As much as experience may be a key to success, watching the tournament is an experience in itself. Juniper Valley Park’s two bocce courts sit between high fenced hand ball courts and a patio overlooking a large expanse of green space below. Four foot high concrete walls enclose each court as the redolent smell of cigarette and cigar smoke resonate around the area while brief flurries of zealous hand gestures and raised shouts occur throughout the afternoon. Amid the crowd of people, some are smoking, more speaking Italian, and almost all are past middle age.
Therein lies an inconvenient feature of bocce. It is a game played predominately by older men, many of Italian descent that does not seem to be expanding its player base. Some of the best play of what may be an endangered sport is on display, but the homogeneous mix of onlookers and participants does not bode well for the future of a sport which could pass with this older generation.
“It’s not fast enough for younger generations” said Bill Putillo, a relative newcomer to the game. “My sons prefer something a little more physical.”
Visone, a third generation bocce player, learned the game from his father, but has been unable to foster this appreciation in his children.
“The game is dying,”said Steve Shakarchy, a large proponent of the sport. “Only old men are playing.”
Despite this, Bocce may not be beyond saving. Shakarchy is committed to reinvigorating the sport he “fell in love with” by teaching Bocce to schools in Brooklyn and Queens as part of the Sports and Arts Foundation. He believes that the inclusive nature of the sport which doesn’t require kids to be fast or athletic can actually be the very thing that saves it. Anthony Sama, of the Parks and Recreation Department, also sees the benefits of the sport after having worked last year’s Bocce championship and even mentions seeing interest among younger generations particularly in Brooklyn plying their bocce skills at indoor courts and bars.
With 86 teams of four competing in all five boroughs for this year’s championship there is certainly not a lack of interest. The challenge becomes sharing that interest with a wider variety of participants. A Facebook page for the event was perhaps a step in the right direction, but as of a day before the tournament there had yet to be any confirmed attendees, another sign that the majority of the current players are likely not of the online generation. Visone, who ended up winning this year’s tournament, may laud experience as his key to success, but the qualities that keep him hungry for more, the excitement, the laughs, and the rejuvenating thrill of winning, are things that can be enjoyed by anyone.