When I was in college I wasn't a particularly big basketball fan. Basketball had been my favorite sport as a child but when I got into college I spent more time focusing on football, or in all honesty, on things other than sports. I remember attending a Spurs-Mavs game during the latter half of the 2005 season, and then watching part of the Finals that year, but the next regular season remained pretty absent from my consciousness.
Somewhat unexpectedly, I became very invested in the Spurs-Mavs series in the 2006 playoffs, and continued to follow the post-season closely until I witnessed Dallas collapse against Miami in the Finals (I was actually rooting for Dallas, despite the gut-wrenching manner in which they knocked off the Spurs. I despise the Miami Heat). Sometime early during the next season I discovered Free Darko and the Basketball Jones, and suddenly I was back.
That spring, I took a class entitled "City in Fragments," in which we used the thought of Walter Benjamin and Rem Koolhaas as a jumping off point to discuss issues of urbanism, modernity, and other terms students at small liberal arts colleges in the Northeast throw around with reckless abandon. We had to do a final project for the class, and my close friend Erik Beranek and I decided to make a documentary about playground basketball in New York City, using the phenomenon as a jumping off point to further probe the questions the class was primarily concerned with.
I haven't been able to find a copy of the documentary itself or else I would just present it in all of its amateur glory, but I did happen to stumble across the narration I wrote. What I am about to present is literally the first thing I ever wrote about basketball. In it I can see the origins of much of my current thought, however bumbling and raw they may be. But I've got to say, if at the time I didn't find such fulfillment exploring the topic, this website probably never would have existed. So now, I humbly present to you the text that accompanied The West 4th St. Courts.
The West 4th St. courts are the stuff of legend. NBA players such as the Lakers Smush Parker, and the Rockets Rafer Alston (to this day warmly known at West 4th as “Skip to my Lou”) cut their chops in what is famously known as “the cage”. One non-regulation size full court, one half court, and a few handball courts surrounded by a 15 ft. high chain link fence are all that consist of one of the most famous playground courts in New York City (and subsequently the world). On a warm Summer’s day Knicks stars such as Nate Robinson and Stephon Marbury can be found playing in the never-ending five on five games that start early and end late at what is referred to by one of the court’s regulars as a “Mecca” of basketball.
On Saturday, April 28th, and Sunday April 29th, we went to this storied place in order to discover for ourselves what was so magnetic about basketball as it exists in its most casual form.
Playground basketball is not a new phenomenon. As condescendingly well-intentioned city bureaucrats such as Robert Moses began building parks and playgrounds throughout the city in the 1940’s and 50’s, the charismatic play of poor urban (and most often black) youths began to garner increasing amounts of public attention. Legendary streetballers such as Connie “the Hawk” Hawkins, Earl “the Pearl” Monroe, Cody “Code Red” Adams, and Earl “the Goat” Manigault (who famously could dunk the same ball twice in a single leap) began to make a name for themselves beyond Rucker Park, Foster Park, and West 4th, solidifying in the mind of the general public a vision of the high-flying, flamboyant style with which they played. As people increasingly saw in the freedom with which these men played a sense of authenticity, organizations such as Nike and the NBA began co-opting imagery from the street-courts. Today, images of players like Lebron James, Michael Jordan, and Shaquille O’Neal duking it out on the black-tops of New York City are common advertising content. Recently, this imagery has begun to seep its way into video game culture as well, as one of the most successful recent basketball video games is EA Sports “NBA Street Series.” The streetball of New York City has, over the last 40 years, become increasingly conflated with a vision of the rough but authentic edge of late Twentieth Century New York life.
Before arriving at West 4th st. we had strong preconceptions about what the culture of the court would be like. An urban landscape as intense as Manhattan creates an equally intense atmosphere. The selfishness, competitiveness, inapproachability, and exclusivity of much of Manhattan culture is widely reported to exist on the playgrounds of New York as well as in its most posh clubs. The streetballers in our minds were, and in the minds of much of the general public remain, men of arrogance and intensity, willing to challenge a famous pro-star to a game of one on one and more than ready to boast about their conquest afterwards. The game, according to our preconception, served as a vehicle for self-identification and the flexing of one’s ego. The court was not a place to “play”, it was a venue in which to dominate, and hopefully one day “get discovered.” In fact we were so convinced of the inapproachability of these men that we originally planned on going to less famous spots to do our documentation. But the opportunity to witness the thunderous physicality and seemingly effortless finesse of New York’s finest streetballers was too attractive an option. We expected to go and witness the game played in a way that we never had before. That expectation alone remains true.
We arrived at the court to find a casual game of basketball being played. Unlike the rigid position-based play of the NBA, the men of various size and speed moved around the court as they wished, the larger of them feeling free to shoot from beyond the arc, the smaller crashing the boards as intensely as any front-court giant. They laughed smiled, and took chronic breaks to chase and play with the children who anxiously stood along the edge of the court. They even allowed the children to participate in a full-court game before it became more competitive later in the afternoon.
Yearning to get in on a game, I jokingly asked who had next, and several of the players quickly and casually responded “you”. Surprised, I gathered together a group of guys and took the court. The game was casual and loose. In my youth, I was taught a midwestern style of basketball. Make good, safe passes. Take clean open shots. Hustle back on “D”. These men had been schooled in a very different type of play. They drove when they felt like it, shot when they felt like it, even softened up on defense in the hope that their opponent would perform some miraculous stunt. And even though they all seemed to have a more individual rather than team oriented style, the air was not that of selfishness, but rather of graciousness. It was as if there was an unwritten rule that the point was to have fun, so if you wanna take it to hole, take it, just let me have my fun next time down.
My team lost by one, and the ten of us stood around briefly exchanging pounds and kind words. I derided my own play (clearly inferior to theirs) but instead of taking the opportunity to assert their own superiority they merely laughed and told me I wasn’t giving myself enough credit. Their hospitality was warm and reassuring, and I took the opportunity to ask about the supposed NBA stars that frequent the court. “Yeah, I’ve played with Smush a few times, Mel was here when Marbury came by once and we’ve all played with “Skip to My Lou.” “Skip to My Lou?” I asked. “Rafer Alston”, they responded. I asked what the environment was like when those guys came by. Mel, a thick forward whose style of play was physical yet comical, spoke up. “The crowd gets more into it than we do. When they step on this court, they’re just another player. They play good ball, but so do we, so what’s the big deal. They’re all nice guys though.” Despite the air of openness and unpretentious inclusion, I decided to gracefully sit out the rest of the time rather than barely hang on amongst men who, despite their humility, were skilled enough to play with members of the NBA.
As we watched we noticed that they didn’t take into consideration the sidelines, using the fence instead as an “out-of-bounds” marker. Similarly, they played with no referee, and called their own fouls. Any disputes about a call were briefly debated, and quickly declared by all to be inconsequential. They needed no rigidity, nobody to dictate to them the rules, because as far as they were concerned if a rule kept you from expressing yourself during the game, it was antithetical to the point of their community. They wished for one another to move how, when and where they wanted, because they recognized that their boundless sense of physicality is what makes what they do beautiful.
In Between games we sat talking with a guy named Vince whom I had played with earlier. He was stoic but friendly, and his style of play was controlled but purposeful, making his backcourt play a good balance to the more casually dynamic style of most of the guards. We asked him about his dreams, with the preconceived notion that we would hear some over inflated tale about “getting discovered”, and one day “playing pro-ball”. His answer was anything but that. “Sure, guys keep that stuff in the back of their mind” he said, “but it’s not about that. You gotta live first. So we work to pay the bills, and play whenever we get the chance. Its about as simple as that.”
His humble characterization aptly captured the ethos of the court. For all of the guys on the court, it wasn’t about being discovered and making it big, or even winning the game at hand. If they lost there would be another game a minute later. If anything the type of gamesmanship seen in the NBA was not tolerated on the court. The only memorable moment of animosity between the players occurred when a defender fouled a man hard as he went for a lay-up during a fast break. In the NBA, what the defender did is not only tolerated, it is encouraged. You ensure that the man doesn’t get the easy basket, and force him to make the free throws. At West 4th, men on both teams erupted into righteous anger, calling the previous play “bullshit” and insisting “that’s not how we play here.” The man apologized, and the endless and free play of the court began again.
As the day went on, players came and went. Some arrived anonymously, had a few laughs, made a few shots, and continued on their way. Some, such as the well-known Obadiah Toppin (whom everyone called “snoop” because of his physical resemblance to the famous rapper), made more of a splash. Within minutes of his arrival he was slamming down ally-oops, nailing open 3’s, and laughing with the gang.
As they played game after game after game, the distinctions between the culture they had created for themselves and the culture of Manhattan that surrounded them became clearer. Rather than embrace the spatial rigidity that dominates the Manhattan grid, they favored a style of free movement that blissfully ignores the lines. Rather than embody the competitive anonymity that pervades Manhattan, they embraced warmth and generosity. Although many said they came from broken homes, they confidently and proudly acted as parental figures to the children who gleefully played along the edge of the court. As the sights and sounds of a congested and violently practical urban environment filled their senses, they existed in a space that is simultaneously amidst and beyond Manhattan’s cold grip – a space that is not defined by an empty capacity to be passed-through, but rather, that is shaped by the event that occurs therein. And this event has a magnetic effect.
As the traffic and hurried passers-by rushed past the court, some stopped to look briefly at what they deemed to be part of their culture. But it is a culture all its own. At the West 4th. St. courts, the forgotten and disregarded members of New York society get together to create for themselves a space for physical expression and brotherhood. And in doing so they create a community not in accordance with the ideology of Manhattan, but in rebellion against it – a community ruled by no one but themselves.