Asphalt Legends: Pickup basketball in New York City
Twenty years after his groundbreaking book on summer hoops, the author returned to New York to check out the state of the city game.
In honor of Sports Illustrated's 60th anniversary, SI.com is republishing, in full, 60 of the magazine's best stories. Today's selection is "Asphalt Legends" by Rick Telander, which ran as the cover story of the Aug. 18, 1997 issue.
Booger the thing.
Won't believe the handle on the dude.
Booger make your butt look foolish.
Yo, man, Booger be real.
It's always somebody. Once it was Herman the Helicopter. For a time it was the Hawk. Then it was the Goat. Then the Destroyer. When I first walked into the bubbling cauldron of New York City summer hoops almost a quarter century ago, gathering material for a book that would be called Heaven Is a Playground, it was the Fly. James (Fly) Williams, street player supreme.
Six-foot-five, bowlegged, skinny as a rope. Missing a lot of teeth. Could do it.
Yo, man, check it out. The Fly is lighting boys up over at the Hole. He's shakin' and bakin' at Foster Park in Flatbush, doing his thing out at Coney Island. I seen him do a whirlybird from the top of the key at the Rucker, man, no lie. Saw him score 60 against the brothers in Bed-Stuy. Got an attitude, know what I'm sayin'? But the man can light it up. Better 'n the Doctor. Yo, man, the Fly be real.
They are legends of the asphalt city game, epic players in a pastime that is itself legendary, an offshoot of the indoor sport that Dr. James Naismith invented in a YMCA gymnasium in Springfield, Mass., in 1891, with the purpose of providing, as he wrote, "recreation and the development of certain attributes that are peculiar to the game." Old Doc Jim listed those attributes in his book on the game: initiative, agility, accuracy, alertness, cooperation, skill, reflex judgment, speed, self-confidence, self-sacrifice, self-control, sportsmanship. He didn't list the ability to work the ball like a yo-yo on a string, to rise and throw down a monster uh-huh jam, to cross over faster than an eye twitch, to apply a Wilson facial to the chump who's thinking maybe he can stop your ass from doing what it pleases out here on the nasty, steaming, melt-your-heart blacktop.
It's a fact that the city game is played when and where it was designed not to be played: outdoors, in the sweltering heat, when the gentler games of summer--baseball, tennis, golf, swimming--should rule. But the only thing that rules year-round in the canyons of the inner city is the rock-solid stuff beneath your feet. No country clubs here. No grassy outfields. No 50-meter, sky-blue swimming pools. No riding stables, white beaches, sandy bunkers, trout streams. Just the basketball courts. And the warriors who flock to them, flashing at times like laser beams, flaming to glorious heights, smoldering with hope, illuminating crazy dreams and then, too often, fading into the dark.
Just now the tiny, fence-enclosed court at West 4th Street in Greenwich Village is rocking. A tournament is under way, one of the dozens of outdoor hoops programs that run all summer long in New York City, from Staten Island to the Bronx, from Far Rockaway in Brooklyn to Harlem in Manhattan. In this game most of the players are grown men, some are quite skilled, and all are sweating furiously in the afternoon heat.
The court is so small that the chain-link fence around it also serves as the out-of-bounds marker. A team called Our Gang is playing another named Hollywood in a swift contest that resembles the whirl of mice darting about in a cage. Every so often a player is rammed into the fence, and the refs reluctantly whistle a foul. But mostly the players just play. No blood, no harm.
"I thought maybe Booger might show up," says Danielle Gardner, a tall, lean woman in denim shorts and a T-shirt, leaning against the steel mesh. She is the director of a feature documentary about street ball called Soul in the Hole, which opened last week in New York City and Los Angeles. The movie, shot over four years, follows a Brooklyn team called Kenny's Kings as it prepares for and competes in the summer tournament at a playground called the Hole in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Booger Smith, all 5'8 3/4" and 148 pounds of him, is Gardner's leading man, her Denzel Washington.
He is also her Tupac Shakur. For Booger, whose real name is Edward Smith but who has been nothing but Booger since a cousin called him that years ago for unknown reasons, is on the cusp of joining the pantheon of playground failures, the demigods who had it all and trashed it. Booger is 21. He's been shot twice; he has no college degree; he has hardly ever laid eyes on his father, and he's had a falling out with his mother; he has a three-year-old daughter; he is on his own. "He's a great guy," says Gardner. "A sweetheart. Everybody likes Booger. I think he's scared now, nervous. He just needs a break."
Also watching the action is Ray Haskins, the basketball coach at Long Island University in Brooklyn. Most of the guys on his team play summer ball, which is O.K. with him. "In the summer you experiment," he says, watching a player dunk so hard that the court fence quivers wildly along three of its four sides. "You play against other great players and see if you can make the things you see out there part of your game. If a new wrinkle
works, you use it. A basketball player's game is always under reconstruction."
Last season LIU went 21-9 and made its first appearance in the NCAA tournament in 13 years, due largely to the arrival of a Brooklyn kid who transferred in after spending two years at Rutgers. His name is Charles Jones. He's a slender and versatile 6'3" guard who is what basketball people refer to as a scorer. Not a shooter. Not a gunner. Not a bomber. Not a slasher. A scorer. Last season he led all Division I players in scoring,
with 30.1 points per game.
Jones is a good friend of Booger's, having played with him for years on Kenny's Kings and other clubs. It is a haunting aspect of Soul in the Hole that in candid pregame huddles, opposing teams talk about stopping Booger but are largely unconcerned about Jones and his mates. And those mates include Jason Hoover, a former all-conference player from Manhattan College; Javone Moore, the alltime assists leader at Canisius; and Seldon Jefferson, the 1996-97 team MVP at West Virginia.
Jones has come to West 4th Street on the subway, the entrance to which is only feet from the court. People are lining the outside of the court now: casual fans, hoops junkies, vagrants, mothers with children, children without mothers, commuters, tourists.
Jones and Haskins shake hands; then the player moves off to chat with Gardner, who has captured on film a big chunk of Jones's basketball obsession. Haskins and referee Roland Rooks, the father of Los Angeles Lakers backup center Sean Rooks, are talking about the best street players they've seen. "I gotta go with Kurt Sumpter," says Rooks. "Back in the early '80s. Six-two. Strong. Don't know if he ever played anywhere [in
"Booger Smith is the most exciting thing I've ever seen," counters Haskins. "You ought to see him. I'd watch him play anywhere. It's all there. He's got a great attitude. Just ain't got no pencil."
Indeed, academic troubles combined with a blase attitude about his future led to Booger's downfall at Arizona Western, a junior college in Yuma, where he played for slightly more than a semester in the 1993-94 season. "He hadn't even graduated from high school when he came to Yuma," recalls former Arizona Western coach Dave Babcock, now a scout for the New Jersey Nets. The story Babcock heard is that Booger got kicked off the basketball team in his junior year for shooting dice, and quit school in his senior year. "He only played after Christmas for me, but even then he made third team all-conference," he says.
"Averaged 21 points and 12 assists a game. I've been a coach for 15 years, and he can do things I've never seen before. Breaks down a defense better than any player I've ever coached. But the big thing for him is the call of the streets. I couldn't get him to commit to going to class, and my conscience wouldn't let me bring him back."
So after one year he cut Booger loose. "I wanted him either to get a job," says Babcock, "or go to special reading classes at Medgar Evers [College in Brooklyn] with a guy I know there, a great teacher. Do either one. Booger did neither."
A year and a half later, in August 1996, Babcock weakened. "Booger convinced me to give him one more chance," he says. "So he came out, and he was in terrible shape. He'd been shot in the thigh that summer. I'd heard it was a random drive-by, but I didn't feel good about it. So I sent him home again." And that was it.
In Soul in the Hole, a 17-year-old Booger has the first lines of the movie: "If I don't make it to the NBA, I'm gonna be a drug dealer. Somehow I've gotta get me a Lexus. Whatever it takes."
Gardner caught the yearning with her camera, and now she is trying to make sure Booger doesn't take the wrong path to satisfy it. She talks with him almost daily, encouraging him to make something of his basketball gifts, to break from the stasis of the 'hood. He seems to appreciate the words, because he calls her more than she calls him. But his life is stalled, and he is staring at the bottom, wavering.
"Booger talked to a psychic the other day," Gardner says. "He said she told him, 'This is your window of opportunity.' Of course it is. Another college. Play in Europe. He's got to do something."
The Ghetto Boyz are in black, and Biv 10 is in white. The two teams are playing at 155th Street and Eighth Avenue in Harlem, at historic Holcombe Rucker Park, in what is now called the Entertainers' Basketball Classic. This is a tough part of the city--walk through the police line first, please, get patted down--but it's where pros and street players used to mix it up in the earliest days of the asphalt competition, where you might have seen Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Julius Erving trading elbows with some guy named the Eraser or Mr. Clean.
This new league is still much like the old Rucker tournament of the 1960s and '70s, except that this one was started by a rapper deejay named Greg Marius in 1980 at a park on 120th Street and Madison Avenue. The rappers, whose music is the electric vapor that floats like a thunderhead over the city game, at first played in the games, but soon they were stacking their teams with ringers rather than singers. "I saw what the guys were doing," says Marius as he hands cordless microphones to Tango and Cash, the deejays for tonight's game, "so I loaded my own team, Disco 4, with guys like Pearl Washington [of Syracuse] and [UNLV's] Richie Adams and [Arkansas's] Kenny Hutchinson, serious players. So you know we won the tournament."
As the hoops talent grew, so did the crowds. Marius brought his thriving league to 155th Street a few years back, and now pros such as Kevin Garnett, Joe Smith and Allen Iverson occasionally stop by to play with the boys of summer. There was a rumor that Booger might show up to play with the Ghetto Boyz tonight, but no luck. It is still so hot at dusk, over 100[degrees], that anyone could be excused for not playing ball. But heat doesn't stop the city game. And the players are out--Ron-Ron, Da Main Event, Superman, Lefty, Half-Man, the Terminator--running fast and strong.
Everybody has a "game" in summer ball, a signature style that defines him the way a haircut or a tattoo or a favorite T-shirt does. The Terminator is a muscular, high-flying forward. But he has an oddly retro style. He lays the ball in on breaks. He does not shoot from outside. He does not dribble between his legs. He does not hotdog. "The Terminator will not dunk!" roars one of the deejays after the forward banks in another layup. "He will not shoot a jumper! And he'll score 50!" To take such a stance, to not do what is possible, is a form of brilliance. And it excites the crowd.
Half-Man jams the ball home. "Half-Man, half amazing!" screams Tango into his mike.
A player races down the lane, right through the defense, to throw in a double-clutcher. "It's the red-carpet treatment!" wails Cash.
The coach of the Ghetto Boyz, a small young man in new Filas, nice shorts, an expensive gold watch and a T-shirt that shows a human-faced mouse smoking a huge joint, seems unfazed by any of the action. He has a studious Rick Pitino-like crouch that he alternates with a concerned Pat Rileyesque arms-crossed stance.
Like most of the summer coaches, this man is not a coach by trade. He goes by the name Mousy--nobody has heard him called anything else. The back of his shirt reads LIFE IS FULL OF IMPORTANT CHOICES, and those choices, listed above drawings of marijuana leaves, are: PURPLE INDICA, VIRGIN ISLAND BUDS, JAMAICAN SINSEMILLA, COLOMBIAN GOLD.
Not so calm is the coach of Biv 10, an intense man named Richard Wheeler. He starts using profanity as his team falls behind. That's a basic no-no in a realm where too many verbal disputes end up being settled by Mr. Glock and Mr. Remington. Marius tells Wheeler to cool down.
"F--- you!" says the coach.
"Man, you got to quit using the word f---," says Marius. "It's the rules."
"I can't fire my team up?" Wheeler bellows. "There's lots of coaches who curse more than me!"
"No, there aren't."
"How much does he make?" Marius snorts.
"I don't care. That's who I am. F--- you!"
It's hard to say where the discourse is headed, but suddenly it is halted in midstream. A peal of thunder and a great flashing strobe of light have split open the sweltering night sky, and rain abruptly pours down in sheets. In less than a minute the court and stands are empty. In five minutes there is hardly a person in the park, except for a half-dozen or so vigilant New York City cops.
Meanwhile, at Hunter College on East 68th Street, Charles Jones is unaffected by the storm. He is playing in that rarest of summer events, an indoor tournament.
On his team, United Brooklyn, is street-legend-made-good Lloyd Daniels. Daniels had all the dark lore going a few years back--the heady rep, the bad attitude, the wounds from gunshots that nearly iced him--but he fought back to make it in the real world, eventually playing three seasons in the NBA. That showed the downside of being a playground deity who succeeds in the public arena: He wasn't a very good pro. So how good could he really have been in the playgrounds? His reputation, like those of all asphalt stars, had been enhanced by eager observers who, as chroniclers of his raw dominance, grabbed a bit of their own immortality.
If you never leave the streets, logic says, who knows how good you could have been? Daniels blew it, in that sense. Far better to be Earl (the Goat) Manigault, one of the earliest fallen princes of the city game. The 6'2" Goat blew what he had--titanium leg springs, ball-handling magic, creative court genius--on heroin in the '60s. People say the Goat was the best ballplayer ever. But we'll never know. And that, too, is a legacy of the urban game.
United Brooklyn coach Sid Jones is a short, serious man who doesn't think much of street reputations. "Booger?" he says, scowling. "He's exciting. He can do wonderful stuff. But I'm a pro-level coach. I'm trying to get players jobs, trying to get them ready for the next level. Booger is small, and he doesn't play big."
The coach watches the next squad of hopefuls warm up. "They all say they want to get to the next level," he says ruefully. "Until they get too close to it. You know, it's not all about talent."
Now Charles Jones sits in a coffee shop near a basketball court in lower Manhattan, eating a jelly-filled doughnut and drinking iced tea. Jones is not yet 22, but he feels old, he says. "Back in '92 and '93 I'd play four, five games in a day," he says. "A game at 10:30, noon, 4, 6:30, maybe one real late. All over. Lafayette Gardens, Kingston Park, Soul in the Hole, CYO games, Citywide. That's when I was a lot younger. I've been playing so long." He shakes his head. The city game is both a blessing and a task.
"You'd be so tired, so dehydrated," he says. "Wouldn't pee for days, it seemed like. Hell, you didn't have time to think about going to the bathroom. But it's still fun. Life is short, have fun, you know? I'm always trying to make a name for myself. I get so hyper before games, and it's because I don't want to lose. Not any of the games. Nowhere. College ball tends to get very political, but street games are real. The refs even get caught up in the emotion. There are lot of good players in college, but a really good street game? Man. There is nothing like it. The Soul in the Hole, I couldn't wait to play in that. Right in the neighborhood, people saying, 'Yeah, this boy can play.'
"Sometimes street ball is harder than college, like when you're six-three and you have to guard a center, or you only got four players and you have to pick up a guy from the crowd. You don't do that in college. And you can't play zones in street ball because people want to see action."
He sips his tea. A large gold head of Jesus hangs on a chain from his neck. "Coming up you always sort of knew the best players weren't in organized ball," he says. "You'd hear about some supposedly great [college] player, then play against him in an AAU game or something, and you'd say, 'What, this guy?' In any park there are players better than me. Oh, yeah. You want a name? Okay, Tone from Brownsville. Just Tone, don't know any other name. Man, can he play. Hell, my brother Lamont. He's 25, but he is for real. Played in the CBA. Division II All-America at Bridgeport. Boogs? That's my man. Known him since he was nine. He could always play. I wish he was with me in school."
The young man who scored 37 points for LIU against Villanova, 28 against Minnesota and 46 against St. Francis pauses. "I don't know what's gonna happen with Booger," he says. "Hopefully, somebody will see him and pick him up. You never really can tell."
Back when I spent those summer days of 1973 and '74 in Brooklyn, checking out the basketball scene, I heard all about the great ones who never got picked up. Players like Joe (the Destroyer) Hammond, who supposedly was making so much money in the park games that the NBA cash didn't interest him. People like superscorer Pee Wee Kirkland, the Harlem hotshot who went off to the penitentiary on a drug charge. People like the late, high-rising Herman (the Helicopter) Knowings, a 6'4" ball of muscle who, lore has it, could hang in the air like a cloud of smoke. I saw the Helicopter once at City College in Harlem, sitting impassively in the stands watching a summer game. He was 30 and no longer played, but he had a kind of quiet, athletic grace to him. Was it true what they said about him, I asked. Could he really pick quarters off the top of the backboard? Did he really dunk over Willis Reed and Nate Bowman at the Rucker, at the same time? Was it true, as one coach had told me, that Herman could put his chin on the rim? And what about the three-second stories?
"Yeah, a couple times guys faked me in the lane, and before I'd come down the ref would call three seconds on them," he said after a time, quietly and without expression. "But I don't know, it's all talk, talk. It's nothing."
Of course, there were those city long shots who made it big, like 5'8" Charlie Criss, who played for eight seasons in the NBA from 1977 to '85, and Connie Hawkins, who was a four-time All-Star with the Phoenix Suns in the early '70s. But it is the failures who stick in our minds, linger there restlessly like the great tragic heroes of literature. The Goat lingers most of all.
Now 53 and on a waiting list for a heart transplant to replace the one he pretty much destroyed with his needle and smack, the Goat works with young ballplayers at Goat Park, his own little patch of city blacktop at 99th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan. Manigault moves slowly these days, though occasionally he'll show a quick step or two to get a kid's attention. But there was a time when he could dunk two balls at once; dunk one ball, catch it and dunk it again; take off from behind the free throw line and dunk any way you wanted. "They listen to me," he says of the troubled kids who come by to play in his Walk Away from Drugs tournaments. "I tell 'em everything. My whole life. Hold nothing back." The wasted chances, the lack of discipline, the bullheaded defiance, the absent father, the fear of success. All of it, he says. Just lays it out.
"Booger, Booger," says the Goat, almost to himself. "I think I've heard of Booger. He played in my tournament, I think. I heard he got shot. You know, there is something distracting him from making it. Who knows what it is. A girl? The streets? There's always something. But you have to stay away from the things that prevent you from succeeding. You have to give yourself a chance. You can always fall back on hard times."
Up at the Entertainers' game at night in the throbbing heat, the deejays Tango and Cash are giving folks a hard time. They rip and they rap. They bip and they bap. But not everyone is amused.
The coach of the Crusaders, a tall, stylish, shaved-headed man in black alligator-skin shoes, black linen pants, a cream-colored linen shirt and copious gold jewelry, does not need any part of the deejays' cracks. He stands by his bench, head tilted, and says in the scariest of tones, "Do you know who you're f---ing with?" Apparently the deejays do, because they say nary a word in response.
Charles Jones is playing for Sugar Hill, and as his team warms up, I look around at the crowd. Next to me is a muscular young man in a red Michael Jordan jersey, red baseball cap and a left biceps tattoo with the twin barrels of a shotgun pointed my way under the inscription 2 TA THE HEAD. Not far from him is a skinny middle-aged man wearing sunglasses. He is Joe Hammond, the Destroyer himself. People say the Destroyer did stuff back
in the '70s that picked up right where the Goat left off.
I ask Hammond how the current Rucker games stack up against the ones he used to play in. "There's no comparison," he says. "All the pros used to play here. Wilt, Tiny, Julius, Kareem. It changed when pros quit playing on concrete."
And what about the stories of him turning down the NBA's cash because he made more playing in the street? "The Lakers offered me $50,000 when I was 19 to come there and play," he replies. "Jack Kent Cooke. But I made enough in New York."
"Who paid you?" I ask.
"Drug dealers?" he says quizzically, from behind his shades. "Well, they had money."
I look around as the game begins. There is Richie Parker, the penitent onetime high school sex offender who plays for LIU with Charles Jones. Parker takes a 15-foot jumper. The ball rotates with that sweet sideways spin he puts on it, and it goes straight in.
There is a funny-looking 6'6" player with remarkable dribbling ability. The crowd calls him Alamo, which changes to Ally-Mo! As he does his show, laughing and talking trash the whole while.
"The Black Widow!" screams Tango. "Alfred Moses!" I find out later that the young man's name is Tyrone Evans. Nobody has any clue why he's called Alamo or whatever.
For a moment I find myself transported back to the city game of more than two decades ago. It is the same. What has changed? Better shoes, baggier shorts, smaller hairdos, more tattoos, beepers, cell phones, designer water, nose rings.
But nothing's really changed. Not a thing. The city game has a rhythm that is immutable, like surf on a rocky coast.
Yesterday on West 4th I ran into my old friend Rodney Parker, the freelance ticket agent and street scout from Brooklyn who had been my guide and companion in my first foray into the playgrounds long ago. He was still doing the same stuff, he told me. And the street talent? The barrel had more fish than ever, he said.
"Two years ago I got 15 kids into schools all over Texas," he said. "Junior colleges. I knew some people. Almost all the kids were from the Bronx, all great talents. And all but one of them is gone. Typical odds. The failure rate is high. And the one kid who did make it just got thrown out of school for breaking into a car.
"I deal with misfits. One of my guys got out of jail at Rikers Island. The kids without any problems, they don't need me. Everybody knows who they are. And you know what? This year I got orders for 10 more kids. Move 'em in, move 'em out. What do the schools care? There's more talent than 20 years ago. It's everywhere. It's like a pair of shoes--don't like 'em? Get rid of 'em."
The bubbling humanitarian who used to play street ball with a Brooklyn kid named Lenny Wilkens gave me his salesman's eye. "I got a kid who's 15, he's gonna be the next Jordan," he said. "His name is Smoosh. There's gonna be a sneaker named after him. Six-one, with arms that make him six-four. Best skills I've ever seen. Ever. Want to meet him?"
"What's his real name?" I asked.
"I don't know. Smoosh, that's all. Want to meet him?"
Maybe another day. Instead, we went to Foster Park in Flatbush, just a number 5 train ride under the East River and out to Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn. This was once Rodney's park. His apartment on the sixth floor of the nearby Vanderveer Homes looked out on the teeming courts below. This was where he watched Brooklyn stars such as Vinnie Johnson and Mike Dunleavy and Albert King develop. This was where he introduced me to the peacock of them all, Fly Williams, back when the Fly was the leading freshman scorer in the nation at Austin Peay in little ole Clarksville, Tenn., and his possibilities seemed limitless and his problems surmountable.
Fly blew it all, of course. After a stunning series of bad educational and career moves, followed by brief employment with the St. Louis Spirits of the ABA, Fly got shot, went to prison and fell from sight. I often wondered if he was alive or dead. He had been a wild and crazy guy, at times a genuinely funny guy, but he brought so much of himself to the game that sometimes it hurt to watch him act out his passion play in front of the world. In one college game he wore his trunks backward.
In prep school he once dribbled off the court in the middle of a game to get a drink of water. I had seen him dunk over Moses Malone, score 40 points in a half of a park game, shoot cherry pits out of the side of his mouth where a couple of teeth were missing. He was first-team All-Failure, that much was certain.
But lo and behold, look who was sashaying across the heat-rippling courts of Foster Park at midday but someone who looked precisely like a scaled-down adolescent edition of the Fly. And why not, for this was 16-year old James (Fly) Williams III.
"I was doing laundry," said the slight youth, a blue Michigan jersey hanging loosely from his small shoulders, a jeweled stud in his ear, the word FLY freshly inscribed in tattoo ink on his right forearm, the word YVONNE on his left. "Somebody said there were guys here asking about Fly Williams," he said.
We were, I told him. Who is Yvonne?
"My mom," he said. "Fly is my dad. I got the tattoo last month, and my mom went with me because I don't turn 17 until August. Getting old, man."
I had to shake my head because for an instant I thought I had sailed back through the years and was talking to this boy's father. I remembered when the older Fly had told me he felt like an old-timer. This boy looked the same, talked the same. Did he play ball the same?
The youngster shook his head. "I'm a biker," he said. "A street rider. I do freestyle tricks. I do the grasshopper, jump over benches, walls. I got a Mongoose Hooligan. I work in a bike shop, and I want to grow up and be a mechanic. I don't do nothin', just ride bikes, chill, mess with girls."
How is his father?
"He's O.K. He does some reffing."
Fly Williams as a ref? I couldn't imagine it.
"I feel fine having him as my dad, a man who played ball," said the youth. "It would have been better if he'd played longer, but then maybe I wouldn't be here, either."
The youngster squinted into the sun. "You know, basketball doesn't look like that much fun," he said. "Now I see why my dad doesn't talk about it anymore. I used to steal cars, but basketball helped me get out of that. All I did when I was playing was throw fancy passes--people said I was a showboat, like my father. But then I got turned off on basketball, all the traveling, going to parks, playing games, arguing with people. I got tired of it. So now no basketball, no fights. Just bikes."
Tillary Park, Brooklyn, 6 p.m. The small blacktop court with yellow lines slopes toward Tillary Street, beyond which is LIU and downtown Brooklyn. Just down the block is Westinghouse High, the school from which Booger Smith never earned a diploma.
Trees give welcome shade to part of the court; the blazing sun is still baking the city. Tonight in the first game of the Pro Hoops Summer Basketball Tournament the gray-shirted Around The Way team will be playing orange-shirted Fort Greene. Rumor has it that Booger may show up to play for Fort Greene. But then, maybe he won't. No one is sure.
His old coach, Dave Babcock, is trying to get Booger a workout in front of some scouts who might be able to hook him up with a team overseas or maybe a CBA team. "He's not at the NBA level now," says Babcock. "It's about the mental side. Does he really want success? Is he committed?"
Here is Booger now, walking unobtrusively into the park, his orange T-shirt radiant against his dark skin. He is small and wide-eyed, with a wispy mustache and his hair done in a boxy cut that starts far back on his forehead. He has no bulging muscles, no extra-long limbs, no physical qualities that would make anyone take a second look. He shakes hands with his teammates but says little. He is just another anonymous young man among millions.
I introduce myself to Booger and tell him I've been waiting to meet him and see him play. I tell him I haven't been able to reach him on the phone, that nobody answers the numbers I call, the numbers I was told were his or belonged to people who knew where to find him. He nods politely.
I recall what Arizona Western athletic director Ray Butcher had said about the point guard: "He is just a little booger, I liked the hell out of him," he said. "But he's his own worst enemy."
"So what are your plans?" I ask.
"No, I want to go overseas," he says. "Somewhere."
"What about college, say, an NAIA school?"
"College? Yeah, if I could."
"So for now," I offer, "you're just kind of hanging?"
"I'm kind of hanging," he agrees. "Staying in shape."
A spectator walks up and nods to Booger, holds out his cupped palm with a freshly rolled joint in it. "I know you want some," says the man. Booger shakes his head and walks away.
The game starts, and the action is lively. Neither team has a true center--the tallest men on the court are maybe 6'6"--so the emphasis is on ball handling and penetrating. As always, outside shots are risky, what with the wind, the tilt of the court and the uneven light.
Booger starts slowly, but at the quarter he already has six points and five assists. He controls the ball as if it were secretly hooked to his hand and couldn't possibly get away. He has a gift that is rare indeed for the flashy player: He throws the simple, expedient passes as easily and readily as the fancy ones.
On the sidelines people are buzzing, waiting for Booger to detonate. In the second half he does. He dribbles through traps like water through a net; he throws a no-look bounce pass that leads to a mighty dunk. He throws two perfect alley-oop passes in a row, to players who seemed to be hidden in the pack.
At 16 Booger left his mother and moved in with Kenny Jones, the coach of Kenny's Kings, for three years. Jones is, or was, sort of like a father to Booger, and of the young man Jones says, "Do I worry about him? All the time. But not on the court. Being on the court is like a sedative for him. He's very calm."
Indeed, Booger is calm now, and he grows calmer as more and more of Around The Way's efforts go into trying to stop him. Charles Jones's brother Lamont is playing for Around The Way, and he can't stop Booger. Nobody can. A week ago in a game at the Hole a defender severely sprained his ankle as he reached for the ball after Booger did a crossover, behind-the-back move. The untouched man fell to the pavement yelping in pain.
The remarkable thing about many of Booger's moves is that he cannot replicate them off the court. They are unplanned, unpracticeable responses to stimuli. A hoops magazine asked Booger to do a couple of things for its cameras last year, and he failed miserably. "Once I asked him after a game, 'Where did you get that move?'" recalls Kenny Jones. "And he said, 'They made me do it.'"
Now Booger does something unbelievable. He wraps the ball around the head of his defender with his right hand, catches it in his left and lays it in. This does not seem possible without the cooperation of the opponent. But these guys want to bury Booger. They are not accomplices.
Then Booger does something else. He does it so quickly that afterward spectators cannot be sure they actually saw what they thought they saw. Booger bounces the ball between the legs of his foe and then, as he spins around the man, catches the ball blindly behind his back and continues dribbling to the basket.
Or something like that. In the blink of an eye.
After the game one of Booger's teammates, 6'5", 25-year-old Anthony Heyward Jr., better known as the Biz, talks about his efforts to help Booger. The Biz played the past two years in a pro league in Uruguay, and the year before that he played in Finland. The Biz is a polite, well-spoken, no-nonsense man, and he says he hopes to get Booger a chance to go to South America with him. "This summer I'm trying to be around him as much as possible," the Biz says. "I'm not exactly worried about him. But I'm trying to keep him away from the wrong people."
Heyward is drenched in sweat, the champagne of the city ballplayer. He thinks for a moment. "It's not that he's a bad kid," the Biz says. "It's just that sometimes things don't work out."
I shake Heyward's hand and turn to find Booger. I look everywhere.
But Booger is gone.