The street game is totally
in nature, and volatile.
JAMES ES TRIN/ THE NE W YORK TIMES/REDUX
perpetually rush onto the court to lift you
onto their shoulders.
Spring brought a new development: other
players. Early one afternoon, three guys
showed up, joking around and casually
shooting the ball in what seemed like the
street-ball version of spring training. They
were, to my 12-year-old eyes, formidably
grown-up. All of them were black. One of
them wore a sweatshirt with the homemade
logo FUNK MOB, which at the time I thought
was a kind of benign gang logo…maybe a
gang I could belong to. As it happens, they
were the trio of players who dominated
the action on that court in New York City’s
Riverside Park in the late 1970s. People
called them by their real names—Frank,
Joe, and Otto (the guy with the Funk Mob
shirt)—out of respect. Most of the other
denizens of that scene had nicknames I still
remember 25 years later: Puppet, Tweetie,
Red. I hovered at the edge of this world for
a long time, frightened. I must have gone
to that court for two years before I had the
courage to get into a game.
As I grew up, basketball began to occupy
an essential part of my own cosmology.
To me, the winter game was cold in every
sense, including the chilly gymnasiums
where coaches drilled you in repetitive
moves, trying to squeeze as much of the
unpredictability of the game out of it as
possible. Street games were the opposite:
The sun was out, the days were hot, and
everything flowed. It was total chaos and
improvisation, all sorts of bullshit that would
get you benched immediately if you tried it
in the cold season.
In the winter, you are part of a team. In
the summer, you become a member of an
impromptu congregation in the church of
hoops. To play on a high school or college
team is, after all, to join a preexisting
context with its own structures, traditions,
and funding. The street game comprises
a community that is entirely improvised.
Citizenship demands some skill, energy,
and talent. In the summer, the city’s baked
asphalt courts give off a kind of energy.
You become inured to the heat and the
grit, and it gives you a kind of hard, flexible
strength. You’d better stay loose; you’re
up against kids and geezers, pot smokers,
drinkers, fitness freaks, guys who like
to spit a lot, and lunatic ballers, many
of whom look totally undistinguished as
athletes until they start tossing the ball
up and it goes into the hoop again and
again and again, and you realize that this is
it, their true talent, the magic trick they will
never get sick of performing.
The democracy of playground basketball
is one of the great things about the sport.
You go down to the local court, see who is
there, and get picked up for a game or call
“next” if no one will have you. Or maybe you