The partial reopening of school gyms for sports like basketball has still left younger basketball players and outreach programs in the cold after the pandemic drained momentum from the fast-growing game.
Ottawa's English-language public and Catholic school boards have been issuing permits this week to allow community groups back into school gyms.
Derek Firth, president of the Ottawa Shooting Stars Basketball Club, was a leading voice in a petition for school boards to start reopening their courts, and he's ready to get back.
He said his club, which serves the city's core, has had to double fees because of a higher rent for private spaces.
"We're trying to do everything we can … to make this year about fun and falling back in love with the game," said Firth, who does work with organizations like JumpStart to subsidize those fees.
"Our goal is to provide the most number of entry points at younger ages and different levels just to get kids in the gym and playing basketball."
Andy Waterman, head coach of Ottawa Phoenix Basketball, said he's relieved his team was allowed back into Gloucester High School this week as the cold temperatures hit.
He said the pandemic has underlined the urgent need is for more dedicated spaces to support basketball in under-served communities.
"Weekdays, weeknights and weekends, the gyms need to be open. Prior to the pandemic there were not enough spaces anyway," said Waterman.
Older, competitive players are priority
The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board said most permit holders for its high schools are being allowed in, but they won't consider new permit applications and there is a vaccine requirement.
The Ottawa Catholic School Board said it allows one permit holder per night at 72 of its schools — with vaccine and contact-tracing requirements based on Ottawa Public Health guidelines. The Catholic board also said teams that don't abide by public health guidelines will result in a two-year suspension of permits.
Despite this good news there is limited space, and Firth said organizations have had to prioritize competitive basketball for players who hope to continue playing during their post-secondary education.
Children younger than 12, who have just become eligible to be vaccinated, and house league players may still have to wait until January or maybe spring to return to play, Firth said.
He did say some clubs may be able to use some space they've already leased at private courts to accommodate some of those younger players.
For basketball programs like the social enterprise Prezdential Basketball, the pandemic has exposed the struggle to get access compared to more affluent groups who can get permits for months at a time.
"We're now seeing the flaws of the system that were put in place before the pandemic," said executive director Manock Lual.
"Right now, what I would like to see though is an equity lens put on access to facilities."
Lual said he was able to keep some of his mostly free programming in Lowertown and Overbrook thank to help from partners like the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa, but school gym access would provide a major boost.
"We cannot offer more programming because of the lack of space," said Lual, who does not already hold a permit and can't get court time.
"I'm wondering how does a grassroots organization like mine get access to the community facilities to run programs for the community?"
Fewer girls returning to sport
The girls' game has been hit especially hard and many have left the sport, according to Emma Gabriel, a Grade 11 student at Cairine Wilson Secondary School and member of Capital Courts Academy.
While she continues to play, says many friends gave it up after years of playing together.
"I kept playing because I found most of my happiness through basketball even with the lockdown," she said, adding many lost interest due to virtual practices and not being able to actually play any games.
"A lot of them did just lose their love for the sport."
Gabriel has worked hard to catch the eye of scouts and she hopes a more regular practice schedule and home games will get things back on track.
Capital Courts Academy coach Fabienne Blizzard has also seen girls dropping out of the sport, and she says the pandemic has underscored the need for dedicated multi-court facilities to meet the demand for basketball and other court sports.
WATCH: Emma Gabriel says many of her friends have stopped playing basketball:
The City of Ottawa currently has no plans to build dedicated indoor courts for basketball, but does plan to add seven more gyms in the next 10 years to accommodate population growth, according to Dan Chenier from the City of Ottawa parks and recreation department.
There will be drop-in basketball at 10 city-run gyms during November and December, which totals about 80 hours of court time per week.
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