In 1988, 12 years after Heaven Is a Playground, his seminal ode to New York City streetball, was published, Rick Telander stood in an NBA locker room, chatting with Albert King. By then King was a seven-year pro, a serviceable member of the 76ers. But in the summer of 1974 King was a teenage hoops prodigy and a regular at Foster Park, the Brooklyn playground that served as Telander's home base for a summerlong immersion in the streetball scene. He and the baller reminisced and King reflected on how he had escaped the ghetto that swallowed up so many other promising players. "You have to see that there are other things to life than the environment you're in," King said.
True, but it's still easy to get lost in the environment depicted in Heaven, which SI named one of the top 100 sports books of all time in 2002. It's hard to fathom now, but the inner-city universe Telander described was as foreign to mainstream readers of the 1970s as HDTV. The book holds up as a sociological snapshot. But at its core Heaven is a basketball love letter, a song of the game in its purest form. "There were no cell phones, no laptops, no disco, and the Internet wasn't even a word," Telander, a former SI senior writer, writes in the introduction to a new edition of Heaven, released last week by Bison Books. "But the people were the same, and so were their dreams.... [And] by God, there was basketball. I promise you that."
The new edition marks the 35th anniversary of Telander's summer on the streets. Beginning next week the world he brought to life in print will be on display in a photography exhibit at a New York City gallery, featuring pictures taken by Telander. (Go to heavenisaplayground.com for details.) The mostly black-and-white images show King, streetball legend Fly Williams and dozens of others in their Afros-and-floppy-socks primes, playing for little more than love of the game. It's a motivation that feels as liberating now as it did in 1974.