Sunday, May 30, 2010

The City Game: Take Your Grandkids To The Rack!

The two best books on playground basketball in NYC are Pete Axthelm's The City Game (1970, 1999) and Rick Telander's Heaven Is A Playground (1976, 2004). Today's NY Fishwrap carried a piece on playground hoops that explains a NYC playground player like Earl "The Goat" Manigault. The Great Wikipedia tells us that

Earl Manigault (09/07/44 – 05/15/98) was mentored by Holcombe Rucker. Manigault was particularly famous for his leaping abilities on the basketball court, including his signature move — the double dunk. He would dunk the ball, catch it with his left hand, switch the ball to his right hand, bring it back around to the top of the basket and jam it through again, all done while still in the air on a single jump, and without hanging on the rim. Like other street basketballers of the day such as Jackie Jackson, Earl was reportedly able to touch the top of the backboard to retrieve quarters and dollar bills, part of "elaborate innovations and tricks" elite street players of the era performed before games to help build their reputations. He was only 6'1", but wore ankle weights constantly during practice as a child which helped him to build up tremendous jumping ability. He once dunked two-handed during a game from near the foul line over two players much taller than himself (Vaughn Harper 6'6", Val Reed 6'8"). He once reverse dunked 36 times in a row to win a $60 bet. But to prove dunking wasn't his only skill, he would practice hundreds of shots each day, making him a deadly long-range shooter as well. Manigault played with some of the best players of his day, such as Earl Monroe, Connie Hawkins, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who went as far as calling Manigault the greatest player he had ever seen. When Abdul-Jabbar finished his career with the Los Angeles Lakers and had his number retired at the Los Angeles Forum, he was asked who was the greatest player he had played with or against. After a long silence, he answered, "That would have to be 'The Goat'."

And what drove "The Goat" and all of the other playground players in NYC to go to the rack and slam the rock home in the ultimate finish (hoops slang for scoring a field goal)? Clang! It was the rims on the backboards! If this is (fair & balanced) metal-working, so be it.

PS: Go Celts, beat the damn Lakers in 4!

[x NY Fishwrap]
Handmade Hoops Put The Clang Into New York Courts
By A.(rthur) G. Sulzberger

The old steel rim that presides over this public basketball court absorbs missed shots with an angry clank, sending the ball careening upward and the wood and metal backboard into a rickety seizure.

Like generations before them, the young men who play at the ramshackle court in St. Nicholas Park in Harlem know the rim is so troublesome that they tend to avoid perimeter jump shots in favor of aggressive drives to the basket, where perhaps its vagaries will be less pronounced.

“These are ghetto rims,” said Quaeshawn Berry, a lanky 14-year-old who is a regular at the park. “But I prefer these. I’ve been playing on these my whole life.”

These unforgiving, practically unbreakable orange rims — built so simply that there are no hooks to accommodate a net — are longstanding fixtures of the public basketball courts throughout New York City, where they play a minor, if usually overlooked, role in countless pick-up games.

But largely unknown to even the most devoted practitioners of the city game is that most of the basketball rims on these courts have been individually crafted by a team of blacksmiths who cut, weld and paint each by hand.

Using a century-old method that has long since vanished elsewhere, the half-dozen parks department employees — all basketball players themselves — have forged thousands of rims, each one worked into a microcosm of the local game.

“There are minor differences,” said John Fitzgerald, the longtime city blacksmith in charge of making the rims. “It’s like no snowflakes are exactly the same.”

Working from a hand-drawn blueprint, the blacksmiths use hammers and the horn of an anvil to shape the steel ring that serves as the hoop, welding it to several slabs of metal that form a support bolted to the backboard. The finished product is a remnant of an earlier era of the sport, somewhere on the evolutionary chain between the original wooden peach baskets and the modern spring-loaded breakaway rims used by the National Basketball Association.

Other cities, including those with their own share of contributions to basketball lore like Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Newark, buy modern, factory-made rims. New York is among the few places, and possibly the only one, where municipal rims used at more than 700 public parks are still made by hand.

“I’m totally amazed that they still do it that way,” said Dan Shaw, an engineer and sales manager for Spalding and an expert on the history of basketball rims. “I would love to see one made.

“Walking in there would be like watching equipment made 100 years ago when there were no basketball manufacturers, when all the equipment was being made locally.”

There remains something of a cult of personality around the showy offshoot of basketball known as streetball, a pastime marked by elbows-out play, a casual commitment to the rulebook and makeshift facilities. That is particularly true in New York, where the public courts are credited with grooming generations of stars.

And while it is unclear what, if any, supporting role these immutable rims might have played, Jason Curry, president of Big Apple Basketball, which runs clinics and tournaments around the city, suggested that they might be one reason many of the best players who honed their games outside have historically been skilled at driving close to the hoop rather than shooting from distance.

“There are so many different variables that it makes it difficult to become a really good outside shooter on New York City playgrounds,” he said.

A streetball legend, Joe Hammond, who is better known by his nickname the Destroyer, said the New York rims were so tricky that he became focused on having his shots avoid them altogether, refusing to count points if the ball touched steel. “One thing about playing on the rims in the parks: you learn to adjust,” Mr. Hammond said.

But even in New York, the forging of rims may be an endangered art. Some of the city’s most celebrated courts, like Rucker Park in Harlem and the West Fourth Street Cage in the West Village, have made the switch to prefabricated rims, in part because the players there expect modern equipment. And when a new park is built or an existing one receives a full rehabilitation, a prefabricated rim is installed.

The prefabricated rims are not only more up to date, but they are also less expensive — typically costing other cities less than $60, compared with about $90 for the handmade rims, which includes about $65 for labor.

But officials from the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation say the handmade rims stand up better to the demands of New York players, so they will continue to be produced — at least to replace those that have been stolen or, in rare cases, damaged. (The rest of the time blacksmiths occupy themselves with an assortment of other tasks, like repairing park fences and building lifeguard chairs.)

“We have found its more economical to make them because they’re stronger, they last longer,” said Jim Cafaro, the deputy chief of technical services for the parks department. “So it’s cost-effective to do this.”

The design, which parks officials said was of unknown provenance, has been kept in a dusty composition notebook in the center of the cavernous workshop on Randalls Island underneath the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, where 92 rims were made last year. The blacksmiths are in the process of vacating the 80-year-old building, so production of the rims has been temporarily suspended.

The machinery and tools, including the old anvil, will be moved to a new location. Left behind will be the old hoop that hangs over an oil-stained section of the shop, used for years of lunchtime games. “You have to have a nice touch for them because they’re solid,” said Eugene Desplantes, a metal worker who starred in those daily battles. “They’re not forgiving.”

Even if fewer of these rims are being made, those already in the parks are not going anywhere soon.

Those made with a slightly different design, which features a double rim and straight steel supports, were discontinued years ago but remain a common sight in schoolyards, public parks and small lots around the city.

They have survived endless rounds of slam dunks, and occasionally served as chin-up bars and, for the especially nimble, even as spectator seating. Once, the blacksmiths strung a cable around a rim inside the workshop, which they used to tow a van halfway off the ground. That led them to conclude that their handiwork was, with all due humility, indestructible.

“These are the strongest hoops you’ll ever find,” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “They last forever. You could hand them down to your grandkids.” Ω

[A.G. Sulzberger is the 29-year-old son and grandson of NY Fishwrap publishers Arthur ("Pinch") Sulzberger, Jr. and Arthur ("Punch") Sulzberger, Sr. The youngest Sulzberger ("Pending"?) received a BA in political science from Brown University.]

Copyright © 2010 The New York Times Company

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1 comment:

  1. I don't get this. "The finished product is a remnant of an earlier era of the sport, somewhere on the evolutionary chain between the original wooden peach baskets and the modern spring-loaded breakaway rims used by the National Basketball Association." Could you please enlighten me on this? I keep following all your posts hope you can regularly post more. I get very useful information here. Thanks for having this.

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