Sportswriter (Sports Illustrated and currently the Chicago Sun Times) Rick Telander's memoir of his summer of 1974 in a Brooklyn playground: Heaven Is A Playground was the best (in this blogger's humble opinion) damn basketball book ever written. Today's NY Fishwrap carried lengthy story by an estwhile baller (high school in Florida and college at Reed College in Portland) that took this blogger back to an indoor playground of his youth: the 20th Street Recreation Center (just off downtown Denver). Brooklyn-newcomer Isaac Eger is not just a baller, he has cojones. If this is (fair & balanced) nostalgia, so be it.
[x NY Fishwrap]
"I Got Next": Exploring New York Through Pickup Basketball
By Isaac Eger
Tag Cloud of the following article
I moved to New York City on a lark. No job, no girlfriend, just a healthy dose of big-city wanderlust and a curiosity about the city’s mythical ownership of pickup basketball. Were its legendary courts just New York hype? Also, as someone who imagines himself a baller, would my skills stand up in the street?
This impromptu adventure did not thrill my parents, but, I figured, what better way to explore the spirit of one of the Western world’s most condensed cities than through sports, the great assimilator? I am convinced that some of the city’s truths, if not all of them, are boiled down on its basketball blacktops.
I left Sarasota, FL, my air-conditioned hometown, for a first-floor sublet in Bushwick, Brooklyn — I know, insert hipster joke here — to seek out the parks and playgrounds of New York City. Here is my report, a little stream of consciousness, a little underreported, full of a bunch of first names and first impressions.
All of it, despite the bruises to my body and ego, is offered with true appreciation and a fast-developing affection.
A stranger to the city and far from my basketball brethren, I turned to Google to shepherd me in my quest for busy courts. I looked at the City of New York Parks and Recreation Web site, but also at Yelp. Yes, Yelp runs down the parks and courts, complete with complaint totals.
By chance, my Web search directed me to a current documentary about pickup basketball in New York. Bobbito Garcia and Kevin Couliau’s independently financed “Doin’ It in the Park,” a hagiography of New York street ball, boasted of the city’s more than 800 courts. After attending a free viewing of the documentary, I made a map of all of the courts in the five boroughs that were mentioned in it and purchased a used bicycle on Craigslist from a guy with a yappy dog in Crown Heights.
The beat-up Raleigh, with derailleurs missing teeth, causes me to lurch when I pedal, but it is the best way to find courts. I typically put my sneakers, ball and water bottle into a backpack, strap on a helmet and head in a general direction.
Biking in New York is an adjustment from Portland, OR., where I went to college. In Portland, bike lanes are plentiful and drivers almost always expect bicyclists to be nearby. In New York, there are more obstacles on the streets than in a game of Mario Kart. I’ve had to dodge opening car doors, gushing fire hydrants, texting pedestrians and bikers going the wrong way on one-way streets like vehicular spawning salmon.
Before you even make it to the courts, it’s as if you have been fouled a thousand times.
Pickup games generally take place on weekend mornings and weekday evenings after 4 p.m. It is far too hot at midday to run around on the cooked asphalt for a few hours. Finding games at those hours has been incredibly easy. Every day I have set out I have stumbled upon full-court pickup. In Florida, I would sometimes drive 20 miles to find evidence of a single halfcourt game. In Brooklyn, I check a map, look for green spots, and within half an hour I am sweaty and shooting.
New York ballers do not realize how good they have it. At Red Hook park, as my teammates and I made introductions, they asked me where I was from. I told them I had biked from Bushwick, six miles away.
“You came that far just to play some ball?” They couldn’t believe it.
Though everything seems to be less than an hour away, people do not appear too inclined to venture far beyond their neighborhood. Perhaps there is a level of comfort that comes with picking a court and sticking with it — like picking your favorite bar or cigarette brand. All of the players seem to know one another’s nicknames, tricks and extended families.
The city’s busy, congested courts have influenced the style of play that takes place on them. For instance, I haven’t run across many pure shooters, but I have encountered a lot of athletes with wicked ball-handling skills. My theory is that because the courts here are so packed with players, there is not enough time or space to practice jump shots.
That is why so many shooters, I suspect, are cornfed boys from the Midwest and prep schoolers from the suburbs: the country and sprawl quarantine them, and they have nothing to do but practice fundamentals by their lonesome.
In the city, amid swarms of young men and women, you practice ball handling, playing keep-away 21 — the one-on-everybody-else game.
"Who’s Got Next?"
They say the Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell was so anxious before significant N.B.A. games that he would vomit “as loud as his laugh” in the locker room until tip-off. In fact, the superstitious Red Auerbach, Russell’s coach, would not let the team on the floor until Russell had heaved. I am overcome with a similar sense of anxiety when I walk through a park and attempt to insert myself in a pickup game.
I am an unmistakable outsider. I picture myself a hemorrhaging swimmer in a shark tank. But it is still easier for me to approach these players than to approach a pretty woman at a bar. My intentions, after all, are pure.
My standard approach is to pay no mind to the battle on the court and just walk up to the people on the sideline waiting to play. I clear my throat and channel Barry White’s bottomless voice: “Who’s got next?” Typically, no one looks me in the eye and any responses are mumbled.
I single out an individual and directly ask, “Do you have next?” It is a tactical maneuver because no one wants to be caught giving up his spot. “Yeah, I got next,” someone will say. I ask if he has a team together, and if not, I insist he should pick me up. Often, a player waiting already has a five, but the other four players are nowhere to be found.
“All right then,” I say without revealing my sense of rejection, “then I got next.”
Having next isn’t always guaranteed. At Tillary Park, the best ball I’ve found in Brooklyn so far, I had to wait three games until it was my turn. I was approached by four players and picked them up. After waiting close to two hours, my “next” came up.
I walked onto the court with my squad only to notice that there was one too many players inside the 3-point line. I stood there a little dumbfounded but the extra guy, an out-of-shape 20-something with inscrutable tattoos, had a look of assurance on his face; he knew what was going on.
Big John told me that it was he who had next. This trick has been pulled on me more than once. I knew to stand my ground. I told him that I had been at the park for over an hour before he even arrived. “Didn’t you hear? My boy called next for me.”
I looked for solidarity from my team, but they had left me for Big John. I felt like Robin Williams in “Hook” when Rufio momentarily convinced the Lost Boys that Williams was an impostor and they turned against him. It was like that except no one recognized I was Peter Pan. And because no one knew me, I was begrudgingly resigned to get the game after the one that was rightfully mine.
When it was finally my turn I resolved not to lose my spot. During my bitter wait, I was approached by several meager-looking characters whom other people would not pick up. Out of less than fully enthusiastic empathy for these rejected ballers, I picked them up.
We were crushed, 16-5. After the game I immediately sought out next. The line was three deep, and it was nearing dusk. I vowed never to be so kind again.
I decided to try Tillary again, this time with a chip on my shoulder. I went early one Saturday morning and managed to coerce my way onto a team. Things were going well in the game. I was scoring and defending and more than holding my own.
It was at that moment of contentment that I was officially inaugurated into New York basketball. I was dunked on. The spectators in the bleachers howled.
“What were you thinking, boy, giving him space like that?”
“Weren’t you watching while you waited?”
“Didn’t you know he could do that?”
I just smiled through deflated pride and ran back down the other end.
Soon after, I managed a bit of retribution when I picked the same guy’s pocket at the top of the 3-point line. I sprinted for a layup at the other end, lest I get blocked by my more athletic opponent. The joy of my triumph was brief as it turned out I banged knees with him and he was keeled over where I left him. Soon my knee began to throb.
Then my team was knocked off, so I had to play the waiting game. I struck up a conversation with another fellow waiter.
“Where you from?” Isaiah said. I remembered that my nonmember standing was obvious. Isaiah was born and raised in Brooklyn. I told him I was seeking the best pickup in the city. Isaiah was very forthcoming about where the best ball in Brooklyn was to be found.
“Marine Park is real good. You’ve got people selling Gatorade on the side, and there are plenty of courts. Red Hook has some good ball, too.”
I felt like Isaiah was letting me in on this big secret. He told me all the best times to play. I asked him if there were any places in the Bronx or Queens that he might know of.
“People from Brooklyn have no reason to go up there. Plus, it’s not all that safe for me,” Isaiah chuckled. “I’m pretty sure I’d get jumped. But you could go and it’d be cool.”
I was surprised to find out that I, a shaggy white guy, had access to all games that the five boroughs had to offer, but that most black men were not granted that luxury. Isaiah told me that it was precisely because I was white that I would not be hassled if I were to play ball in the Bronx.
“That’s just the way it is,” he said.
Learning the Boundaries
The city’s courts are always crowded with people’s belongings — strewed about without much consideration or complaint. The courts are smaller than regulation floors, and are boxed in by chain-link fences and curious bystanders. Rules are generally established before the game begins.
The white lines do not always distinguish out of bounds; oftentimes, touching the fence with body or ball is considered out. The winning score is set, typically 16 or 21, depending on how many teams are waiting. Frequently, you have to beat your opponent by 2 points. When the score is 15-15 the final score will often be appended to 21 straight, meaning the first team to 21 wins.
I have found that all close games usually come to a screeching halt. Either the game turns into a war of who can give and take the harshest blows, or the game mirrors Italian soccer and everyone feigns fouls at the slightest contact.
Nothing but Rims
At Dean Playground in Brooklyn, I confronted the city’s greatest physical adjustment for an out-of-towner: the absence of nets. In New York, nets seem to be a great luxury, like air-conditioning and tranquillity. That lack of mesh revealed to me that my depth perception depended largely upon the presence of woven nylon. I am adjusting, but practice is needed.
I asked a Dean Street local, Jay, 19, why nets were such a scarcity. “Little kids tend to tear them down within days,” he responded without pause. I asked why and whether it bothered him. “Nah,” he said. “I don’t think much about it. It’s also a way for kids to learn to jump higher; they jump up there, grab the net, and pull themselves up to the rim.”
The Nets are coming to Brooklyn, a borough of basketball without actual nets. Figures.
One final note about nets: I hadn’t fully appreciated one of the many virtues of nets — the fact that they slow the velocity of balls moving through the rim. Without them, noses and fingers are bloodied and whacked if you’re not paying attention.
Too Much Contact
Within the first three days of my arrival in New York, and my exploration of its courts, I had a knife pulled on me. Well, not a knife, but a box cutter with a neon green handle. I was playing basketball for the second time at Edmonds Playground in Fort Greene Park when my team was about to be knocked off the court. I decided that the other team was not going to get an easy layup to finish us off, and I fouled an unassuming-looking guy hard enough to knock him down.
That neon green cutter fell out of his pocket and rattled against the concrete. The guy, Bookie, snatched it up and looked at me indignantly. I naïvely asked him what it was for. He pressed the blade up with his thumb and said, “It’s my poker.”
This indirect threat came in front of dozens of playground patrons, and his friends were quietly talking him down. But I valued my face far too much to have questioned his intentions. I put my hands up and backed away slowly. The game started again, and Bookie took it hard to the rack. I contested but without much commitment. His team won, and I would have to wait 45 minutes to play again.
When people started to leave I walked up to Bookie to make peace. I told him that I just naturally play hard and did not mean to hurt him. He said not to worry about it, that he was only “playing around.” We played a game of one-on-one and, as fate would have it, I fouled him hard and he fell again, this time on top of his poker. He hopped up this time and said, “Good defense.”
Bookie would not be my last borderline violent confrontation.
There are wily veterans on the courts whose years of physical authority are waning but who are unwilling to concede their park clout. One veteran, who always seems to be at Tillary, taught me that I was going to have to get hurt before I usurped his court.
Butters, who must have been in his late 30s, was having his way with a smaller defender. I told my teammate that he could take a breather, and that I would try to slow him down for a few possessions. I channeled my inner Kevin Garnett and got right up into Butters with my body. I bumped him with my chest and torso and kept my arms straight out. He drove inside, but I stayed close and funneled him to the baseline, where he picked up his dribble. I hounded him.
In response, he pressed the basketball between his two hands, stuck out his elbows and clocked me right in the jaw. I flew back, and he quickly put the ball in off the glass and stared me down as he ran to the other end.
Butters kept his court.
Wheeling and Dealing
I went to Raymond Bush Playground one weekday evening. It was a fairly large park, taking up over half a block and tucked between Marcus Garvey Boulevard and Throop Avenue. There wasn’t much beyond foot traffic and it made me a bit nervous, but my wariness turned out to be uncalled-for.
Before I could even put on my shoes I was picked by a 54-year-old named Old-T. He wore a red sweatshirt, the collar’s stitching mostly undone. He also wore a beanie loosely atop his head. He took it off only once to reveal a full head of salt-and-pepper hair, mostly salt, that wrapped around his skull like a swimmer’s cap.
We played four-on-four to 36. I liked Old-T. He took real pride in schooling the “youngsters.”
“Hey, big man,” Old-T shouted through his smoker’s rasp, “this is a simple game. Keep it simple and hustle!”
He was the moral authority, though he lacked the physicality to back it up. Often when a child would ride through the game on his miniature BMX bike, Old-T, whose real name is Bartholomew, would defer to the punitive abilities of one of the young men sitting on the sideline. The punishment was a firm grip around the growing neck of the child and walking him hunched over to the bench.
The best baller at Raymond Bush approached the game with an oddly endearing mix of indifference and grace. He had a wicked crossover and tripped me up a few times, much to my chagrin. Before the game he had his hands down his white trousers for an inordinate amount of time. But I didn’t let my phobia of germs get the better of me.
On one possession I learned why he had fussed with his shorts. He drove to the hoop when a Ziploc pack filled with blue plastic bags fell out of his shorts. I kicked them out of the way so no one would slip on them and get hurt.
One of his teammates picked up the bag and handed it to him. He showed emotion for the only time that game, kissed his fingertips and raised them to the sky. Instantly realizing that I had just kicked thousands of dollars’ worth of drugs, I too thanked the Lord for keeping me out of harm’s way.
He habitually counted his cash before and after games even though I hadn’t seen him sell or buy anything. I felt as if I ought to be a good journalist and ask him what it was specifically that he dropped. “Uhh...” he responded. I asked him his name and his age. He looked at me sideways. It dawned on me that I was acting like a police officer, and I quickly walked back to the court and started shooting.
At every park I have visited I have noticed a fair number of children running around without much adult supervision. And I’d see young students leaving their schools to pop into a deli for a soda and some chips. In Florida, at public school, we were not trusted with much responsibility. We could not leave without our parents or guardians filling out all kinds of paperwork. We were basically on the school’s campus from first period until last.
The young people here are entrusted with a certain amount of responsibility at an early age. At first I was wondering what their parents were thinking, leaving them on their own like that. But people seemed to take care of one another here.
Another thing that struck me, between jumpers, was how unregulated by institutional authority these parks are. No one holds a piece of paper that tells people how things ought to be (though such pieces of paper do exist). Instead, these parks are governed by something else.
A park’s rules are unwritten but are adhered to and change from playground to playground. What makes this more interesting is that these parks are products of tax dollars and mild socialist ideals. It is noteworthy that indoor, private, free-market courts are more heavily policed. There are things that one cannot bring. You cannot take off your shirt. You have to have proper shoes and attire. You cannot drink. You cannot smoke. New York parks and playgrounds, then, appear governed by the most egalitarian morality going.
If New York is the city that never sleeps, it is probably because the city never shuts up.
Drowning the shriek of sneakers and the clangs of missed shots is the constant trash talk from the players on and off the court.
“Shoot it! I dare you!”
“You ain’t got nothing.”
“I’m gonna score from the block next time. Wait and see.”
Players on the city’s courts comment on what you wear, how you look, how you smell, what you do, how you blink and breathe. Cries and hoots from the sidelines fill the park when someone gets crossed, blocked or dunked on.
I still have not mustered the courage to talk smack. The closest I have come was when I was playing three-on-three in Fort Greene. The old man of the court — there always seems to be at least one — was talking nonstop. I noticed that he was missing several teeth.
I thought to myself, Old man, you talked the teeth out of your mouth. But like many of the brilliant things I come up with, I kept it to myself.
While waiting for games to finish, groups of players, sometimes as many as 15, play 21 on an open half court. Twenty-one is a selfish game. Recall basketball at grade school recess in which passing was only a remote possibility and everybody dribbled with his head down and charged toward the rim. Twenty-one is the same; the only difference is that selfishness is the intent.
I use 21 as a platform to exhibit my defensive tenacity. I pressure players and show others that I may not be the most athletic guy out there, but I will exhaust others with my doggedness. When my squad played full court I felt an affinity blossom. Every good defensive possession was hailed with shouts of intimate encouragement.
“Good D! Good D!” and “Get ’em, World Peace.”
I made a few 3-pointers, which were met with similar terms of endearment: “We got Dirk Nowitzki here! Stevie Novak! Look out!”
Even though we ended up losing, my teammates and I gathered at the baseline to talk about how well we played. They praised my hustle and asked me where I was from, what I did. I told them I was from out of town, and they welcomed me to Brooklyn graciously.
I asked them which team they were rooting for in Game 5 of the N.B.A. playoffs between Miami and Boston. We all desperately wanted Boston to win. “Oh, great! Where are y’all going to watch it?” I inquired.
“There’s this bar in Brooklyn Heights that we all go to. You gonna watch it?” Oh, happy day! I told them I was going to bike home and shower and that I’d be back to watch the game with them. I pedaled home, showered and, embarrassingly, fretted over what to wear. I looked in the mirror, winked at myself and headed to O’Keefe’s Bar & Grill in Brooklyn Heights.
I arrived promptly and did not see any of my new best friends. I ordered a pint from the bar and found a table where we all could enjoy the game. Others approached me and asked if they could sit or steal a chair. I was a dog and that table was my bone and I was not going to share with those outsiders.
The second quarter started, and I was three pints in at an empty table. I rationalized that punctuality just wasn’t a New York thing. Then the third quarter started, and I felt a nostalgic sting. Alone in a strange place, I was reminded of my lovesick teenage years when I could never transcend my inept condition with girls and become the tender lover that I was destined to be.
I feared that I would be relegated to the friend zone for eternity and listened to a lot of Elliott Smith then. My hopes to make friends in a new city were left unfulfilled, but I took solace in Boston’s victory over South Beach behind Garnett’s vintage performance and Paul Pierce’s clutch 3. I paid my bill and hopped back on my bike and returned home in tipsy heartbreak.
I revisited Red Hook park to play pickup later that week and recognized my buddies. They saw me and quickly picked me up for the next game. We played and had fun and chatted about LeBron James’s transcendent performance in Game 6.
We parted ways.
We weren’t going to be friends. Ever.
But teammates? Perhaps.
[Issac Eger covered health and sports for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune before he joined the NY Fishwrap as a local news reporter in 2012. Eger received a BA from Reed College and played for the Reed College men's basketball team The Griffins.]
Copyright © 2012 The New York Times Company
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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at sapper.blogspot.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.
Copyright © 2012 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves