Thomas Beller's "Scenes From a Playground"

March, 18, 2008
3/18/08
1:15
PM ET

Whatever it is that is at the core of basketball's appeal, it's not reserved for the glossy hardwood of the NBA and the NCAA. It's just about wherever there is some kind of flat hard surface and people who want to play on it. 

Late last year, writer Thomas Beller was kind enough to let TrueHoop reprint a chapter of his book that was about trying out for a USBL team

Beller is a fabulous writer, which puts him in a small club. He's also a tall and athletic basketball junkie, which puts him in a club of writer/athletes that barely exists at all. 

At the time he was writing his book "How to be a Man," however, he was in a club of sorts -- those who played basketball on a little court deep in New York City's meatpacking district. Below is a chapter of his book, about life on that playground.

Originally published in Thomas Beller's book "How to Be a Man" and reprinted here with the author's permission. And a warning: there is some language here that some people might find offensive.

Scenes From A Playground

1.

One day last fall, when the weather had cooled and summer seemed to be over, I went down to my local basketball court, on Hudson Street between Horatio and Gansevoort Streets, where I've been going for over seven years. The court, which is wedged between the West Village, where I live, and the meatpacking district, is on the loose circuit of courts upon which Players, as it were, like to play. But it looked a little emptier than usual. The players there were mostly those die-hards whose compulsion to play basketball is somehow suspicious, betraying logic.

There's a phrase you don't hear much anymore, "Basketball Junkie." It's a bit morbid, but there is some truth to the formulation.

I played a few games and then, after nearly everyone had gone home, I lingered to shoot around in the strangely early dusk.

The trance of the basketball court, into which I had fallen so happily all summer long, was broken. I saw from the inside how the place must look from the outside, beyond the chain link fence that surrounds it: a wide swatch of asphalt in the middle of the city, with dented up hoops stuck on it, a playground at one end, a softball diamond at the other, the whole thing populated by dog walkers, bench sitters, a few kids and their parents, some derelict types, and some guys in baggy shorts playing basketball, all in a space officially known as John Seravalli Park.


Just then the crazy lady approached me, with an unusual expression on her face. We had never spoken before.

"Will you take one of these?" she said. "It's really important."

The Crazy Lady, whose name, I later learned, is Lana, was not, in fact, crazy. She was just very brave, but the two qualities sometimes blur. I started thinking of her as the Crazy Lady when I arrived at the court one afternoon and found her at the center of a mob of basketball players, defending her kids and their friends against what are normally understood to be the laws of playground.

The issue, as is so often the case, was real estate. There is often a point in the afternoon when a critical mass of players have arrived and the various half court games move over the full court. The Crazy Lady's kids and company were shooting around on the full court basket when they were suddenly overrun by the players, the homeboys, all in that pre-game state of agitation, itchy to get their hands on the ball.

This is a basic playground gesture, the big kids (in this case grown men mostly) evicting the smaller kids.

Lana has frizzy gray hair, wears sandals and jeans, and smokes cigarettes. Her face often registers a "What in God's name is next?" expression that I associate with city parents. The day of the turf war I arrived to find her standing in the middle of the full court, a cigarette in one hand, a cell phone in the other and, like Gandhi, refusing to move. She was upsetting the natural order of things. She negotiated.

Words were exchanged. Voices were raised. Finally, a half-court basket was secured for the kids and, like refugees given a new homeland, they were ushered to their basket before Lana yielded the full court to the mob.

This scene repeated itself several times over the course of the summer, each act an irrational defense of the rational, which is how I came to think of her as the crazy lady.

This autumn day, however, she approached me with a stack of fliers in her arm and an odd look on her face, as though she had seen a monster. A parking lot across Ninth avenue from our court had been razed to make way for a new hotel, the sort of place whose ambiance and room rate is in keeping with the boutique vibe of the neighborhood, but not in keeping with the giant stretch of grey asphalt on which we stood. The razed parking lot was the footprint of the monster.

The Monster itself? Well, it was capital. Why use any other word? Something bigger and stronger than us was going to take our park away, was what the pamphlet said. According to the flier, the Parks Department was considering a proposal to tear up the playground, resurface it with artificial turf and turn it into a private softball field. The nearby Xavier High School would help pay for the renovation. The gates would be padlocked, the ground green, and there would be soccer practice by day and Little League games by night. Who could argue with that?

Quite a few people, apparently. But the tenor of the flier, and the fact that a community board meeting had been arranged to discuss the proposal, suggested that, unknown to us, wheels had been turning for some time. All summer we had been involved in the drama of our playground while, just like a horror movie, a huge monster was almost upon us.

2.

Now it's spring. On the first sunny and warm day of the season I went down to the court. There was a game in progress at each of the three half-courts, and a crowd of people waiting to play.

Arriving at a basketball court is a seemingly casual thing, but who actually gets to play is determined by a number of Byzantine rituals involving such things as how well-known you are to the regulars, how well respected your game is, how you look, what color you are (and there are a very wide range of colors), how you dress, walk, talk.

But these rules are not written down. They are implicit. They incorporate the rules that pertain to the world outside the playground -- the rules enforced by the police, for example -- but there are variations, additions, and deletions, and no one on hand with a clip-board and a whistle to enforce them.

This is not gym. One of the more important rules is that, in certain circumstances, there are no rules.


That first day, everyone was in an unusually friendly mood. I slapped people five. Vague communications were made, along the lines of, "How you been?"

The answers were various words and noises the equated with, "Good."

I saw a guy I recognized go by on a bike. On the court he is a fiercely quick, whippet thin kid the color of Turkish Coffee, who I have privately nicknamed the Assassin, in part because he is so lethal on offense, and in part because most of the time he wears the expression of someone who is prepared to kill you. Most basketball players exist in a state of mild irritation, like magicians who can not get a certain trick to go just right. Street ball elevates this irritation to a style, and a lot of people on the court sport a homeboy version of the Travis Bickle line, "You talkin' to me?" as thou
gh they just waiting for someone to piss them off.

"You been playin ball this winter?" someone asked the guy as he rode by on his bike.

"Yeah, in a half-assed way," he replied.

The reply was so conversational, almost affable, that I had a hard time equating it with the vicious, nasty, elevate in your face style he had on the court, where he often wore a white doo-rag that made him look like a member of the hip hop division of the foreign legionnaires (hence, The Assassin). But just then, on his bike, he seemed like a sweet guy, just a few years past teenagerdom.

But that's part of street basketball. You arrive on the court in costume, or rather stripped of the signifying costume that tells people who are. Maybe this guy hadn't gotten into character yet, I thought.

Glancing around the playground just then, I knew a lot of the guys there. I know how they celebrate when they make a big shot. I know how they run when they are tired. I know what part of the court they like to shoot from. I know if they are good in the clutch or if they choke. I know how they smile when they mean it, and how they smile when they are faking it -- that defensive smile you see players make sometimes when something bad has happened and they are smiling to show they don't give a f--- -- and how they look when they are trying desperately not to smile because they just made a great move but don't want to make it look like a big deal when, after all, they could do it again in their sleep. I know what their bodies are like, what their strength is, what it takes to stop them, and what they'll do to stop me.

What I don't know are their names, other than a nickname or a first name: Em, Al, Danny, Los. I don't know how old they are or how they make a living. There is actually something nice about this kind of relationship. Everything is stripped down to bare essentials. All you bring is yourself and your game.


I came to appreciate the strangeness of this dynamic a long time ago, in the events surrounding a guy named Rich. He was a longtime regular at the basketball court I grew up playing on, up in Riverside Park and 77th Street.

Rich used to arrive at the court in a shroud of silence, carrying a big shoulder bag. He was very fat. Upon arriving he would stake out a considerable amount of asphalt (a shade of grey which is as distinctively New York in its on right as the shape of the Octagons that make up the border of central Park or the shade of a yellow taxi) and proceed to elaborately change into a pair of immaculately clean white tube socks. Then came his game sneakers.

Once he got changed though, Rich was unsilenceable. He always called his own next, so he could pick his team. He did this as judiciously as any NBA general manager. The thing about these street games is that if you win, you play again. If you lose, you watch. Considering the time and effort of getting to the playground in the first place, and that basketball itch that got them you, there was a lot at stake in winning. Rich wanted to win. Therefore he always refused to put me on his team.

Rich was a trash talker. He wore a plastic mouth guard, like a football player, but spent half the game with it in his hand or sticking half way out of his mouth as he did his running commentary. The commentary was usually about the ineffectiveness of the man guarding him. He had quick feet and an exasperatingly soft touch. He would use his bulk to bounce you out of the way and get room for his shot. After it went in, he would remove his mouthpiece and tell you how useless you were.

It takes no effort for me to recall how Rich's body felt when I banged into him in a game. The sound of his voice, the way he ran, the speed with which shifted from being caustic to being -- if the word can be applied to basketball -- sweet: all that comes to mind easily. He's a perfect example of how, on the basketball court, you can know someone intimately and not know him at all.

Then one day I went to the court and Rich wasn't there. I didn't even notice his absence until I heard some other guys talking about him.

"When they showed his picture on the late news I didn't recognize him because he looked so much thinner," one of them said. "But then I switched I switched to channel 11 and saw their picture and said, 'Oh, s---, it's Rich.'"

It took me a few second to realize I had seen Rich that day, too. I'd stopped in front of a newsstand to stare at the picture of a dead body, lying face down in a pool of blood. It was on the cover of both the Daily News and the New York Post. In spite of the smudgy, black and white picture, there had been something disturbingly intimate about the picture. Now I knew why.

That evening I got a copy of the News and read the whole story. Rich, it turns out, was a token booth clerk at the 145th Street Station. He earned thirty thousand dollars a year. He worked a shift from 6 A.M. to 2 P.M. This seemed particularly relevant, since it meant that for all those years I had seen him shortly after he had got off work. Rich was single. He was an only child. The paper also ran a picture of his mother. There was no doubt from her expression that the paper had been taken after she learned of his death. It was as if her face had recently aged a great deal.

I considered sending Rich's mother a note. But I didn't know what to say to her about her son. That his jump shot was solid from fifteen feet? That he had a soft touch and good hands?

I didn't write her, and my description of Rich here is the closest I've ever come to sending the note.

Meanwhile, nothing changed at the court. The culture of street ball in New York is like the city's population: some people are fixtures as permanent as a tree. Other people show up out of the blue and then, after a week or a month or a couple of years, disappear without explanation, and for reasons that are usually less tragic than those that explain the disappearance of Rich.


(After this piece was first published, I got a note from Carmelo (Tato) Rodriguez saying that he had played with Rich in the Bronx when Rich was a teenager. "Today the corner of Bolton and Lafayette Avenues is names Richard A. Daley Square in honor of his memory. His mother hangs out with the guys in the schoolyard every Saturday, sitting in a beach chair, smoking a cigarette. In June, there is a barbecue in Rich's honor.")


3.

During the day the park can feel a little lost; the benches are populated by figures whose stillness suggests a larger inertia. Many have brown bags in their hands. They take the retards there around noon. Once, when I went out early just to shoot around I found myself in their midst. My apologies for the use of the word "retards," but that was what I thought when the whole pack descended on the court with their ungainly, merry, wide open faces: "Oh no, it's the retards."

Some of them went to the swings, and some shot a basketball at the other half of the full court from where I was. Then one of them came over and we shot around together. It was nice. But he kept dribbling off to center court and not abiding by the unspoken -- and universal -- rule of a shoot around, namely that when you make a shot you get the ball back. This set of rules, when abided by, can be the cause of absolute, boundless happiness -- but I couldn't get this point across to the retard who kept running out to the center of the court with the ball while some of his friends watched, excited. After about the third time I stopped saying, "Hey! I made the shot," and just waited from him to come back.

The lost feeling disappears in the afternoons when the place fills up with people. On top of the softball players, and the basketball players, and the guy with the wild grey haired afro who roller blades around with a hockey stick, guiding a little plastic puck that shushes against the ground in a constant scrape, and the little kids playing catch, and the dog walkers (there are two completely ignored signs at
this park: one announces its name, "John Seravalli Park;" the other says, "No Dogs allowed"), there is the steady stream of pedestrian traffic walking from one entrance at the corner of Horatio street and 9th avenue to the other, which lets out onto thirteenth street. A strange one-storey green building housing the Boss modeling agency, of all thing, sits across from the thirteenth street entrance. All sorts of people walk through the park, many of them at the end of a day's work.

Then there was my friend who for a while I saw every evening at 6:30 on his way to the play he was acting in." He would have this moist, freshly showered, spaced out expression as he prepared himself for the night's work; I would be in the midst of a sweaty basketball drama of my own. We would nod hello across the distance.

4.

My game got underway.

I had on my team Monsieur M, a skinny man who had arrived not long ago from Haiti and speaks hip-hop with a French accent. He can jump to the moon, but he has not yet learned not to smile. He doesn't use his smile as a weapon of contempt. When he gets happy, he smiles broadly.

Then there was the Laughing Man. Only a month or so earlier, during a spate of warm weather in March, he suffered a dislocated thumb.

"I broke my thumb! I broke my thumb!" he called out and, in a continuation of the play, he ran right out of the playground in the direction of St. Vincent's hospital. After he was gone, I saw that blood had splattered on the grey asphalt, a spray of red drops slowly turning to brown. That was an unusual injury, but it highlights the fact that people get hurt out here.

The Laughing Man's thumb did not fracture, it turned out, in spite of all the blood. A month later he was back, with white tape around his injured finger, in his irrepressibly good mood.

The Laughing Man has one of those iron-hard upper bodies (he usually plays without a shirt), and he can jump quickly; he's like a socially well-adjusted Dennis Rodman, with a touch of Karl Malone. The Laughing Man is also a father. A little girl who was standing near him one day as he changed into his sneakers and socks announced loudly, "Daddy, those socks stinky!"

Between Mr. Monsieur and The Laughing Man, it might seem like everyone down at the court is exceptionally friendly and in a good mood, but that is not the case.

Our third member is a young man named D. He has the baggiest shorts on the court and, when he can bring himself to shoot it, a nice jump shot. In between games, you get a glimpse of the fantasy highlight reel that D is always staring in as he practices dunks. In game situations, however, with people barking at him, people watching, with the pressure on, D tends to, shall we say, withdraw. The situation reminds me of a Gatorade commercial whose tag is, "It's what you have in you." But that is not true, or only partially true. It's how much of what is in you that you can get out of you. That's true of both sports and writing.

D. has some real problems getting what is in him out of him. The painful disparity between the basketball opera in his head and the game on the court makes him sullen. He's probably the only guy about whom one could say, "He doesn't shoot enough."

The fourth member of my team is me: At six foot five and a half inches, a high school and division III college career behind me (Vassar!), I am, in my own way, a basketball poster boy. In every basketball poster there are two essential components: the first is someone flying high through the air in the middle of some amazing, gravity defying move, usually a dunk. The second is the person, often partially obscured, being dunked on. I fulfill the latter role.


We won our first game. Monsieur M was the star of the show, skying for rebounds and hitting his jump shot. The team we beat was comprised of guys about whom I could give thumbnail sketches, quick scouting reports, some essential details about personality, and whose name I hardly knew.

The next team was a tough athletic squad comprised of long time locals, among them The Litigator. His real name was Dennis but he was "The Litigator," to me because he is always manipulating the score, arguing calls, pressing for any advantage. Once, when I referred to him as The Litigator out loud, some guy next to me on the sidelines said, "What are you talking about? He works in a bodega."

My team had no litigator! None of us could really argue, least of all me. On the basketball court, I am mute, or what words I actually do say hardly count as language; a transcript, it occurs to me, would sound vaguely pornographic: "Yes, yes! That's right! Give it to me! Here! Come on!" For one thing, I refuse to say the word "Nigga." This is an essential linguistic enzyme in construction of street ball litigation. Other words rarely heard from me are "Dog," and "Son." It's always the white guys who use these words who end up wanting to fight me.


We played hard in our second game. Monsieur M! I loved him. His jump shot looked like a shot put, he would take two massive dribbles and lift off with both feet, and throw it in the direction of the rim, but the shot was falling. He was flowing. The Laughing Man rolled to the hoop, bruising everyone around him, I had my rebounds and short jumpers, D. was working it, the game eked forward, a violent game of chess. Then Monsieur M unleashed a series of his funny jump shots, and we won. I wandered off, exultant. And then, for the first time since last fall, I saw Lana.


5.

Over the course of the autumn and winter, the outlook for the court's future had gone from bleak to cautiously sunny.

A meeting was held by the community board 2 to discuss to the fate of the court. The day of the community board meeting was a spectacular Indian summer day, and the court was mobbed. Each of the three half court baskets had two teams of four waiting to play, the full court was packed, and no one was paying any attention to the fliers about the meeting that had been taped here and there around the park.

But as 6 o'clock approached there was a giant mood swing. Some of the regulars said they were going, and at the last moment a large contingent of sweaty guys in shorts headed for a cramped room in an N.Y.U. building, where the meeting took place.

"It was immediately apparent that this was an incredible turnout for a Community Board Two Parks and Recreation Committee hearing, possibly the best attended hearing the Committee had ever seen," a friend e-mailed afterward. The plan to privatize the court and resurface it was abandoned in the face of community opposition.


We said hello, and I told Lana I was writing about the court, and that I refer to her in my piece as The Crazy Lady.

"But in a good way."

She raised a considered eyebrow.

"You have to be careful with that," she said, "There really are a lot of crazy people in this city. We have the lady who feeds the pigeons, for example."

The subtext of Lana's remark seemed profound: How easy it is to write off someone who is fighting for some ideal as a crazy person -- a crank or eccentric who was simply acting out their own issues.

But Lana hadn't been acting out anything other than the ongoing grind of saving your turf.

"It's great that we seem to have won," I said.

"There are a lot of people who use this park," she said. "This park is important to a lot of people. They need this place."

As Lana and I chatted, I noticed the new hotel that was rapidly rising on a former parking lot across the street from the court. Some of the rooms will have a view of the meatpacking district, others of the West Village and still others of Chelsea. Some guests will look out and see, right across the street, a big stretch of not very pretty asphalt on which people are jumping around in baggy shorts, playing basketball. If they see that, they'll know they're in New York.


It was a rosy dusk. The co
urt cleared. I practiced some dunks. I bounced the ball in a trance, vowing to get skinny, to be strong, to move around the city and play at other courts, so that the whole fluctuating but familiar family of basketball junkies who go to Horatio Street don't get too familiar. I promised myself not to disappear too far down the rabbit hole of street basketball, walked in circles bouncing the ball and took foul shots in the soft and almost gauzy darkening heat. I was wretched, sticky, dirty, thirsty, thrilled. Finally, I went home.

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