- Associated Press - Saturday, July 11, 2020

CRAWFORD, Miss. (AP) - Ball in hand, Tagarrine “Gary” Ellis hops off the ground.

All eyes are on him. On the scoreboard, his team trails behind the other closely. The 17-year-old Starkville High School senior aims, then shoots. He scores as the ball swishes in the basket.

Over the past six months, Ellis has been looking forward to a day when he could play basketball again with his childhood friends at the gym by the Crawford Community Center.

And now, he said, that day has finally come.

The facility, which was hit by the tornado that swept through Mississippi in February 2019, went through months of renovations and was finally reopened for public use Monday afternoon.

The project kicked off in January and reached completion by the end of May, said Lowndes County Parks and Recreation Director Roger Short. It cost a total of $375,000, he told The Dispatch, $350,000 of which came from a bond package approved by the state Legislature in 2019. The county covered the rest of the cost.

Nearly everything has been replaced — the damaged roof, interior walls, lights and the scoreboard. New aluminum bleachers and a multipurpose floor were also put in place. Next to the gym, the county added a new playground and a pavilion for outdoor activities, which were completed at the end of June, Short said.

Ellis said the renovated gym was all too thrilling for him.

“When I heard this, this is exciting,” he said. “It made my heart feel good.”

For Ellis, the passion for basketball has run in his family since he was “a baby.” Before the tornado hit, he said, he would travel almost half an hour from Starkville to the Crawford gym often after football practice at his school ended at 12:30 p.m.

Ellis’ friend, 11-year-old Anquarius Outlaw, was fast on the court. The damage the gym suffered last year saddened him, he said. But after the tornado passed through, Outlaw said, he would still come play at the old gym, which had leaks in the roof.

“I was really mad at it, because it’s not our fault that the tornado took it down,” Outlaw said. “It had holes in the roof, water was dripping on the court, everything.

“I was excited that it was opening, because I was waiting this long for it to be rebuilt,” he added.

Corinthine Hairston, 29, who has been a summer volunteer to look after the kids for three years at the gym, said the old facility bore many memories of his childhood. The Crawford native said he started playing at the gym when he was 6 or 7. He completed his first dunk there when he was 14, he said.

“I grew up with that gym,” he said. “You look at the site and see the memories. …When it was rebuilt, it was nothing like the old gym, then nostalgia just hit me.”

But now that the gym is renovated, Hairston said he’s happy to see it put to good use.

“It’s just like a symbol of hope for everybody,” he said.

District 4 Supervisor Jeff Smith, who represents the Crawford area and has long pushed for the gym renovation, said he is glad the facility is finally up and running again.

“I’m proud of the facility,” Smith said. “If the community is satisfied, I’m satisfied.”

The gym reopening comes at a time, however, when the COVID-19 pandemic has claimed more than 1,200 lives statewide. As of Wednesday afternoon, Lowndes County had witnessed 526 confirmed cases and 13 COVID-19-related deaths.

To help slow down the spread of the virus in a gym with a capacity of 300, Stallings said she is capping the number of gym users at 75 and setting different schedules for younger children, teenagers and adults. Children between ages of 8 and 16, she said, can use the gym between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., and those over age 16 can use it between 5 and 8 p.m.

Stallings said she cleans the facility with disinfectant spray twice a day — once in the morning and another in the afternoon between gym uses. Although it’s hard to keep children apart from each other at a safe distance of six feet, Stallings said she can only try.

“I try to spread them apart. I’m going to be honest, it’s hard to do sometimes,” Stallings said. “And I make sure when they first get in here, I let them sanitize their hands and everything, and I (clean) the balls and stuff before they touch them.

“When you got people from all over the Golden Triangle, you hear about something new coming to your town,” she added, “I have to try to limit them all so there won’t be so many in there at one time.”

Mayor Deane Parson said she loves to see children and adults flocking to the gym after its reopening. But to better protect their safety, Parson said, she has discussed precautionary measures with town officials and hopes to see mask requirements for those who sit on the bleachers when they are not playing.

A temperature check should also be in place at the door, she said, and those with high temperatures should be turned away before they enter.

“Some of them are close together (in the gym),” she said. “We don’t know who’s got the virus or what.”

But apart from concerns for contracting the virus, the reopening amid the pandemic also brought him and his friends back together, Ellis said.

“I ain’t seen my friends in Crawford since the COVID-19 came around,” he said.

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