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Asphalt summer of love

8/24/2011

In The New York Times, Earl Wilson pens a love letter to the public tennis courts of New York City, which includes an NBA-tinged memory from decades ago:

When I got to the tennis courts, players were sitting around. I guessed they were waiting for partners. All refused to play me. Was it my cutoff shorts or my sale-price Arthur Ashe rackets that upset these tennis snobs? I didn’t get an answer. I also didn’t get a playing partner — a tough start to my urban tennis career.

But I learned more than a lesson in humility that day, one I’d live out again and again on the city’s assortment of public courts, some clay, many cracked: you might find a game, you might not. But then, you might meet Connie Hawkins.

On Court 6 that day in Fort Greene, Hawkins, the N.B.A. great, was there, serving rockets. I had heard the Hawk was from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, but I never knew he played tennis in his spare time. And on a public court. When he walked off the court, I introduced myself, and he shook my hand. They were the largest hands I have seen.

For some reason it always delights me to hear these kinds of things. There's Connie Hawkins doing a really normal thing like working on his serve in a really normal place like Fort Greene. It nicely shatters the myth that NBA players all spend their time lounging in places mere mortals could never tread (for instance, Wilt Chamberlain's futuristic-for-the-1970s cedar space ship love nest). Wilson's series of memories set in Big Apple parks reminded me of all kinds of basketball things from the early '90s, when I first moved to the East Coast for college.

I spent a year-and-a-half living in NYU's dorms and made a lot of great friends but basically wanted to leave. All this time spent in tiny indoor spaces! All that dirty air! All that stress! Maybe I was not, after all, a city guy.

When I finally got the sense to move out of the dorms and into an apartment, parks -- and mostly playing basketball in parks -- became a big part of my life.

That's around the time I fell in love with New York; I have never wanted to live far from the city since.

The part at the epicenter of the latter half of my college experience was Tompkins Square park, in the East Village's Alphabet City.

Living very close to NYU was simply not affordable. Trekking seven or eight blocks east, however, revealed a neighborhood where rents were reasonable, in no small part because, pre-Giuliani, the drug culture was wild and obvious.

And I'm not even talking about the Jamaican "record" store which had about two records, and if you had the right membership card, a guy at a desk in the back with seven different grades and colors of marijuana in great piles on the desk for inspection and sale.

The drugs in this neighborhood -- incidentally, we're talking about the time and place of the story of "Rent" -- were mostly hard and public. The day I moved in I learned what crack smells like, as the smoke from the glass pipe wafted up to the open window from the smokers huddled behind a construction dumpster down below.

Walking home across Tompkins Square park -- which had been closed due to squatter riots for my first year in New York -- a stranger asked pleasantly if I'd like to go in on a bag of cocaine.

My girlfriend and I spent one summer night of our early courtship in the loft bed of her apartment a few steps off the park. We whispered our sweet nothings to each other near the open window where, literally all night, we could hear the angriest voice imaginable assaulting some locked door somewhere in the street below screaming "GIVE ... ME ... MY ... MONEY!!" with volume, repetition and duration that surely would have been impossible without methamphetamine or cocaine.

But heroin was the king. There were very dirty young people shooting up on park benches, on the sidewalk, and very often huddled in doorways, with their lighters, sticky heroin in a spoon, and syringe at the ready. Which doorway mattered -- once the drugs engage, many become essentially comatose, fouling themselves where they sit, often forgetting to secure the filthy needle which, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, seems like the kind of thing to keep an eye on. If they're shooting up late at night, and you're due at some class in the morning, you can have a hell of a time negotiating (at times, leaping) that narrow doorway-full-of-doper-and-stink.

The irony of this time and place, however, is that even though there were so many drugs consumed (someone merely high and drunk, in that park, was considered suspiciously square and possibly a cop or, worse, suburban) the reality was that there was far more going on than just that. It was fun as hell to live there, among all kinds of smart interesting people doing all kinds of fascinating things -- writers, musicians, actors galore. And while it was a place of drug consumption, it was not a place consumed by the drug trade, somehow. I never saw a gun, for instance, and while crimes against cars and bicycles were rampant (junkies can't help themselves sometimes) I can't recall any violent crime in Alphabet City during that period.

One thing it had going for it: there were lots of people around, night and day, so even walking home late at night you were never alone.

Also, the neighborhood was cool, in its rough way, and everybody knew it. Which is why the streets were often clogged with TV and movie crews. NYPD Blue, one of the "Die Hard" movies with Bruce Willis, "Basketball Diaries" with Leonardo DiCaprio, a zillion other things you have never heard of ... the encampments of trucks and trailers and lights and extras would show and stay for a day or two months. The perimeters were manned by eager young professional-minded people with walkie-talkies who had no legal authority to keep you from walking down the public sidewalk and into a scene starring Mr. Willis. But they had the job of holding up your morning commute all the same, and they'd do it with a firm tone of voice and -- rare for New York at the time -- the occasional "please."

For somebody who hated the feeling of being cooped up that defined my first Manhattan years, the neighborhood's sweetest patch of real estate by far was the collection, behind 20-foot high chain link on the north end of the park, of several basketball hoops. On one side, next to a rousing game of roller hockey (new to the world around then: rollerblades) with garbage cans for goals, were three half-court set-ups. Across a patch of park, at the East corner, were the full-court runs.

It was a half-court neighborhood, though.

And the games were all over the place. More than a few were interrupted by very fired up players excusing themselves to re-up their cocaine courtside, or by purchase across the park. Some players reeked of booze, many played in jeans or flip-flops.

One day my roommate and I played two-on-two against a team literally straight from prison, that day. It was enough to make you worry about the effect of locking so many people up -- they come out mean. They had little inclination to really outplay us, but they sure wanted to brawl. That was the first and last time I've seen a player, mid-jumper, not even look at the rim while carefully kicking the defender square in the chest. The jumper missed by 10 feet.

But there was some beautiful basketball played there, particularly when mouthy James was on the scene. He was about 40 and bossed his teammates around effectively -- coaching the hardest to coach crew in history. His teams had good post position, spacing, cutting, picks and open from shooters in position.

The J. Crew catalog was one of the best-distributed items in the world around then, and memorable among the models was a lightly balding red-haired dude in his late 30s. One day that guy, the actual model, showed up to join our little half-court showdown. I was worried for him frankly, but I needn't have been. One of the best players I have ever seen, he was physical, brash and dominant, fighting hell-for-leather to the rim (there were no 3s), and then mixing up his drives with sound pull-up jumpers and crisp passes to cutting teammates.

The regulars were insulted, to have this outsider, model, white guy dominating the court like that. Teams were reshuffled in an attempt to defeat him, the fouls got harder. But I never saw him lose, and he never returned, presumably because he was off playing against better competition, on courts with lanky, athletic sober people in purpose-made shoes.

Whether the play was pretty or not, however, all that exertion, sweat, time outside, and playing the old parts of teammate and opponent ... it didn't make my apartment any bigger or easier to afford. It didn't make my job more fun, or my schooling more interesting. But it was more than enough to make the city the place I wanted to live.

One of the warmest memories of my life to date was when I walked off the court one hot summer evening, not just sweaty but also coated in that certain city grime you can't get in the country. Leaning against the bricks by the exit was a sweet familiar face, far out of place. This was my girlfriend, who had been waiting and watching for who knows how long, simply because she knew I loved that place, and wanted to see me there, happy like that.

For whatever reason, something about that moment jolted me. Looking back, that's when it all added up to me, and I knew and hoped and prayed we'd be together forever, and I'm thrilled to say she's my wife today. I'm pretty sure we'd be married even if that dirty, disjointed, hot New York City park with its oddball collection of basketball courts didn't exist, but I'm also glad we'll never have to test that theory.