Playground basketball's lost dream


"Earth is a task garden," British essayist G.K. Chesterton once wrote. "Heaven is a playground."

And why shouldn't it be? "Play" is the operative syllable here. And if playgrounds aren't places where we can celebrate our freedom to disappear into games of shared joy, into that transcendent and necessary realm of human physical expression, then what good are they at all?

No game was better designed for the playground than basketball. Play alone, play with a pal, play two-on-two, three-on-three, five-on-five -- I once watched a game of 21 in Key West played by two dozen men and boys -- the sport is simpler than anything but soccer or running with the wind. A ball, a hoop, asphalt. And what is asphalt but the grass of the modern city?

So it hurts to see playgrounds turning into something they were never meant to be -- empty areas or, much worse, danger zones. There are many reasons for the demise of high-level hoops in our schoolyards and parks, but we can start with one thing that cannot be stopped or controlled: technology. When I was writing my book on New York City street ball back in the early 1970s, if you wanted to make a phone call, you had to find a pay phone somewhere, one that wasn't jammed with slugs or gum and hadn't had its metal-wrapped receiver cable sliced. Then you had to hope you had dimes, nickels and quarters in your pocket. Then you hoped you could remember whatever number it was you planned to call, then dial -- yes, dial -- properly and hope you didn't have to start all over because some clown in the wrong state answered your mistake.

The nearest pay phone to Foster Park, my "home base" in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn that summer -- the park where Albert King and Fly Williams and street agent/ticket scalper Rodney Parker hung out -- was up the sidewalk to the supermarket on busy Nostrand Avenue. To make a call, you had to disappear from personal contact with breathing, three-dimensional people for a good five minutes and focus on a voice from far away.

You did not do that frivolously. It was a removal you did not enjoy. The face-to-face, observant, interactive contact you got at the park, with players and stories swirling all about, was the nexus of useful communication and knowledge. You had to be there. And being there meant you lived there, in the moment, absorbed by the game. Such was the glory of playground hoops.

Now? It's nobody's fault that everyone is hooked monumentally not to the sky over the park -- Is lightning coming? Rain? -- but the cloud. Lose a game and what does the modern player do but disappear into his handheld. In the end, why bother being at the park at all?

Then there is violence. In Chicago, there are black-on-yellow signs at many playgrounds stating: "WARNING -- You Have Entered a SAFE PARK ZONE: Criminal Penalties Are Severely Increased for Gang Recruitment Activities and Possession, Use or Sale of Drugs and Weapons."

I doubt the gunmen who shot 13 people, including a 3-year-old boy, on the basketball court at Cornell Square Park this past September, read the sign, or hesitated if they did. Thus, if you can play indoors, drive-bys and attacks are tougher, although not impossible (a number of Chicago residents have been killed by bullets that went through doors or walls), and you have a better chance of growing up.

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