During the winters of my youth, on the frozen blacktop of my driveway, I played and replayed the last seconds of NBA championship games. My hometown Knicks versus the hated Lakers. Game Seven. Down one point. Beneath the glare of a single garage light, I would eye the basket over my shoulder like a miniature Walt "Clyde" Frazier, holding the defender at bay until the last moment before arcing a jump shot over his imaginary outstretched fingertips. If the shot went in, we won, and I ran around the perimeter of the pavement jubilant. If it missed, I got fouled, and could still salvage my heroics from the charity stripe.
It never occurred to me then what real pressure was, or what it took to play at that level. I didn't have thousands of leather-lung fans cascading cheers and jeers. I didn't even have a real defender. It was just me, a tall, gawky kid with fingertips split raw from the cold, firing away from the top of the key.
Thirty years later, I got the call to play ball at West Fourth Street, New York City's fabled blacktop court. West Fourth is known far and wide as a hoops mecca. It's a reputation built on the shoulders of larger-than-life players, those who made it to the NBA, such as Kareem Abdul Jabbar (Lew Alcindor in his pre-UCLA days) and Lloyd Daniels, and those who didn't despite eye-popping talent, such as Earl "The Goat" Manigault. It didn't matter that I left that driveway in New Jersey - a stone's throw from the George Washington Bridge - long before Michael Jordan became a household name. It didn't matter that my family and I moved to New England, where hockey is king. I continued to play basketball simply because I love the game, not because I'm particularly gifted at it. Now, after countless pick-up, recreation and over-35 league games, I was going to play against big-league talent.
I arrive in Upper Manhattan late one Friday night in May with my brother-in-law Rob in tow. We're staying at a friend of Rob's, Greg, who lives in a fourth floor walk-through above a sushi bar on East 70th. Rob is my ringer, the single-season scoring record holder for a New England university. A 6-foot-5 shooting guard who was just a step too slow to play in the top echelons of NCAA ball, Rob has the build, the walk and, perhaps most important, the talk of a real player.
Unfortunately, Rob also has a different agenda for the weekend. Our plan is to sample New York's nightlife on Saturday, after the games at West Fourth, but Rob is intent to get a jump-start on the festivities. Just before midnight Friday, I'm ready to call it a night. Rob, however, succumbs to the temptations of the Big Apple and disappears with Greg, promising that he'll be ready to go in the morning.
I sleep as soundly as a child on Christmas Eve. Every hour or so I wake up, check the clock, realize there's plenty of time before sunrise and return to a fitful sleep. My adrenaline is already pumping. Just before 6 a.m., Rob stumbles in, slumps onto the living room couch and starts snoring. I make one feeble effort to stir him, but he's hopeless. So much for my right-hand man. I grab my basketball and head off to West Fourth alone, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound bundle of nerves.
East 70th Street and Second Avenue on an early, sunny morning is a treat. Cyclists and in-line skaters share the wide thoroughfares with the occasional taxi and car. I grab the first cab that comes by.
"You see Cone last night?" asks the gray-haired driver, referring to New York Yankees pitcher David Cone. "Man, was he something else? Only gave up two runs. Against the Red Sox! Man, if he gets going, fuggetaboutit. Know what I'm saying? We're talking dynasty here. Pettitte, Jeter, Wells. How about that Wells? No hitter the other night, perfect game. Something else. You a Yankees fan?"
The 15-minute ride reminds me of the enormity of this city. I hop out at West Fourth Street and Sixth Avenue, a block from Washington Square. The pungent smell of sun-baked trash on concrete hits me like a whiff of smelling salts. The wailing of a few neighborhood eccentrics, shouting at passersby or the heavens, is all but impossible to ignore. Two police officers stand by the subway entrance alongside the court. Neither blink. Welcome to Lower Manhattan.
I sit down by the 12-foot-high chain link fence that surrounds the court, and take in the "It's a Small World After All" parade of people walking by. Jittery after two large cups of coffee, I look for a bite to eat. Across the street, a Taco Bell is sandwiched between "Hope Floats" at the old Waverly Theater and Crazy Fantasy XXX Video, 25 cents. I opt for the McDonald's alongside the court, shelling out two bucks for a Sausage McMuffin and the privilege of using the bathroom (customers only).
The padlock at the court doesn't come off until 8 a.m. I'm 15 minutes early - by design. In the months before my visit, I couldn't reach anyone connected to the court. In desperation, I called Chris Ballard, author of Hoops Nation, an entertaining compendium of the country's best pickup basketball courts, for some advice. I wanted to make sure I could get into a few games.
"I'm assuming you're white," Ballard asked without hesitation.
"Um, yeah, no way around that," I replied.
"Then get there early," he said. "And look like you can play, even if you can't. Bring a league jersey, anything that says you've played before. Just don't show up with an NBA jersey - that's a sure sign of a poser."
After the padlock comes off, I walk onto the hallowed surface and can't help but notice how small and narrow the court is. And lopsided. And full of cracks. "It's not the playground, it's the players," one local, Ice, tells me later when I ask what makes West Fourth so special. The brand new white nets look distinctly out of place. I didn't expect any nets at all, chains at best.
Players start trickling in over the next hour. By 1 p.m., I'm told, it will be next to impossible to squeeze into a game. Even watching will be difficult, with midday crowds often running two and three deep along the outside fence.
This is urban Darwinism boiled down to its core. Shortly after noontime, the youngsters and elder statesmen are weeded out. Only the fittest survive - not necessarily the most skilled, but the toughest. The game is physical from half-court in, and brutal underneath the basket. Glares hit as hard as forearm shivers.
The names of the combatants - Hard Rock, Speed, Butter, Ice, Big Man, Crackhead - provide glimpses into their games or their lifestyles. Most everyone displays markings: scars, tattoos or a combination of both. Standard gear includes baggy shorts, hanging halfway down the players' backsides, and very, very expensive footwear. Talking trash is an art form. The language - colorful, loud and profane - would make a truck driver blush.
But for the crowd at West Fourth - hardened New Yorkers and savvy tourists - it is all part of the show.
"You can't guard me, motherf--ker!"
"Good ass D!"
"All day long, motherf--ker, all day long!"
"If you make the basket, you don't got to worry about no rebound."
Basketball at West Fourth is stunning theater. Whether watching or playing, the arena is not for the timid. There are no refs.
"I always said I'd like to see NBA players play with schoolyard rules," says onlooker Greg Miele of Brooklyn. "That would be interesting."
In my marquis match-up, I'm running against Lionel ("Like the train, man."), a square-shouldered, solid 6-foot-2 Kevin Garnett look-alike with a quick smile. Despite the late-morning heat, Lionel is sporting a black sweatshirt, jeans and a bandanna.
"You must be dying in this," I tell him, pulling on his sleeve.
"It's all in the mind, bro," he replies.
On my first touch, Lionel D's up hard - no hands, no pushing, just chest to shoulder, knees to thighs. I can barely see past his long arms. On one misguided foray to the basket, Lionel slams the ball back at me so hard I'm sure the NBA logo gets tattooed on my forehead.
"Don't give him that sh--!," yells one of my teammates who obviously thinks Lionel got more body than ball. "Call the foul."
I shrug it off, realizing I'm in for a long, long morning.
In a game to 16, our squad falls quickly behind, then digs in on defense. Slowly, we claw and scratch our way back. There's nothing working for me inside - I can't match Lionel's quickness. Even when I throw him with a good head or shoulder fake, he recovers before I can take advantage, blocking what had been a clear but fleeting path to the basket. Fortunately, the late morning air is still, and I stick a couple of jumpers from the perimeter.
At West Fourth, I learn quickly, the jump shot is regarded with suspicion. The first option is always to take it to the hole, strong. Sure, it's macho, but there's another good reason to play in the paint: The wind that swirls around the city's skyscrapers often makes a jump shot a leap of faith. Still, players who can hit the shot with any consistency earn a grudging respect. And I get Lionel's attention.
He pulls his sweater off, and I mention, with a laugh, that he's getting serious.
"You don't have to worry until the scarf comes off," he says with only a trace of a grin, pointing to his bandanna.
We continue to bang as the game wears on. My legs are losing any snap they had earlier in the morning, and my shots start coming up short. My prep work started months before, with plans for the weight room, a strict running regimen and two to three lunchtime games at the local YMCA. But reality nudged in. I'm a homeowner, a husband and a dad, with a full-time job and full-time responsibilities. Somehow the weeks slipped by and, despite my best intentions, my game didn't round into form. Now I'm paying the price.
Lionel is getting the better of me on the offensive end, but my teammates are keeping us in the game. I do my best to help out on the boards, cover on defense, set picks and screens.
During one profanity-laced tirade over a foul ("He made the call!" "I don't f--king care, that was no foul!"), I wander off to the fence to catch my breath. Doubled-over, I ask a local just how out of place I look. "You play a fundamentally sound game," he says in slow but approving tones. I take it as a supreme compliment that he even noticed "my game."
After his team hits double figures, Lionel starts passing up one open shot after another.
"Keep it, keep it," he tells teammates. "I just want the last one."
Suddenly, the game is tied at 15. Next point wins. Hero time, just like the fantasy games played out on my driveway. The ball swings around to me and I give Lionel a quick up fake. He bites and I put the ball to the asphalt. I'm taking this one straight to the hole. I don't feel the quarter-sized blisters, the charley horse, the mashed big toe on my right foot. I get the half step I need and see daylight. But on the third hard dribble, the ball finds one of West Fourth's unforgiving crevices, and caroms off into the chain link fence. Turnover.
Lionel peels of his bandanna. Now he's serious. On the next possession, he slides to the top of the key, takes a crisp pass off his hip and before I can get close, launches a jumper. Nothing but net.
I turn to Lionel as the ball rips the cords and offer my hand. He shakes it, smiling wide. No last-second heroics this time. No reprieve. Nothing to do but suck it up, sit down and wait for next.