups have calmed down a whole lot,” he said. “Guys are out here doing something. Some of these guys would be on the streets otherwise.”

“With the basketball games, guys aren’t out looking for a bottle,” said George (Big George) Austin, who works in the mission’s kitchen. “People think we’re all winos and drunks here. All we’re about here is helping.”

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As part of that helping, the mission lets youngsters living in Skid Row hotels use the court on Sundays.

The league includes seven teams, but one--Crossroads--comes from a program for men 25 years old and under. Looking at the Crossroads team sitting on the sideline waiting for their game, a middle-aged opponent asked in disbelief: “They’re not going to bring all that youth down on us senior citizens?”


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