Tompkins Square Park had basketball courts. Full-court games were played close to Avenue B. Half-court was against the fences of the asphalt baseball field on Avenue A. Players were 50% neighborhood and 50% from the rest of the city. The quality of the competition was not up to West 4th Street or 125th Street, but a total stranger could walk onto the court and claim ‘next’ without a beef.
My apartment was on East 10th Street. My dead sneakers hung on the streetlights at the intersection of 10th and A. My offense was an embarrassment. Only my defense kept me in the games.
“Stop the big guy.” My teammates told me.
No one had more fouls than me.
My clumsy hands deflected drives to the basket. My squat body blocked the path to the rim. Players would swear at me and I’d apologize. There were never any fights and the East Village was tough. The ‘Rock’ was around the corner. Two of my teammates came from that drug den. Carmelo lived on the 2nd floor. Duke was on the 3rd. Crack was their business. They smoked ‘blunts’ for fun. Carmelo shot 3 pointers and drove to the basket behind my picks. Duke needed no help. At 6-2 he was a pit bull under the boards.
No one is supposed to use their product. Carmelo stayed clean, but the pressure on Duke was too much. He had two girlfriends. They both had kids. The cops were after him and so were the other dealers on the block between B and C.
Those rivals played ball too.
Tompkins Square Park was a truce zone. No guns. No knives. No fights.
It couldn’t last forever and one afternoon in August 1991, Duke, Carmelo, and I had the run of the court. Carmelo’s shooting was unstoppable, I got all the rebounds, and Duke tapped the ball into the hoop from the paint. We beat a squad from Harlem. 15-6. I had one point.
“Who’s next.” Duke spun with a smile on his face. We were invincible.
“We got it.” The speaker was 6-1. A scar ran down his cheek. Biz lived across the street from the ‘Rock’. His gang was at war with Duke’s posse.
“This just b-ball, right?” Carmelo dribbled the ball looking at Biz’s two other players. They were his boys.
“Just basketball.” Biz hadn’t taken his eyes off Duke.
“Our out.” I waved for the ball at the top of the key. Soon as it touched my hands I sent it back to Duke under the basket.
“One nothing.” To Duke this was more than a game.
“That’s the way we’re gonna play.” Biz and his team settled into defense.
“That’s the way.” Duke tossed the ball out to me. “Check.”
Every basket from that point on was a battle. My opponent outweighed me by 20 pounds and had a few inches height advantage. If he had just shot the ball we would have been losing fast, but he wanted to stuff the ball in the hole.
“No one stuffs on my boy.” Duke declared from the baseline.
“I’m gonna.” My opponent knocked me off the wall and started for the rim.
I grabbed his jersey and declared, “Foul.”
“You can’t call fouls for me.” He was in my face.
“Sorry.” I backed away. “Your ball.”
Biz and Duke were sumo-wrestling for position. Biz backed up, dribbling the ball.
“Man, you like butting into me so much, why don’t we make a date?”
It sounded like a joke. It wasn’t a joke. Biz dropped the ball to take a swing. Duke blocked it with his left forearm and laced a straight right into Biz’s face. He went down and Duke grabbed a bottle from the trash. He smashed it on the fallen player’s head. It was a deadly weapon now.
Biz’s boys were standing with hands at their side.
This wasn’t their fight.
I grabbed Duke’s arm. Carmelo grabbed the other.
“Don’t ever stop me.” Duke shook us off.
“I’m getting my gun, Biz.” He had a reputation to uphold.
Duke stormed off the court. Biz disappeared into the park. A little war started over this fight. I didn’t see Duke in the neighborhood after that day and the police soon closed down the ‘Rock’ for business. Everyone was happy about that.
A few years later I’m in the Bronx with Jim Rockford. We’re on the job checking out KFCs for the parent company. I’m standing on Jerome Avenue and I see Duke walking across the street. I called out his name.
He checks the sidewalks with his heels lifted to run, until he sees my face.
“What you doing up here?” He asked with a little girl in tow.
“Working KFC.” I handed him five of the chicken bags from the back of our late-model sedan.
“For a second I thought you were the cops.”
“The ride is a little square.” At least it was a Crown Victoria. “Why you never come around the park no more?”
“My ghosts have brothers.” He touched his girl’s hair. “I was a little crazy back then. Probably a little crazy now. But I got me a real job now too. You see Carmelo. You tell ‘em that. But don’t tell no one else.”
“No, I won’t.”
He stepped away and vanished into the crowd of early evening shoppers. Carmelo was glad to hear he was alive. Everyone thought he was dead and we both agreed it was better that way.
Peter Nolan Smith left New England in 1976 for the East Village. Most of his 21st Century has been spent in Pattaya, Thailand, although this year he summered in Palm Beach writing BET ON CRAZY, a semi-fiction book detailing his career as a diamond salesman on New York’s 47th Street. He is the editor and writer of www.mangozeen.com.