Philadelphia’s hidden sports bring immigrant communities together


Philadelphia is a zealous sports town, with loyal fans who cheer and boo in equal measure. But these are major league sports fans. The city is also home to equally ardent fans who bring their enthusiasm to lesser-known sports like cricket, Gaelic football or Sepak takraw.

Many of these games were brought with immigrants settling in Philadelphia. Trish Daley, an aficionado of Gaelic football, said in the 1950s and ’60s Irish immigrants would have used their football club not just to play but to help navigate a path into the American Dream.

“Now, we stay heavily involved (in sports), not out of necessity but to keep the tradition alive. My family eats, lives, and breathes it,” she said.

“Philadelphians are incredibly passionate about their sports, and that is evident by the huge variety of sports played on our public fields and courts,” said Philadelphia Parks & Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell.

Sports still help recent arrivals connect with others from their country and help long-time residents remember their heritage. “No matter what language you speak or where you were born, everyone can understand the universal language of sports,” Ott Lovell said.

And as home-grown Philadelphians get involved in these lesser-known athletic pursuits, it also brings diversity to the city’s sporting life and, Ott Lovell added, makes the parks more dynamic.

Here are some of Philadelphia’s hidden sports.

It is rumored that while fighting for independence, General George Washington relaxed by playing cricket with his troops at Valley Forge.

“There is a lot of history with cricket,” said Terence Fernandes, president of the Prior Cricket Club, whose home field has been in Fairmount Park for about seven decades.

However, the popularity of baseball surpassed cricket, also a bat and ball game where one team tries to score a run and the other team tries to stop them. Now little known among most Philadelphians, cricket is wildly popular with expats from the Caribbean and countries in South Asia — India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka — and they keep it alive in the city.

Fernandes estimated that there are 40 to 50 cricket teams between Delaware, the city, and the suburbs.

“I came as a college student from India in 1987,” explained Fernandes, who played on his high school team and has remained involved with the city’s cricket scene. “We would love for an American to come and say they want to learn how to play.”

Watch Prior Cricket Club playing cricket in Philly in 2016:

Gaelic football, hurling and camogie are ancient Celtic games that Ireland has refused to forget. The most popular of the three team sports is Gaelic football.

“I like to describe (Gaelic football) as a mix of American football and soccer together with a few other sports,” said enthusiast Matthew Lawson, a facility supervisor and recreation leader with Philadelphia Parks & Recreation. Lawson added that hurling is more like a cross between field hockey and lacrosse. Camogie, he said, is basically hurling for women.

According to the Gaelic Athletic Association, in Ireland the three games are played in “virtually every town and village of the country and throughout the Irish diaspora.” Philadelphia is a Gaelic sports hotbed with hundreds of clubs for every age range. At 50 years old, the Philadelphia Gaelic Athletic Association (PGAA) has one of the oldest clubs in America and is developing its own sporting facility in Limerick, PA. said PGAA vice-chairman Gerard Dillion.

The St. Patrick’s Day parade, said Dillion, is the start of the season which doesn’t end until championship play around Labor Day. Dillion, who emigrated from Ireland in the late 1980s, is hopeful to host a collegiate-level Gaelic football tournament in the city within the next couple of years.

Dating back to Egypt in 5200 BC, Bocce is one of the oldest lawn games in the world and was later popularized in Italy.

The goal is to roll a ball towards the target, getting closer than your opponent. It’s easy to learn, requires minimum equipment, and is not physically taxing, making it the perfect sport for Holly Keefe, who is one of the organizers for the Grassroots Bocce League in South Philadelphia.

Often stereotyped as a game for senior Italians, bocce has drawn a more diverse player base over the years. According to the World Bocce League, the game has also become a tournament sport and is part of the World Corporate Games, the Special Olympics, and may eventually be in the Olympics. But Keefe said they keep it leisurely.

“We don’t get that complicated. At least 95 percent of us had never played bocce before. We just keep it among ourselves, and the season champion team gets to pick a charity,” she said.

A related lawn game but with more tossing than rolling, Pétanque originated in France over a century ago. Games, sponsored by the Philadelphia Pétanque Club, are played every Sunday (weather permitting) in Clark Park starting at 11 am.

Learn about Pétanque:

Handball may suffer a low profile in Philadelphia, but that isn’t true in other countries. “It’s played all over the world — Ireland, Holland, Spain, Mexico, Belgium,” said Walter Amaro, a local top-rated player.

Amaro grew up in a bad neighborhood but there was handball and for him, that made all the difference. He was 8 years old when he started playing. Now he is actively promoting handball, which is most popular in the city’s Latino communities as a community engagement and youth development tool. The start-up equipment demands are minimal — the small ball used for racquetball — and a wall.

Amaro, a co-founder of the nonprofit Pennsylvania Handball Association which is trying to bring handball to underserved communities, advised that the best way to get started is to go over to a court, watch the seasoned players and then join in.

“Our most popular courts are at 9th and Hunting Park,” he said.

Watch Amaro vying for the Top “A” player crown in Philly Handball:

Officially it’s Sepak takraw but it goes by several names — Kataw in Laos, Sek Dai in Cambodia, Da Cau in Vietnam — but it inspires the same awe in new viewers of the sport.

Players have been described as martial artists playing volleyball as they work to get a ball over the net with their feet, knees, chest or head. Thus, earning its American moniker — kick volleyball.

Two decades ago folklorist Bill Westerman wrote of local takraw games for the Philadelphia Folklore Project: “If asked, the player or viewer will typically say takraw is fast, acrobatic, exciting; it relies on an almost inhuman ability to fly upside down, it requires skill, timing, spontaneous decisions, fast reflexes, and so on.”

It’s a team sport that originated in Southeast Asia, where it is very popular, and traveled to Philadelphia along with immigrants and refugees, many fleeing the hardships of the Vietnam War. Almost any evening, said Somaly Osteen, program manager of the Asian American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia, you can see the city’s takraw players, many from the Laotian community, flying through the air in Mifflin Square Park.

Never seen Sepak takraw? Take a look:

Invented in 1969 by a Mexican businessman, padel is a mix between tennis, pickleball, and squash.

The game was carried with immigrants from Latin America and now there are an estimated 12 million players around the world. Miami and Houston are the largest centers of padel enthusiasts in the US, but in Philadelphia, it’s still the relatively unknown racquet sport.

“It was little over four years ago and a friend invited me to see padel in the Bahamas. I fell in love,” said Scott Grote, organizer of PADELPhia, adding that the game is easier to learn than tennis and looks cooler than pickleball.

Grote set up a pop-up padel court and pro shop at Venice Island Recreation Center in 2019 that attracted hundreds of potential players. It was the United States’ first public play court. The game is scored like tennis, mostly played as doubles, and includes the use of a glass wall. Grote said a quick 15-minute lesson is all newcomers need to get started and he estimates the number of padel courts in the US — currently around 200 — will double year over year.

The player base has “grown organically in our area,” said Grote but added, “It is nothing compared to the growth in Europe, Latin America, and Scandinavian countries.”

“Padel is going to be in the LA Olympics in 2028,” Grote predicted.

How to play Padel:

Acknowledgment

The work produced by the Communities & Engagement desk at The Inquirer is supported by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.

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