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?"