Nike helping build playing surfaces in N.O.

Published 10:48 pm Sunday, December 30, 2007

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Children in this city still rebuilding following Hurricane Katrina could have five new basketball courts to play on soon, courtesy of thousands of recycled gym shoes collected by Nike Inc.

The company says it gathered more than 10,000 pairs of old shoes for the effort aimed at reopening courts at four community centers and playgrounds. Nike has committed to rebuilding the courts by January, spokeswoman Erica Pedreguera said, and plans to continue collecting ‘‘as part of our longterm commitment to rebuilding New Orleans through sport.’’

The city’s recreation centers and playgrounds are a top priority of Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration, along with the rebuilding of such things as police and fire stations. More than 35 of the 65 to 70 ‘‘active’’ playgrounds available before Katrina, those with football, basketball or other sports programs, have reopened in the 28 months since the storm, Recreation Department Director Larry Barabino Jr. said. Other playgrounds, with swings, basketball hoops or open space, are still unavailable.

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As New Orleans recovers, and officials grapple both with rebuilding and trying to correct problems such as poor schools and limited economic opportunities that plagued the city before Katrina, city leaders have stressed the importance of giving kids healthy alternatives to being on New Orleans’ at-times violent streets and of having parents be more involved in their children’s activities. (Police have recorded at least 207 murders this year.)

The city is getting help from the private sector and companies like Oregon-based Nike, which estimates it’s contribution so far at more than $6.5 million in money and products such as jerseys and thousands of pairs of shoes. Pedreguera said the company hoped to make some ‘‘bigger’’ announcements in the coming weeks, but she did not elaborate.

Pedreguera said playgrounds can improve the health and wellbeing of young people and the overall quality of life here.

‘‘Our hope in continuing to rebuild these surfaces in the community is to bring sport back to New Orleans youth, while providing the community with a place to relax and exercise,’’ she said. ‘‘We also hope to help foster a sense of community pride and unity while building stronger neighborhoods for New Orleans.’’

An eventual goal is to have a playground within five miles or less of every home, Barabino said. Because many schools don’t teach swimming, the department also is looking to repair indoor swimming facilities that will allow schools to bring in students for water safety lessons, he said. The need for such instruction became apparent, he said, after Katrina. The floodwaters that followed the August 2005 storm swallowed whole swaths of neighborhoods.