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Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

From Happy Hollow to the NBA: Philly’s oldest rec center is a basketball hotbed

Several kids who played there have gone on to the big leagues.

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Billy Penn is highlighting some of Philadelphia’s recreation centers, ranging from Southwest to the Northeast and including spaces that were recently renovated and others that have long lists of needs. First, we did Kingsessing. Up now: Happy Hollow.

Happy Hollow, Philly’s oldest rec center, is all about tradition. It’s tradition that keeps coaches like Brian Robinson and teachers like Sarah Stevenson at the facility for decades; it’s tradition that inspires children to dream that they can go on amazing careers like Happy Hollow alum and current NBA coach Jerome Allen.

Let’s take a look at what makes this place special:

The specs

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Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Location: 4800 Wayne Avenue

Neighborhood: Germantown

When it was built: 1911

Size: Sits on 4.2 acres

How many people it serves: 70 to 100 children daily

Number of employees and volunteers: Three permanent staff, four boxing

Head of the center: Jonto Swift

History

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Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Happy Hollow was opened in 1911 after banker E.W. Clark bought the land of an old quarry and gave it back to the city. He left the naming duties to his wife, who called it Happy Hollow because of “the happiness to come to the little ones from the splendid gift, and the topographical location of the place situated in a hollow surrounded by tall bluffs.”

In its earliest days, director Jonto Swift said Happy Hollow was prominently used as a swimming pool.

“It was like a natural landfill with water,” he said. “People were out here wading in the water.”

Program offerings

Right now, Happy Hollow is hosting its annual summer camp for children and will offer activities on everything from basketball to boxing to reading. Last week, it hosted dozens at basketball camp.

Year-round, it offers children opportunities in basketball, boxing, gardening, cooking, running and fitness. Adults can also participate in boxing, computer classes and cooking.

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Danya Henninger/Billy Penn

What makes it unique

Many recreation centers have basketball in Philadelphia. Few have the the prestige of Happy Hollow’s basketball program. The importance of the sport can be seen on a mural adorning a wall outside that features Jerome Allen dressed in a Timberwolves jersey.

Allen, who also played and coached at Penn, grew up in the Happy Hollow gymnasium. He currently coaches as an assistant for the Boston Celtics and Swift said “he comes through every once in a while.”

Allen isn’t the only neighborhood legend. There’s also Coach B, Brian Robinson, who’s taught at the rec center for years. Lewis Leonard, who played college ball for St. Bonaventure and overseas professionally, routinely works out at the gym and offers advice.

Swift said the pedigree of the successful athletes who played at Happy Hollow helps instill confidence in the current kids. He said of Coach B, “It starts out as basketball because that’s his passion. But he teaches other lessons.”

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Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

One cool thing

The boxing gym is used for traditional purposes — classes for kids and adults curious about the sweet science — and the untraditional. At night, the building is used to give back to the community in another way, by hosting narcotics anonymous classes.

Stuff for kids

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Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

There’s basketball and boxing, sure, but wandering around the rest of the grounds at Happy Hollow counts as one of the top activities for kids. They use the playground equipment, tend to the garden or, as employee Sarah Stevenson said, “We hike, we race, we go up the hill.”

“They want somebody to help them; they want to be good kids,” she said. “They just need guidance.”

What the rec center needs

Happy Hollow, like most recreation centers, could use maintenance and new finishes. Lynard Stewart, Happy Hollow’s assistant director, said they’d specifically like to update the equipment on the playground so kids could participate in better activities. He’d also like to update the upstairs area of the basketball gym where children participate in art classes.

If Happy Hollow were to receive lots of funding, however, Stewart has even bigger plans. He’d like to see a new building for the boxing gym so the current building could be used as a community center for adults and the elderly.

“To be a rec center,” Stewart said, “it should be geared to the whole community.”