Garcia: The neighborhood park closes - what now? 

From the outside, they look just like average parks and playgrounds, with random assortments of courts and clubhouses that would hardly raise a question about how and when they got there.

But San Francisco’s recreation facilities reveal a lot more about the about the makeup and the character of The City itself. They are gathering spots for those attracted by individual interests or like-minded souls who turn neighborhood parks into a haven away from home, a sanctuary for hoopsters and tennis hacks who spend decades returning to the neighborhood’s run-down concrete cathedrals.

Each park is different, but in some ways the same. And that is why when a park closes it changes the migratory patterns for scores of individuals, who must search out new playing fields among unfamiliar faces.

For more than 20 years, I have played tennis at the same courts in San Francisco — a hidden 1.2-acre, fading, fog-shrouded gem known as J.P. Murphy Playground in Golden Gate Heights. It has a bustling basketball scene and a popular children’s playground and after-school program, but Murphy is primarily known as a tennis park, much like Dupont, Alice Marble, Mission Dolores, Mountain Lake and any number of other playgrounds with multiple courts around The City.

After years of delays, design hiccups, bid snafus and any number of neighborhood complaints, Murphy is closing in the next few weeks as part of San Francisco’s ongoing playground and park renovation program paid for by voter-approved bonds dating back seven years. Construction on the playground was supposed to start two years ago, then last year, then this March, and now it will apparently be official in July. The clubhouse and playground structures will be completely renovated and the park will be closed for at least a year — though in Recreation and Park Department time, it could easily become two.

Parks such as Murphy become magnets for functional tennis players and dysfunctional relationships, as well as an entertaining backdrop for those who like to practice their social and sports commentary and unveil their personalities and their quirks. Nicknames stick like a volley, banter soars like a lob and the social aspect of the groupings becomes as important as the tennis itself.

I started out playing in college there with a guy named Cliff, who was better known as Pluto, for his ability to go into orbit over a missed overhead and send the next ball a few miles high onto an adjoining roof in Forest Hill. There was Swami, with the sweet backhand and the constant jawing, who played with a guy named Mau-Mau, who was so named because, well, actually no one knows.

There was Ted, the Big Man, who studied so much tennis and changed racquets so often his game was like a box of chocolates — you never knew exactly what you’d get. There were the bigger men, Wilson, Jason and John, who could hit forehands so hard that one of them actually broke the wrist of my longtime friend Dave several years ago. There was Flip-Flop, with his penchant for sandals and his obsession with cleaning courts, and Torpedo, who may have been the slowest person to ever walk on a court. There was Dale, who could hit any shot, and Billy Bob, who could not.

There was Marwan, whose mouth moved almost as fast as his legs, and Al, the only guy I know who could use a 137-square-inch racquet to hit a drop volley. There was Frank, better known as Big Bird, who talked like a used car salesman because he was one, and Nick, who wore a down jacket and a stocking cap, even on 80-degree days. And of course there was Wayne, the only tennis player I knew who served with a lit Sherman in his hand and cracked his first Michelob at 8 a.m.

There was Kwan, a dentist, who had such a painful kick serve it made you want to inject yourself with Novacaine, Bill the banker, and Sailor Cap Ed. There were the phenoms and the philosophers and of course, the ladies, who brought some much-needed dignity to the court, as well as an impressive level of aggression in making sure they always had one.

There were many other characters who came and went and many more who stayed. And now they’re all wondering the same thing. Where to go next?

The nomadic migration has begun to points unknown, a ritual that has been repeated countless times over the years whenever the courts or the characters get too worn, or the players simply too old. Robert, a one-time Pacific Coast club champion, played into his 90s, when he was nearly blind.

But he still came to the court twice a week because, well, he had to.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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