Poke, poke, poke went his finger against my head. I was playing basketball at my local basketball court and some static had developed between me and a guy nicknamed Homicide. I stared straight ahead, trying to ignore his jabbing finger. “You stink!” he yelled, barking right into my face. “You know that?”
He was six three, not as tall as me, but much stronger, a white guy with a crew cut, a gangster roll, and a smooth hip-hop lexicon. If he was merely a criminal this would be bad, but he was also a good basketball player. He wore a West 4th Street team shirt. All the neighborhood guys at the park seemed to know him. But although I had come to this playground for upwards of five years I had seen him for the first time just a few weeks earlier. As I stood there mutely absorbing abuse my only thought that was, “where has he been for the last five years?”
The most prominent and disturbing clue to this question was that everyone called him Homicide. To make matters worse, some guys had been abbreviating it to Homo. Pronounced more like ha-mo, as in homicide, not hoe-moe, as homosexual. Nevertheless. I was sorely tempted to make some kind of joke. Petrified equally by the fear of this possible psychopath and the possibility that I would say the one obvious thing that would set him off, I did nothing.
Poke, poke, poke. I stared straight ahead and wondered if he was holding his fingers in the shape of a gun.
At last play resumed. We were guarding each other. Every time either of us touched the ball everyone backed off a step. We existed in a halo of personal antagonism and potential violence. All the touches were his. “Big man is weak!” he yelled every time he scored, which was nearly every time he touched the ball. My heart palpitated and I felt as though I might collapse from fear and shame, but finally my game showed up. I scored a couple of times and then I blocked Homicide’s shot.
On the next play, fighting for position, he elbowed me in the chest while planting his leg behind mine. I went crashing down and, giving into my rage, I threw my arm out and took him with me. I was saved by the freakish sound – closer to a pop than a thud – of my head hitting the pavement. Everyone freaked out and intervened, though not before Homicide got in another elbow in my throat. Historically speaking, when abused in this way, by criminals, bullies, the police, I let loose with a stream of argument, as though the proper response to a brutal display of force was parliamentary debate. This resulted, almost every time, in my getting punched in the face. But now, since I’d been elbowed in the throat, I couldn’t talk. I walked it off in silence and the game went on.
I saw him often in the next weeks. I had to force myself to go to the courts, worrying he would be there. I never laid eyes on him for five years of being a regular, and now he was a fixture. I went. The strange thing was - though maybe this was inevitable – Homicide and I became, if not exactly friends, then communicants. I showed up to play. He dunked a lot, often on me; I always played him hard. I got mine, too. After a full summer occupying the same cosmology—our neighborhood basketball court—he was able to acknowledge me without rancor. We slapped each other five after games; what he was offering wasn’t exactly respect, it was more like I was the village idiot of whom he had grown fond. I, in turn, felt the horrible love that emanates from a the bullied soul who has been spared further abuse. But I kept all that insanity inside. I showed up and played my game. I didn’t back off. This sounds like I am writing about my teenage years, when these matters have outside importance. But I was thirty years five years old at the time.
Basketball in America has two fundamentally discrete seasons, which makes it unique among the major sports. Hockey is a winter sport. Baseball is a summer sport. Football, admittedly, is played and speculated about all year, but its center of gravity is fall and early winter.
Men’s basketball, however, is a winter sport for everybody playing organized team ball—from JV on up to the NBA. I played in high school and college, and in those years the phrase “pre-game warm-ups” were to be taken literally, because the gym and the locker were usually freezing. To this day I still think of the seminal basketball movie, “Hoop Dreams,” and what I remember is the long commute over Chicago’s frozen tundra that one of the movie’s two aspirants made every morning, in order to play for the big time high school coach on the other side of town. You forget this watching TV, but basketball players spend a lot of time in the cold.
The other side of this coin is the great wellspring of basketball joy that bears fruit in the warm weather: pick-up basketball. For many people who actively play the game, basketball is a summer sport.
I’ve always had a nearly addictive relationship with playground hoops. I tend to see my local playground the way some people see their local bar. Since I’ve stopped going to bars, or at least stopped drinking in them, the feelings towards pick-basketball have intensified.
For a long time I rode my bike to my local playground, but at some point I started to jog so as to warm up. It was about six blocks. After the first few times I realized that I wasn’t really jogging, I was running. I ran straight down the center of the street. I was running with an urgency that, I felt, suggested I was either running away from something, or running to catch something, like a train, a plane, something that would leave without me if I didn’t get there soon enough. There was desperation in that run.
My initial encounter with street basketball took place in winter. I was twelve, and had taken a ball to the frozen and completely empty court in the nearby park, with its battered metal backboards and bent rims, in order to practice dribbling. I wore black wool gloves and stood there bundled up, bouncing the ball up and down.
Up to that point my sports devotion had been focused on baseball; I’d been one of those kids who really gets into oiling a new mitt and sleeping with it under the mattress. Then at the age of twelve something happened. I have heard about this from other people—somewhere between ten and twelve years old you can start to do things with a basketball.
That frigid session bouncing the ball was the beginning of something. I went back again and again. It’s possible that part of my initial attraction to basketball had to do with just how deep you can get into the game while alone. Surely every superstar – Magic, MJ, Kareem, Kobe – has put in thousands hours alone with the ball, playing out elaborate fantasies, losing phantom defenders with vicious crossovers and hitting last second shots over and over and over, prolonged sessions of sustained basketball orgasm in which streamers continuously rain down from the rafters and team mates are perpetually rushing onto the court to lift you on their shoulders.
Then spring came and with it a development I hadn’t really contemplated out there in the cold--other players. Specifically, three guys showed up early one afternoon, joking around and casually shooting the ball in what seemed like the street-ball version of spring training. They were, to my twelve year old eyes, formidably grown up. All of them were black.
One of them wearing a sweatshirt with the home-made logo, “Funk Mob.” I now understand this was a reference to Parliament/Funkadelic. At the time I thought it was a kind of gang. Maybe a gang I could belong to. As it happens, they were the trio of players who dominated the action on that court in Riverside Park in the late seventies. People called them by their names, Frank, Joe, and Otto Graham (the guy with the Funk Mob shirt). Most of the other denizens of that scene had nicknames I remember twenty five years later—Puppet, Tweetie, Red. I hovered at the edge of this garrulous world, frightened; for most of my early youth playing competitive basketball was synonymous with pain, somehow. I wasn’t very strong. I hovered at the edge of the C hoop.
There are usually clear hierarchies of skill at playgrounds—the old guys, or young kids, or out of shape guys, are usually around C hoop. Then there is the B hoop, and then an A hoop. Often C hoop is just as fiercely competitive as the A Hoop, just a lower level of skill. In Riverside Park, A hoop was the full court. I must have hung around the C hoop at that court for two years before I had the courage to get into a full court game.
In the winter you are part of a team. In the summer you became a member in the impromptu congregation in the church of hoops. To play on the high school or college team is, after all, to join a pre-existing context with its own structures, traditions and funding. The street game is comprised of a community that is entirely improvised. Citizenship demands some skill, energy, talent, but mostly it is established by simply showing up.
Throughout my youth, although I played organized basketball, street basketball was the center of my own basketball cosmology. It was where I felt at home, or rather where I felt most myself, as a basketball player, for better and for worse. The winter game was cold in every sense—the coach’s drilled you in repetition, they wanted to squeeze as much of the unpredictability of the game out of it as possible. The street game was the opposite—the temperature was hot, everything flowed, there was unlimited improvisation, you could try all sorts of moves that would get you benched immediately if you tried it during the cold season.
In the summer, the city’s fried asphalt courts give off a kind of energy. You become inured to the heat and the grit. They give you a kind of hard, flexible strength. You have to stay loose. You’re up against kids and geezers, pot smokers, drinkers, fitness freaks, guys who like to spit a lot, and lunatic ballers, many of whom look totally undistinguished as athletes until they start tossing the ball up and it goes into the hoop again and again and again, and you realize that this is it, their true talent, the magic trick they will never get sick of performing.
The democracy of playground basketball is one of the great things about the sport—you go down to the local court, see who is there, and get picked up for a game or call next if no one will have you, or if you belong to the genus of street-ball player who also likes to assume the role of general manager, scouting players, telling people you have your team when you don’t, keeping spots for more talented players who might lose and be available for drafting.
Looks are often deceiving. There was a guy named Elvis who I used to play with on Horatio Street. I believe he delivered pizza for Little Cesar, for a while at least, and would come after work. I knew him when he was a little kid, then one day he was a little man, a few inches over five feet. Suddenly he was amazing, a kind of Allan Iverson of non-specific racial origin, south Indian or South American, I had no idea. The joy in his game, his quickness, toughness, skills, his bad-ass, trash-talking laughter, is with me years after I last laid eyes on him.
The playground is like family, but one where strangers are always coming to sit in the living room. Sometimes these strangers will travel in packs, three buddies who have descended from uptown or Queens to check out the competition on this particular court. They muscle in, do their thing, and either prevail or get slapped down by the locals. And then there are the lone gunslingers who don’t seem very impressive until they unleash their jump shot, or do their crossover, and you realize they have come loaded and they want to embarrass you. Suddenly, the public court becomes small and personal. You are assigned a specific role, isolated one-on-one, the guy with the ball versus his defender, you, and the unspoken question arises again and again: What are you going to do now?”
If a fight breaks out, there is nobody around with a whistle, no authority to appeal to in case of a flagrant elbow, no gym teacher, not even the implicity threat of not being able to use the college gym, or the health club gym, or the Y. Yes, there are always the police or concerned citizens, but they’re on the other side of the fence. The higher power on the playground is the same one that prevails on the sidewalks of the city— that unseen fabric of shared assumptions that allows people to navigate around one another without sneering or shouting, a civility that rises to the surface out of an awareness that civility is the only higher power to turn to. If that doesn’t work, you can try your luck with 911.
Showing up to play basketball on a summer playground is a slightly peevish experience. Everyone arrives in a mood to insult and prepared to defend against insults, basketball-related or otherwise. I like it; I think it’s part of my addiction. It’s not like I play ball to fight, but I crave the intensity. And my game is respected for that reason above all others. For a long time now, that has been my thing—to be intense, to play hard, to exhibit a certain smug satisfaction at hitting shots, to want to win, to relish nifty passes, to clap and congratulate my teammates, to be loud, to be in your face, to stir the pot so that the people I’m playing against feel annoyed and insulted, so they try harder.
Afterward, everyone seems to feel the game has been better for it.
I’ve learned all this from years and years of being taunted and abused on various public street-basketball courts in various cities and locales. Inside the fence, you’re all alone in a kind of free-trade zone of aggression and hostility and whatever else you wanted to trade in. Buckets, for example, or pride. You feel as if anything could happen. All that hostility, in the context of such a devotional love of the game, is a good way to make friends, even if you don’t know their real names.
Thomas Beller is the author of two works of fiction, “Seduction Theory,” and “The Sleep-Over Artist,” and a collection of essays, “How To Be A Man: Scenes from a Protracted Boyhood”. He is editor of the recently released anthology, “Lost and Found: Stories From New York,” and a founder and co-editor of Open City magazine and mrbellersneighborhood.com. More information at thomasbeller.com