Something about Ricky Powell, via a guy named Mike

by Thomas Beller


42 horatio st ny ny 10014

Neighborhood: Greenwich Village

All photographs and captions by Ricky Powell

Mike. No shirt, a slight paunch (new), a lot of tattoos. Green, mostly, with some red. A dragon that snaked over his arm and shoulder, other stuff. He’s getting old. Or older. Still the belligerent, bemused, pug face, though, wondering what fun the playground might have to offer. It’s a face full of punches.

"Let’s get this off to a good start," he says during the preliminary shoot around, and I don’t believe the mellow, diplomatic, man-of-the-world tone.

The first argument he amicably resolves with a choose. Everything after that is a quick descent to the old style: he argues, he yells, it’s war. In the end, he gets his way.

I try to look on the bright side:w He can play. He has a game. He likes the ball about twenty feet from the basket, foul line extended, a kind clear out situation, mano–mano. From this spot he has a bank shot you have to guard, and he is quick, can drive both ways, etc.

Back and forth we go. My team and his taking turns with the lead.

I initially wrote, "back and froth." But that is accurate, too. Mike always ups the temperature. He is a cool guy with a hot head. He comes out late, as the summer dusk settles, after seven, and heats everything up.

My team goes on a run. We have point game. His rallies back. Ties it, take the lead. And then he calls me for a travel. So here we are, end of the game, me and him yelling because they have point and he calls this classic bullshit call.

Now, I did travel. But only after two hundred and twenty pounds of forty two old basketball junkie smashes into me. One tends to travel in such situations. But Mike calls the travel, I don’t call the foul. He yells, and I, terrible mistake, yell. The mistake is I have to shut up on the basketball court. That way I can get very lost and the whole world is the basketball game. As soon as I start to say too much then I’m on some hot asphalt with some guys in shorts and the traffic going by, back in the world.

He starts lecturing me about my shooting. He seems to take is personally that I shoot so much.

"You’re on a mission, all you do is shoot! You’ve got tunnel vision," he screams.

"Oh, so it’s a moral issue."

"It’s not a moral issue!" he screams back, and this absurd sentence, screamed by Mike, is my only victory of the day.

But enough about Mike, I only bring it up because of Ricky Powell.

Ricky had wandered onto the court at the start of the game to shoot around at the next basket over. It was a hot afternoon, well into the nineties, and Ricky was in his summer gear which, on this occasion, included a nice looking girl in a purple tank top and one of those money belt things with the pouch up against the small of her back. Ricky and the girl started shooting, but not before he exchanged a few pleasantries with Mike.

After Ricky walked away Mike started talking about all the parties they had been at together back in the day.

To me, Ricky gave a wink. It wasn’t a Dean Martin wink. Ricky is not Las Vegas smooth, exactly. It was a Ricky Powell wink, with its own style. He wore a white tank top, plaid baggy shorts, low top suede converse sneakers (blue), and a Yankees hat on top of his head in that particular homeboy angle. That cap, or some version of it, is always perched with a kind of jaunty fuck-you/what-upness on his head. The Rickster. He’s a legend, really, his main accomplishment being himself.

Ricky the Rickster Powell. I watched him shoot around for a moment before turning my attention to the game. I wondered if Ricky had his bus pass on him. I’m sure he did. He carries his bus pass (it’s also a subway pass) from eighth grade wherever he goes, and will happily show it to you. I’ve stood on the street and stared at it a couple of times, and it very odd , because I had a similar document way back when. 1975. I know the feeling, I mean I know the feeling of being attached to 1975. Personally, and for particular reasons, 1974, specifically, is my year, but no matter, one look at that subway pass and it’s "The Taking of Pehlam 123" and that grainy look and feel of John Cassavettes movies and Amsterdam Avenue is a slum all over again. I mean the cars and the look and the flavor of the time.

Ricky is a flavor kind of guy. People recognize this and so it wasn’t surprising to see him featured in a short MTV promo spot a year or so ago. Stop-time, herky jerky footage of Ricky pressing an elevator button, clowning around. Professionally, he takes pictures. They are ridiculously artless, and therefor brilliant snapshots of things he has seen and been around. He has seen and been around quite a bit, particularly in the old school, hip hop’s early days. The pictures are innocent and weird and familiar and flat and exciting all at once. They have a style. Apparently he has a huge fan base in Japan for the two photo books St. Martins has put out, complete with snappy one line toss off’s from Ricky.

Ricky Says:

"Marv Albert ’85. His was the ‘voice’ of the Knicks and Rangers from the late sixties till the mid-nineties. This was back when shit was looser in the Garden. You could smoke joints up in the blue seats and you could run into cats like Marv just hangin’ out if you went early."


Anyway, he gave me a wink, our game got underway, the screaming fight with Mike took place; we lose (though not on Mike’s shot, I guarded him on the last play) and I basically get barked off the court by awful Mike-isms like, "Go The Salvation Army, they sell heart there." Fucking nightmare. As I left Ricky waved at me. He gave me a look, a kind of a smile that seemed to say: "Mike. Whaddaya gonna do?"

Everyone knows a version of that look. It just as well could have read: "Life. Whaddaya gonna do?"

Click here for Ricky’s amazing excellent photo book, "The Rickford Files," (St. Martin, 2000)

Click here for Ricky’s website,

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