Story by Rich Chimelis
“The spot has changed lives,” says Aaron Williams, who helped bring together the forces that made possible the construction of a new monument in the Square.
The landmark, which will be unveiled during Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Week on Aug. 8, will designate the precise location where basketball was first played.
‘“I knew the game was invented in this city,” Williams said. “But, like others, I wondered about the exact spot.”
The spot is no secret. But most people have not known or thought much about it.
Invented by Dr. James Naismith, basketball was first played in 1891 at a Christian YMCA school that later became Springfield College. The school was located at State and Sherman streets.
But the exact location is not where the college stands now.
A videographer who has done informational documentaries on Springfield, the humble Williams repeatedly explains his role in the monument project with this caveat, “it’s not about me.”
True enough, but it has become his mission, one that began with a research mission to learn more about “the spot.”
Encouraged by politicians, neighborhood groups, African-American and Latino business leaders and the Hall of Fame, Williams helped marshal support for the monument, which will feature informational panels, statues and lighting.
To Williams, this is more than a set of brass figurines and plaques.
It is a window through which to look at the Mason Square he knows, and a door to enter it.
“People see (the Square) as one of the poorest communities in the state. I see it differently,” said Williams, a lifelong city resident.
The monument, he feels, will bring day-trippers and school children to the Square.
There is economic potential to that, as well as enriching educational opportunities.
“People come to the spot, they take a picture. That’s a teachable moment,” he said.
For the Hall of Fame, this link to its home city materializes at a most opportune time.
By its nature, the hall caters to the rich and famous.
Moreover, it has gone global, embarking on projects from New York to China.
And the visual image is hard to deny. The building’s grand, exterior facade, nestled next to the riverfront, sits in stark contrast with the working-class urban neighborhoods just up the street.
This monument bridges that gap forever as a physical extension of the museum itself.
The Hall and the Square are not just neighbors now. They are partners, linked by history but also in a more tangible, current way. It is hard to see the Hall of Fame gaining much direct revenue from the monument, unless tourists start pouring into Springfield to see it, as Williams hopes.
But is it really necessary to put a price tag on being involved with something that is right, appropriate to your mission and frankly, wonderful?
Williams, 55, is unabashedly idealistic, but he is not naive.
He is well aware of Mason Square’s negative connotations in many minds.
“How do you calm fear? You show them history,” he said.
Valued at $200,000, and constructed primarily through private donations, the project is being built in two parts. The smaller segment is being installed near a McDonald’s restaurant that now occupies the site of the first game. The larger segment will be across State Street near the former Mason Square Library, currently home of the Urban League.
Williams lives in the Square, which has four neighborhoods (McKnight, Bay, Upper Hill and Old Hill).
James Naismith lived in what is now Mason Square. So did many other pioneers.
One was Primus Mason (1817-1892), an African-American businessman and philanthroper for whom the district is named.
The history of the automobile and motorcycle can be traced to the Square.
But, like the spot where basketball was first played, all too many people either don’t know these facts, or thought little about them.
Until, perhaps, now.
“Springfield has 150,000 people. If each one of them were to tell one person about this, that’s 300,000.
“Imagine what that would do for Mason Square and the city.” Every day, from his home, Williams sees men and women of all types, streaming in and out of the congested district. Scant few seem aware of the presence of history. He is convinced this monument will cause people to take a longer, different look.
He believes they will see Mason Square as he sees it - packed with proud and vibrant people, and carrying tremendous potential.
“This will have benefit on the micro level, encouraging kids from all our local elementary schools to come and learn,” he said. “It will have impact on the macro level, too. People from (all over) will be encouraged to come to Springfield and take a look.”
All because of a spot where a great sport was born, a spot overlooked every day by those who walked over it and drove right past it, at least until now.