Leonard Nimoy confesses that he played basketball very badly as a kid. But that's OK, because playing basketball at the West End House when he was growing up in a tenement in Boston helped him cultivate one of his inherent talents: public speaking, which set him on his road to fame. Everyone who wanted to be on the team in the late 1940s had to participate in ''declamation."
On a recent Sunday morning following the night of the West End House's gala Centennial Celebration, Nimoy makes a cameo appearance at the club's current location, the West End House Boys & Girls Club in Allston, to see what current club users are up to. (It relocated there in 1971 after a long tenure on Blossom Street in the West End.)
Against a soundtrack of giggling children and clinking ping-pong balls, Nimoy is enthusiastically greeted by Alan Gropman, whose father was one of Nimoy's declamation coaches. Gropman, who was later coached by Nimoy in 1948 when the George Brenner Junior Association was formed, explained declamation.
''For a team to play, they had to stage a dramatic recital," Gropman says. ''The first time Lenny was in a declamation contest, he came in fourth with the 'Ye call me chief, and ye do well to call him chief' speech from 'Spartacus.' The people who ran the place realized that was going to carry you much further than basketball. Our team didn't win basketball until six years after we started."
An elderly couple with their arms linked approach with enormous hugs for the former ''West Ender." Nimoy and Bert and Ester Wynn go way back.
''We went to his father's 50th wedding anniversary," Bert says. ''Lenny's father was my barber. Lenny's father came to our wedding because you gotta invite your barber."
But Nimoy is less interested in dwelling on the past than investigating the progress the facility made in its move to Allston. A West End House consultant ushers him into the Technology Lab and it suddenly becomes clear how Nimoy's most iconic intergalactic character, the Vulcan officer Spock on ''Star Trek," came to own the catchphrase ''highly illogical." Nimoy is a voracious information gatherer. He interrogates everyone he encounters at the club.
In the Tech Lab, he presses Dave Headman, technology coordinator, on the protocol for signing up for computers, safety precautions, and Headman's background. He fires right back with straightforward answers, but things get odd when he whips out a nifty plastic contraption called a ''potato launcher" and demonstrates how children learn to calculate volume with the aerosol hairspray-propelled apparatus. Nimoy wrinkles his brows, slightly befuddled.
''How does that function as a propellant?" he asks. Aerosol is explosive, of course.
In the dance studio, Nimoy asks about how teachers are hired and what classes are offered. In the music room, he's floored by the computer programs Zak Elgart, the teen technology coordinator, shows him and listens to samples teens have mixed.
But he's most in his element in the photo lab. Since he was 12, long before he was exploring asteroid belts or wielding tricorders, Nimoy was shooting his family camera, a Kodak with an accordion bellows. Since then, he's made a name for himself as a photographer. He recently published ''Shekhina," a collection of his black-and-white photos, some of which are displayed nationally in galleries and museums. Lori Leahy, program director, guides him through their photo lab, which includes six Beseler enlargers. They happen to be the same 23C model Nimoy has in his home in Los Angeles.
''Nine-year-old kids are developing photos. I had a 7-year-old do it, too," Leahy says. Nimoy laughs -- as if struck by nostalgia -- then, regaining composure, he starts in with yet another round of questioning.
On the way to the teen technology center, we walk along a large window overlooking an indoor pool, which stops Nimoy in his tracks, so to speak.
''If I were a kid hanging out here, I wouldn't want to go home," he says, slightly giddy at the sight of all the electronic equipment in the teen center. ''This is light years away from what we did at the West End House. We had a heavy academic program, some sports, and some arts; but we didn't have this depth and range. And there's a swimming pool in the building?! We didn't see a swimming pool until I got to California. Actually, that's not true. The Cambridge Y had a pool."
Back downstairs, a couple shuffles toward him. They are glowing. They are his cousins, whom he hadn't expected to see.
''You look wonderful!" chirps Valentino Itkis.
''Much better than in the magazine," interjects her husband. They haven't seen Nimoy in years. ''We saw your picture, and you look much better."
Itkis introduces him to her first cousin, Anna Konfino, who reaches up from her walker to give him a bear hug. She passes off a gift bag she had been holding.
''You remember me? You came to my house," Konfino says. Nimoy nods. He is beaming. How fitting.