So then we had enough for a full court and in the April heat we wandered over to the full court where they often fence the whole thing off to shoot commercials because of the way that building rises dramatically up above it, the massive open space of all that asphalt the smack of a softball, your head jerking up in slight fear of seeing a tiny missile coming at you, but at the same time no fear, none, because there is no point, it’s in the hands of fate, it will hit you or not hit you, it’s almost like a bullet, you hear the pop and will you really be able to turn, spot the little dark splotch of softball against the sky, guess it’s trajectory, register which way to move, and be able to duck in time? No, so maybe you cover your head or you don’t or look up with interest. That smack. The new people who wander onto the courts are always amazed we play in its midst – the ball smacks into the fence next to their heads and they look up like they are going to do something about it, or maybe appeal to some higher authority. But there is no higher authority. And they aren’t going to do anything, other than stand there looking amazed that this is the way things are.
I’m amazed, too, even more amazed that of all the time the ball has gone sailing out over the high fence for a home run and landed on the other side of the fence no one had been hurt. No dead babies. No small delicately veined opalescent heads smacked open like a melon, baby blood on the concrete, daddy in his shorts mommy still pudgy from giving birth screaming. Never seen it. Which is amazing, because on the other side of the fence is a playground, a sprinkler on in summer, jungle gym and swings, a few picnic benches around which people congregate to smoke and drink, talk, watch. They take the retards back there, too. I met a woman, a well known actress, who lives in the neighborhood with her kids, and she says she and her husband refer to the whole place as “The Junkie Park,” and it’s true that if you go there during the day there is a distinctly derelict feel to it; surely there is some methadone clinic around there. Or maybe it’s just the sheer expanse of the park, the way the asphalt is so broad and wide open that the benches that dot the edges seem small and insignificant, you can be a little anonymous in that wide open space, watch from a distance, maybe that’s what attracts the derelicts, or maybe because during the day there just aren’t that many public parks in which to gather and bitch and drink something out of a brown bag.
During the day maybe it is derelicts and retards – and apologies for the retards I know this will offend some people, it’s a whole other ball of wax, my reaction to these people with their expressions, contortions, sounds, once, during a mid day shoot around, one of them came over and we sort of shot around together, but he kept dribbling off to center court and not abiding by the unspoken rules of a shoot around, namely that when you make it you get the ball back, a set of rules I should say that, when abided by, can sometimes be the cause of an absolutely boundless happiness – but during the afternoon it is basketball players and, peripheral, if you ask me, softball players, the occasional smack, “heads up! heads!” the ball hits the fence, goes over it maybe, and then I always look to see the faces of the parent/guardian standing there incredulous that this dirty softball has dropped with lethal velocity into their calm playground world and if it had hit their kid in the head… as I said, I’m amazed it hasn’t happened already.
So it’s full court, except for the crazy lady. She has gray hair, smokes a lot and seems to be missing teach, and often wears sandals. She is street with a touch of bohemian hippie, and she seems a bit old to be the mother of the seven or nine year old boys who are always with her, but whatever she is, she sticks up for their rights. Out on the basketball court it’s really about force. There is no gym teacher, there aren’t any available cops or referees. So when some little kids are shooting around on one of the full court baskets, and ten guys wander up to start the day’s run, the kids simply drown in the larger force; the general anarchy of the lazy playground scene dissolves in the presence of the organizing principals of the Run, two teams, game to sixteen or straight twenty (which means if it gets to be tied at fifteen then it’s win by two, or whomever gets to twenty first), winner has next, but when the Crazy Lady is around, that does not work. The Crazy Lady will insist on another set of rules, the civic rules that are written and most of us are familiar with, the ones, ultimately, enforced by the police. Civic is not the word that comes to mind with the Crazy lady who I call crazy because she is fearless and will curse like you wouldn’t believe and will not let her kids or whomever they are be just moved off the court by the men; she uses the peculiar fillibuster of her femininity and just stands there, sandled, and dukes it out, verbally, and everyone knows that if sufficiently bullied she will, in fact, call the police. Everyone knows this about her, and so in this instance, after the Crazy Lady got up from her bench and began her arduous marathon fillibuster, one of the guys, in a peace making effort, a baarter of sorts, lead the two kids off to the half-court rim we had just vacated, a very sweet sight and totally incongruous with the whole Roll Up, Yo what Up, You talking to me? street vibe of the courts, and once relocated, Crazy Lady placated we could get on with the game.
I had on my team a very skinny young black kid who doesn’t have much in the way of skills, but can jump to the moon. Another guy, Mr. Thumb, who, only a month or so ago, during that spate of warm weather in MARCH, suffered a thumb so dislocated it broke the skin, blood splattering on the court, and then off to St. Vincent’s, but it didn’t;’t break, they reset it, and now he’s out playing again with some white tape around his thumb. Mr. Thumb is also The Laughing Man, and I gathered is also a father, a young girl standing near him as he changed into his sneakers and socks saying, “Those socks stinky!”
Laughing man, AKA Mr. Thumb, is not fluid, his skills are raw, his shot and his handle are pretty unschooled, but he is very tough, he’s got one of those muscular iron hard upper bodies and he can jump. And keeps smiling. Not just smiling, laughing! Mr. Thumb is all right! The Laughing Man has got your back!
He also rolls to the basket, and so when one gets a double team, you can just dish it off. . He’ll catch it and toss it up…
On our team we also had D. Let’s leave it at D. D is an example of how one’s basketball game can be horribly revealing about one’s inner soul and its demons. D’s game suggests that he is a man with enormous, exorbitant fantasies about himself. He walks around with a Basketball Opera taking place in his head in which he is always singing an aria. He has an outfit, never changing, though clean as far as I can tell, and in between games he will practice dunks. He’s got a cross-over, the baggiest shorts on the court, and, when he can bring himself to, he has a nice shot, though it’s a bit of line drive. But when he can bring himself to… there it is, isn’t it? I think it’s a Gatorade commercial or PowerAde, or some edible gulpable sweat-aid commercial whose tag is, “It’s what you have in you,” or something like that. But that is not true or only partially true. It’s how much of what is in you that you can get out of you. That’s true of sports and writing.
D. has some real problems getting what is in him out of him. The basketball opera in his head, the one you glimpse in between games, and at times, in fairness, he’ll flash something, but usually, it is inferred. D. is the master of the Shot that Could Have Been. Or the Pass That Could Have Been. At any rate I don’t want to dwell. He has a sensitive face and an oval head and he plays with his mouth open. Maybe he’s the guy that will shoot you without a second thought, the cold killer, the son of Sam. D. has trouble letting go. On this particular team, he was the point guard. But he was relieved of this duty because the other team pressured him, and also the reluctance to pass… but this is the complaint about all point guards, it’s like some fable out of the Torah or the Koran: “The Point Guard Who Wouldn’t Pass.” A Fairy Tale by the Brother’s Grimm.
Finally, there was Mousieur M. Skinny, black, a smoker of many thing, he rides up on his delivery bike and work clothes and his accent, it is delightfully French and New York street, a combination. He is capable of smiling. He hasn’t learned not to smile, or rather he let’s himself smile in that way that says, “I am Happy!” rather than, “I just dissed you punk ass nigga what you gonna do now?” He can also jump out of the park.
And let’s pause about the park, in between the first game, which we won, and the second, which featured a squad which I will not describe on a per player basis other to say they had skills and the violence of local propriety and connections that extended beyond this playground. This is the park where I watched them film a commercial for John Wallace– even basketball fans will have to take a moment, you remember, Syracuse, big game in the NCAA finals, went to the Knicks, disappointment… On TV, they made Wallace look like he was flying, against that strange backdrop of the building rising behind it; it’s an architectural image, the stark cliff face of a building with a basketball court at the bottom. The building houses several architectural firms, including Polshek and Partners, the people who designed the new Planetarium on 81st Street.
Monsieur M was the star of the show. The next team came tough, angry, quick, jump shots, vicious inside, and the sure sign of a winner in street ball: They would take no bullshit on the calls! It’s terrible to admit it, but much of winning, and therefor staying on the court, and therefor the entire shape of your afternoon, your feeling about the time invested putting on sneakers and coming down here, negotiating for a spot on a team, stretching and sighing and looking up at the sharp smack of a softball, all of this is contingent on who is going to stand there and say with more conviction that there is no way that he traveled and give up the damn ball and no no no, the score is 12-9 not 12-8 etc, etc.
We had no diplomats! Monsieur M, and D, and the Laughing man AKA Mr. Thumb, and Skinny, and least of all me. I am mute on the court, really. I can not speak. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps it’s fear that if I open my mouth I’ll be revealed. As what, I don’t know. Or maybe it’s a white language thing. I’m like the designated white man in these games, very tall, and capable of wild swings of capability both of which are infuriating– I either suck or, hey, the ball went it! And then I’m tall, long arms, etc etc. Some of the guys were calling me the Shadow. Out on the playground I’m about as verbose as the big silent indian in “One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest.” During a game I make various noises that convey, one way or another, “Give Me the Ball!” but when it got really tight in the second game, did I demand the ball? When the arguments got heated did I step up? No. And No. I was a Dikembe looking for an Iverson (Or a Patrick looking for a Starks). Who stepped up?
Monsieur M! His jump shot was like a shot put, he lifted off after one or two massive frantic downright African dribbles, continent spanning steps, two feet planted, jettisoned up and then threw it in the direction of the rim. But it was flowing. I had my infuriating garbage points and some jump shots on offense, on defense I got rebounds, the most thankless task of street ball. The Laughing Man rolled to the hoop, banged and bruised everyone around him, and toughed the offensive rebounds. It was close. The game eked forward, a violent game of chess. And then Monsieur M’s unleashed a series of his funny looking jump shots, and we won.
It was a rosy dusk. An April heat wave. Everyone drifted off, the court cleared, I was left alone. I practiced some dunks, had a rare outburst of post-game discussion with The Laughing Man, who was changing back into his flip flops, unwinding the dirty white tape on his thumb. I bounced the ball in a trance, vowed to get skinny, to stay light, to be able to jump and move my feet, be strong, I promised myself to move around the city a little to other courts so the whole massive, fluctuating, but familiar dysfunctional family of basketball junkies who comes to the court every afternoon doesn’t get too familiar, too tense, promised myself not to disappear down the rabbit hole of street basketball too far, promised myself not to sulk, walked in circles bouncing the ball, took foul shots, the air very soft and almost gauzy in the darkening heat. I was wretchedly sticky, dirty, thirsty, thrilled. Finally I went home.