ORANGE PARK - Orange Park High boys basketball coach Derek Kurnitsky beams when he speaks of the latest addition to enhancing his district title aspirations in the future.
“This is a powerful piece of the town that only makes what goes on in the Raider Dome even more exciting,” said Kurnitsky as he watched a collection of Who’s Who in basketball in Orange Park history get after a pickup game on the newest addition to the Orange Park Athletic Association sports facilities off Gano Blvd. “I hope this is becomes a destination basketball spot for north Florida and beyond.”
The basketball court, layed out over a previously-existing tennis court at the OPAA fields, came from money from the town of Orange Park, according to Orange Park Town Manager Sarah Campbell.
“It’s been up for about two weeks, though without basketball stripes painted on yet and the kids love it,” said Campbell. “We had a neighborhood gentleman come to a budget meeting a few weeks ago and he told us how Grove Park Elementary School was the haven for Orange Park area athletes to go to play ball all day, every day. When they fenced in the campus at Grove Park, he said a lot of the athletes lost access.”
That gentleman, Edward Keyes, a standout athlete at Orange Park High and then a member of the first state title for Bolles under coach Corky Rogers, who played at Georgia Tech and eventually the University of Central Florida, with several of his relatives; mainly Keyes’ brother Adrian White, a University of Florida standout with playing time with the New York Giants, Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots; nephew Edward “Dez” White, also a Bolles title winner, who played for the Chicago Bears; Lamont Floyd, an Alabama scholarship football player and even the ever-smiling Gonzalo “Pookie” Floyd, who was a Jacksonville Jaguar signee in the very early years of the NFL franchise, started the push to make the OPAA grounds that haven for neighborhood athletic activity. Keyes, an all star defensive back then wide receiver, suffered a career ending injury while in college.
“I grew up in Orange Park right across the railroad tracks and the families there had unreal athletic talent that grew from that Grove Park area,” said Keyes, now 47, now an Information Tech professional for the Department of Justice after working for the PGA (Professional Golf Association). “You could go out there to Grove Park any time of the day and see bunches of kids doing everything; kickball, football, baseball, anything, even just running races. I was part of that last generation that had that access before the school got fenced in. The very athletic families of that area got choked off when the fields were gone.”
Campbell got the wheels turning with some input from retired Public Works director Chuck Pavlos who suggested that the three tennis courts at the OPAA fields could become that spot.
“He told me that the three tennis courts are there and that he hardly sees all three in play at once,” said Campbell. “It already had the court material and the fencing, the city council agreed and we bought the goals and materials to get it going. The lack of stripes has not stopped the kids from playing on it.”
OPAA vice president John Shipley, who had been busy doing some groundskeeping around the court on the OPAA football and baseball fields, recalled his stopping with his mower to watch some of the action.
“It was like watching a college basketball game out there, the talent was so good and the enthusiasm so high,” said Shipley, also a former Orange Park High football standout. “What a great idea and the kids are bringing their A-game.”
Campbell noted a $40,000 set aside from general funds to get the goals purchased and constructed.
“We had planned something like this from our October 1 meeting, but Mr. Keyes’ input really got the ball rolling,” said Campbell. “The Coronavirus pandemic slowed down some progress with the concrete guys and some staff actually put the goals together; a team effort.”
For Keyes, the history of Orange Park athletics hopefully can return to former years of success for the Raiders’ program as well as all the athletes in Clay County.
“Me and Pookie Floyd have been talking about a bigger project with an exercise trail, bringing the old pool back that is now the OPAA football building and even some miniature golf and putting greens,” said Keyes. “I ride by that new basketball court and it is like a faucet that got clogged, but is now wide open. People are so excited about it and hope it brings more development to the area.”