2017 Theme Issue - Stranger(s)
The first time Richie and I showed up to play at the Central Park basketball courts by 85th street, we heard a collective groan from the regulars. “Uh oh, private school must be out,” someone muttered as we laced up. Evidently, a nondescript, pale white kid, and his rotund, shaggy accomplice didn’t strike them as scintillating competition.
The Central Park courts were famous around the city for having nets on the rims. Guys came all the way down from the Bronx and East Harlem toting a day’s worth of Gatorades and sandwiches just to play there. If some kid tried to show off by swinging from one of the nets, a regular would calmly walk over to him and say, “you like playing here, right? You like playing with a net, right? Then leave them the fuck alone then.”
Richie and I had decided to spend the summer perfecting our skills, in the hopes of making varsity in our sophomore year. Having been spoiled in private school gyms, spending the summer practicing without the sound of a swish was more than we could stomach, so we set out to make the Central Park courts our home for 3 months.
Richie’s family had run a butcher shop in the city for 4 generations. His father sold exorbitantly priced prime steaks to the old money denizens of the Upper East Side, the only negative consequence of which, for Richie, was unrestricted access to sliced meat and braised brisket. Richie was 5’9, and weighed roughly 285 pounds, mostly concentrated in his gut, which hung over his waist like uncooked dough. When classmates fell asleep in the lounge, he’d straddle them and place his bare stomach on their face, ideally with their nose fitting into his belly button, and temporarily suffocate them in a maneuver he called ‘the doughnut.’ But despite his impressive girth, he was a cat on the court: inexplicably graceful, coordinated, and skilled.
Perhaps as surprising as his ability was Richie’s style of play. He was not a shooter. He didn’t play the classic white guy’s game of camping out at the 3-point line and waiting for a stray ball to find its way over. His game was predicated on intricate dribbling, breaking down his defender one on one, and driving to the hole. Somehow, he learned how to be elusive without being quick. He’d bait you into thinking he was heading in one direction, using your assumptions of physics against you, and change direction far quicker than you could possibly predict, magically reappearing behind you on the way to the rim. He’d then rumble down the lane, electing not to pull up for a cowardly jump shot, as I would, but instead challenge the rugged big men protecting the basket. Against all odds, he’d find a way to make a layup over two guys without ever jumping. He’d squeeze himself into a crevice, and use his width to pry it open just enough to get a shot off.
The regulars would allow anyone, no matter how incompetent looking, to play at least one game, however unenthused they were to do so. They refused to turn anyone away on the basis of appearance, luckily for Richie and me, opting instead to try to humiliate you on the court. They tried to weed out crappy players by embarrassing them in front of the on-looking tourists. The idea was to make you feel so inadequate that you’d never show up again, but if you could withstand the onslaught, you were welcome back as often as you liked. I was not accustomed to this purely merit-based system of operation, but I found it intriguing.
Even when a team of 10-year-old boys showed up to play one day, the regulars honored their request and granted them one game. But the moment it started, the regulars went about ensuring the kids would never return. On every possession, they’d throw the ball to their 6’5 center, and let him stomp his way down the lane, dragging kids behind him like toilet paper on his shoes. The kids would try to take a shot only to have it swatted out of the court, and have to chase it down the path towards the hot dog cart. The kids were obliterated 11-0 in under 4 minutes. On the final play, the 6’5 center flattened one of the boys with a forearm, dunked the ball over him, rolled it over to his babysitter and said, “get ‘em the fuck out of here before someone gets hurt.”
When the time came for Richie and I to prove our worth, the tourists and onlookers were salivating. I could see them readying their camcorders, hoping to capture an authentic New York beat down. The opportunity for humiliation always drew a good crowd, and we looked ripe. In addition to his unfortunate proportions, Richie also sported ‘rec specs,’ or athletic prescription goggles, although athletic is not how they make you look. And I didn’t look like someone you’d pick to be on your basketball team. In fact, I didn’t look like someone you’d pick to be on any kind of team, unless blending in were a competition. In 8th grade, when I asked the basketball coach why I hadn’t made the team he said, “what’s your name again?” “Director,” I told him. “Director? Are you a student here?”
On the first play of the game, I looked at Richie and yelled, “Karl.” It was the codename for a play that we had practiced together for hours, inspired by Utah Jazz great Karl Malone. Richie sauntered over to set a pick on my defender, but at the last second darted towards the middle, leaving both defenders with me and him open in the lane. I hit him with a bounce pass, and he immediately wheeled to his left, spun past the center, and sank a driving reverse layup. The sidelines erupted with laughter.
Teams that played against us for the first time would unfailingly assign their worst player to defend Richie, making an understandable though tragic assumption, and he’d abuse his ill-fated opponent. With every crossover dribble and behind the back pass, the volume at the court grew. Tourists were standing on benches to see what the fuss was about. By the time it was 6-0, there was a frenzy in the playground. The laughter had become raucous, but now directed at Richie’s shell-shocked defender. “Take him, big man,” the regulars yelled from the sideline, begging Richie for more punishment.
One of the regulars on the other team, a guy they called “Uptown,” had seen enough. He pushed Richie’s defender to the side with a look of disgust and said, “I’ll guard him myself. It’s not that fucking hard.” He was 5’7, 160 pounds, and absolute lightning on the court. He wore the jersey from his urban club team, which simply read “Uptown” on the back. He spent his time between games getting people to throw him alley oops, which would leave the backboard swaying in the wind.
Richie took Uptown into the low post, slowly backing him towards the basket like a bread truck making a delivery, trapping him under the rim. Uptown tried fiercely to push Richie back out, but couldn’t get him to budge. The more Richie leaned, the lower Uptown tried to get, desperately seeking leverage, his feet in a panicked search for traction. And finally, in one swift motion, Richie spun off, removing the weight, sending Uptown flying, and calmly made a lay-up. The crowd shrieked with delight, sprinting around the court laughing and screaming. By the time Richie’s show was over, we had won 11-5, and established ourselves as the newest regulars.
The regulars enforced very particular rules, handed down through generations, and they weren’t interested in new suggestions. Games were always to 11, switch sides at 6. Instead of using the baselines as boundaries, we used the chain link fences. Guys would try to bait you into dribbling under the basket so they could hip-check you into the fence and then call you out-of-bounds. Someone would always have a trail of skin removed from their shoulder after getting bounced into the jagged seam in the fence. You were expected to make your own foul calls, and they were generally honored unless you made a “bitch-ass call” like a moving screen or an over-the-top.
Traveling was the only infraction that created controversy every time someone called it. Guys would descend from all corners of the playground to join the debate and perform intricate re-enactments. No matter how egregious the violation, the accused would deny so strenuously I’d wonder what his life at home was like. They spoke with more conviction when they were wrong than I did when I was right. Sometimes the disputes resulted in fistfights, or on one occasion, the brandishing of a pistol. But most often, when we reached an impasse, we let the ball decide who was right and who was wrong.
The accused would be sentenced to a trial-by-ordeal at the top of the key, where the three point line arcs to its greatest distance from the basket. He’d be given one shot to determine his fate, a nearly impossible feat on the springy, iron rims that refused anything less than perfection. Inevitably, the shot would go clanging off the backboard, and the accusers would strut around the court yelling, “ball don’t lie! Ball. Don’t. Lie!” It enraged me how simply winning the dispute wasn’t enough for them — they had to pretend the ball was a supernatural force that could divine the truth, and that it had proclaimed them right all along. If the basketball was in fact a god, he seemed to be pretty biased against the shooter. To me, this seemed no more reliable a system of justice than drowning a woman to see if she’s a witch.
On one occasion, when I was forced to stand trial, I missed the shot badly, and one of the regulars got in my face and said, “ball don’t lie…but you can’t shoot either.” Every time I had to take that shot, I’d exclaim, “guys, this is ridiculous. The ball has nothing to do with the result of the shot, and you know it.” They’d just stare back at me blankly and shrug, “ball don’t lie.”
All of the true regulars at the Central Park courts were assigned a nickname based on an obvious physical characteristic, style of play, or personality quirk. There was a bald, Cuban guy name Cuba. There was Hollywood, who yelled out “Hollywood” every time he made a shot, occasionally followed by ‘showtime,’ when he got excited. Green wore the same green shorts every day. Bruce was a rugged white guy with a stern face like Bruce Willis, who played in cargo pants and construction boots. Lefty was actually a righty but he preferred to go left. They called me Private School, and Richie they simply called Big Man. There were at least four other big mans, but only Richie’s name had been derived from width not height. Some of the regulars had played there together for 15 years, and had no idea what each other’s real names were. We knew when Cuba was going to try a jump hook from the baseline, but we had no idea where he lived or what he did. If someone disappeared for a few weeks someone would say, “I hope that bum didn’t die.”
Cookies was a miniscule, half black, half Puerto Rican kid with beaded cornrows and big red shorts that scraped his ankles. Cookies had the hands of a gunslinger — if you dribbled anywhere near him, he’d immediately strip the ball from you, and yell out ‘cookies’ as he ran down the court, informing you that he had stolen the cookie from your proverbial cookie jar. Guarding him was like trying to catch a gnat in front of your face. He had, by far, the best dribbling skills of any of the regulars, but couldn’t make a lay-up to save his life. He’d bounce through the defense like a pinball, leaving the tourists and his teammates befuddled, and throw up wild running shots that would often sail over the backboard and out of play.
Cookies was a devout Knicks fan, much to my delight, and he would taunt anyone with different loyalties. Every day, he’d announce his arrival by screaming out for the entire park to hear, “are there any Bulls fans here today? Yo, if there’s any Bull’s fans here, you can suck my ass.” His profanity was often as clever as his dribbling, so naturally he became a personal favorite.
Cookies seemed to find my highly conservative and fundamentally sound style of play endearing. We developed great chemistry on the court, and for some reason, I was the one guy he was actually willing to pass to. He’d draw so much attention with his dribbling antics that the defense would completely forget about me, one of my core skills, and I’d find an open spot in the corner. “Easy money! Fundamentals! Private school!”
Between games, Cookies liked to hear my stories about going to school at Columbia Prep. He’d repeatedly ask how much it was costing my parents to send me there. “That’s fucked up,” he’d always say. “That shit must be nice. My cousin could get you an Acura for that price.” He liked to hear about the girls who took a car service to school every day, and how one of them lived in the Waldorf Astoria and had a private chef. “She lives in a hotel? That’s some Donald Trump shit.” He’d ask about my creative writing class that only had 3 students in it. “There’s only 3 students in the whole class? What happens if one of them gets sick?” “Then there’d just be two that day,” I’d say.
Normally, when we’d finish playing, Cookies would walk east towards the 6 train, I assumed to head up to the Bronx, and I’d walk west towards the Upper West Side. One day, after a particularly grueling set of games, he decided to walk west with me. We wandered up Columbus Avenue, peering into the clothing stores and coffee shops, and exchanged real names. I showed Jonathan where my dad parked our car for $300 a month, and where the Columbia girls bought $5 Fiji waters instead of using the fountains. “This neighborhood is dope,” he said. “Yeah it’s nice, but they’re putting a drugstore on every corner now,” I said, repeating some elitist comment I’d heard at my parents’ dinner parties. Jonathan snorted. “Man, I wish we had Duane Reades.”
I learned that Jonathan lived with his brother and single mother in a project in the Bronx. He was a member of the Bloods, one of the most ruthless street gangs in the city at the time, which in retrospect explained his signature red shorts. I cautiously pressed for details, but he wouldn’t take the bait. “I’ve done some bad shit, man — we’ll leave it at that.” I wanted to know what he’d done to become a member, but he was more interested in hearing about what my parents did for a living or laughing about how I was on the golf team. “You seem like a good dude,” he began. “I’ma show you something.”
We stopped at McDonald’s on 92nd where I treated him to a 9-piece chicken nuggets and a soda with my allowance, which I figured was a wise investment. “Give me your hand,” he said. I nervously hesitated, and he rolled his eyes. “Just give me your hand, idiot.” He proceeded to train me in the intricate, 7-step official handshake of the Bloods. “In case you get in trouble one day. You’re good now.” He insisted we practice a few more times before parting ways, which I thought was a quaint gesture, though amusingly impractical on the Upper West Side.
Months later, when our summer at the Central Park courts had become a distant memory, my parents received a phone call from an administrator at Columbia Prep. School had suddenly been cancelled for the rest of the week, and we were warned not walk around the area, and definitely not to wear red for a few weeks. The Bloods had publicly threatened to slash any Columbia students they could find roaming the neighborhood. Three of Columbia’s finest had decided it would be funny to start a gang called Whities On The Prowl, and spent the weekend tagging “WOP” on walls around town. They’d sprayed over the wrong tag on the wrong wall, streetwise as they were, and drew the full attention of a real gang, not known for their nuanced sense of irony. My mother was nervous about letting me go to school come the following Monday, so I put on a blue shirt and reassured her. “Don’t worry, I know the handshake.”
One Saturday, twelve years or so later, Richie and I decided to return to the Central Park courts. We’d been playing in white-collar, corporate leagues in fancy gyms with referees, buttery leather balls, and fresh nets on the rims, and we wanted to see if we could still make a scene. There was a familiar eye roll when we took the court. We looked just as unqualified as before, and now with our bodies sewn together with athletic tape, ankle guards, knee braces, and of course, ‘rec specs.’ Our opponents took their defensive positions. To me they assigned a massive, shirtless man with a bulging six-pack and a 3-inch wide scar shooting down his abdomen like a lightning bolt. To Richie they assigned a slender, 13-year old Dominican kid wearing soccer shoes. I looked at Richie and yelled out, “Karl.”
Cuba was still there, shooting baseline hooks, and Hollywood was still yelling ‘Hollywood,” though he’d gotten grey in the sideburns. We didn’t recognize anyone else. Every couple minutes I’d look around the sidelines, hoping to see Jonathan lacing up, but I never did. “Cookies hasn’t been around in years,” Cuba told me. I hope that bum didn’t die.