In Springfield, Massachusetts, a young boy is about to catch a bounce pass. It’s 1891.
The immortal scene — cast in bronze — is the design of Michael Tully (MLA 2008), a senior project manager in that city’s park system.
Designing a memorial to the first game of basketball proved to be a tricky shot.
First, there was the question of location. The actual spot where James Naismith — a physical education teacher tasked with creating a new indoor game for the winter of 1891 — erected those original peach baskets was at the School for Christian Workers at the corner of State and Sherman. Though the school still exists as Springfield College, the location of Naismith’s gym is now a McDonald’s restaurant.
Tully improvised and identified an alternate space in front of the library that offers historical views of the city.
After that, the biggest obstacle was the ticking clock:
It was already April, 2010, and town leaders said they wanted a finished memorial in early August. Tully immediately set to work on the design. He chose tempered glass which isn’t likely to shatter and embedded LED lights in the silicon putty sealed custom-built glass frames for nighttime illumination.
The budget was much lower than Tully would have hoped for. Fortunately, several donation pledges had already been made by McDonald’s, the Chicago Bulls, and several local businesses.
And, just as crucial, the sculptor, Brian Hanlon, discounted his work to cost. “Hanlon is so passionate about basketball, he just charged for materials,” says Tully.
It wasn’t Tully’s first memorial attempt. In front of a downtown fire station stands a statue of Leonard Corbin, the city’s first African-American firefighter in 1969. That memorial’s success is what made people come to Tully for this one.
But he wanted the basketball memorial to convey a different mood. Less solemn, more innovative. “I wanted the design to look historical, but also cutting edge.”
He scored just under the buzzer. The memorial was dedicated on Aug. 8, 2010, in time for the World Festival of Basketball Presented by Nike, which brought thousands of basketball enthusiasts to see professionals and amateurs interact on the court.
Tully’s approach to landscape architecture was no fast break. A native of Springfield, after receiving a natural resource management degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, he went to work for a tree planting organization in San Jose, California. That’s where he started growing a passion for neighborhood design. “I just saw the relationship that a single tree could have on people, depending on where you planted it.”
So Tully enrolled in the College of Design at NC State where he learned landscape architecture techniques that he now applies every day in his job. For example, Tully uses research from the college’s Natural Learning Initiative in redesigning playgrounds in Springfield schools. He also started a tree planting organization called Arbor Allies to beautify the city.
One thing that he didn’t learn much about in his design education: how to clear snow — an important part of his current job several months out of the year.
Tully is hoping that the basketball memorial will continue to receive out-of-town visitors, to allow tourism to help lift the town out of a bad economy. “My hope is that the design profession becomes more respected and sought after. A lot of places need regeneration, and designers can help an economy.”
Tully’s next memorial project? Perhaps it will be one of the other Springfield icons many of us recognize: the Indian Motorcycle, blue guitarist Taj Mahal, or the actor, Kurt Russell.
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