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Rick Telander
August 18, 1997
Twenty years after his groundbreaking book on summer hoops, the author returned to New York to check out the state of the city game
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August 18, 1997

Asphalt Legends

Twenty years after his groundbreaking book on summer hoops, the author returned to New York to check out the state of the city game

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Booger, man.
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 5'8¾" 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."

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