40th annual Gather-In Festival brings community together


PITTSFIELD - Taverick "Tank" Roberson knows his community through basketball.

Raised on Union Street on Pittsfield's west side, the 17-year-old African-American was at Pitt Park on Saturday preparing to play in the annual basketball tournament that anchors the Gather-In Festival, a neighborhood event that celebrates the rich black cultural traditions in the historically black community.

In the past, he would play teams from as far away as Albany, N.Y., and Springfield. Those cities didn't send teams this year, but the neighborhood could count on Roberson on the festival's 40th anniversary.

"We grew up looking up to [the basketball players]," he said.

Nearby, his friend Keiland Cross, 18, who was raised on Francis Street, said the festival is a bedrock for the neighborhood. He later played in the adult basketball game.

"I think these things keep everyone together," Cross said. "As long as it lasts, people will keep coming back. We used to play here. We used to be these kids."

Despite changes in leadership and lower attendance, this year's festival brought together neighbors and friends to Pitt Park. The event included an all-day basketball tournament with games for girls, young adults, high school and adult players. The festival also publicly marked the return of the local NAACP, which originally founded the event in the 1970s. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People re-started its Berkshires chapter in December and sponsored the festival. Members proudly wore name tags identifying themselves as NAACP members.

"[The NAACP] hosted it years ago and we wanted to get a pulse of the community right now," said Luci Leonard, who serves as the local board's vice president. "With some disparity and gaps in employment we want to be up front with folks, what they are seeing, thinking, and how they want things to change."

The day started with a prayer calling for unity that was followed with violinist Sarah Hubbard playing a string-rendition of "Amazing Grace." There were community booths, food booths, a dump tank and, of course, lively games of basketball.

"The basketball is the drawing card," said Barbara Hanger, 75, who lives on Upper Linen Avenue.

In some ways, Hanger says the festival is no different from when it started. The festival draws the same familiar faces back to the park every year. They swarmed around on Saturday ready to offer hugs and warm greetings.

"It's such a coming together of people," said Hanger, who observed, "You don't see anyone frown, everyone is smiling."

Festival organizers talked about unity rather than any division. The shooting of young black male Trayvon Martin in Florida and the acquittal of man who shot him, George Zimmerman, has raised the profile of racial tension in the nation.

The only speaker to mention the controversial court decision was City Councilor John Krol during a short speech.

"From a national perspective, we heard the president speak yesterday and say we have work to do [on race relations]," Krol said. "When a young African-American happens to wear a hooded sweatshirt while walking in a gated community and can be approached, stalked, attacked and killed and no justice is done, we have work to do. We have a lot of work to do."

In a different section of the park, Roberson, 17, spent part of the afternoon sitting in the stands watching young kids shoot basketballs and recalled watching in front of a large crowd when local basketball prodigy Sedale Jones played in the tournament years ago. Jones played college basketball at University of Massachusetts-Amherst before transferring to Curry College and finishing his collegiate career there.

"Everybody was here," Roberson said. "His team and his guys. There used to be a lot of teams and a lot of competition. They would have a dunk contest."

While the competition this year was smaller than years past, Roberson was still eager to suit up and play.

To reach John Sakata: jsakata@berkshireeagle.com. or (413)-496-6240. On Twitter: @JSakata


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