Playground basketball's lost dream

We all know about AAU teams and dubious "coaches," and the specialization of skills that comes when there is possible wealth and power at the end of the jump-shot rainbow. That saps the playground scene. That can't be stopped, either. Innocence and fun are always driven out by professionalism and grinding work. And cheating. Blame the NCAA and its ridiculous amateurism rules for creating the rat hole through which so many of the mercenary basketball hangers-on slither, the ones who steer young players anywhere but into the freedom of pickup ball.

Michael Jordan had a "love of the game" clause in his Bulls contract that allowed him to play ball anywhere, anytime he wanted. He didn't hang out at playgrounds, but he played in a lot of high-level pickup games just for the conditioning and competitive edge. Now, no agent or coach is going to sanction a star player's mixing it up with the rabble. What about those ankles? What about the one-and-done pot of gold? No sir, not taking that risk.

This is not to say hoops has left the playground forever, completely. There are still games in the summer sun. Lots of them. The NBA guys and street legends might not be there, but the kids still are. When they can be. When they feel safe.

That might be the biggest thing that has changed with playgrounds -- the sense that the best of them had a "village" feel, with order and mentors and the knowledge that this was a good place to be, where all ages were welcome, the game will be played hard and for real, even if, yes, you can get your ass kicked by overstepping your bounds. Those ass kickings were mostly deserved (say, you dissed somebody's mother or stole a guy's bike), and they served as boundaries, comforting justice where there were no referees.

At Foster Park, adjacent to big-city tenements and the like, the boys felt good hanging out. They could leave dysfunctional apartments and come to play or watch or learn. They compared it to those fancy places they'd heard about in the suburbs: country clubs. There would not be anarchy, even if there were occasional fights and purse snatchings and dumb vandalism. There were things to aspire to during long, hot city days, even if it was just imitating the 6-foot-6, 14-year-old King's baby hook or Austin Peay star Fly's whirlybird.

This is not nostalgia. That wistfulness is for losers, for the ones who say -- as they always do -- You should have seen it back in the day. Right. The world evolves. You want it to stop? Where? At the telegraph? Penicillin? Sports talk radio?

Looking back at my photos of city hoops, I am stunned mainly by how skinny everybody was. Weightlifting and proper nutrition were jokes for old ballers. Nehi pop and a bag of chips could take care of a fellow for a day.

In the late 1990s, I spent time with young, mysterious playground legend Booger Smith and Long Island University super-scorer Charles Jones during a scorching New York City week. Tiny ball-wizard Booger appeared at Tillary Park in Brooklyn, dazzled the crowd with his moves and passes, then vanished into the streets as silently as he appeared. Jones, who played for the Bulls for a while after college, sat with me on another day on a lower Manhattan bench, in the midst of a marathon playground playing schedule that had him scuttling about on subway lines, barely stopping to notice the disappearing soles on his overheated shoes.

He told me about drinking quarts of water, pop and Gatorade "and never once having to piss." He talked about losing himself in the game. About crawling into bed after showering at night, spent.

He talked about the playground as if it was a kind of miracle he was blessed to receive.

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