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In Hawaii, on the north side of Oahu where the waves break like a stack of freight trains being dumped on the beach and the brilliant green volcanic mountains serve as a sounding board for the endless crashing of the surf, stands an asphalt basketball court. It is located there out of all context. When there is an onshore breeze the salt mist and roar of the surf drift above the two baskets and free-throw lanes and center jump circle like a big shimmering canopy, and sometimes there is a rainbow. Not surprisingly, the court is almost never used. Does anyone hit fungoes at the base of Kilimanjaro?
And then there is "The Hole." Did anybody ever not play basketball there? The name is not familiar but the setting is: bombed-out buildings staring vacantly from the fringes, heated cement and the sparkle of broken glass from dreary white port bottles and Early Times half-pints; rusting backboards and drooping hoops. The Hole is in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. It might just as well be in Harlem or the Bronx or Houston or Detroit, places that teem with people but not space. As everybody who follows basketball now knows, it is from the Holes of this country that the players come: the Jabbars and Archibalds and Cousys and Guerins, although not all of the courts where they played were as mean as the one in Brownsville. And it is a part of the mystique of today's game that from them, too, came the "underground stars" who never made it big: Jumpin' Jackie Jackson, with legs that seem constructed of high-compression automobile springs; "Mr. Clean" and "T-Bird" and Herman the Helicopter, who once flew up so high when his opponent faked a shot that a three-second violation was called on the man before the Helicopter returned to earth. So they say.
In a sense, all this has become clich�d, and that is a shame. City basketball players no more deserve to be stereotyped than, for instance, young tennis players from Southern California. Four from around New York who will be leading their college teams to national prominence this season are hardly stereotypes. Not all of them are even from the central city. The basketball fever that infects New York throws out hot flashes into the surrounding suburban areas of New Jersey, mainland New York and Long Island. Players from those parts occasionally make the trip in to the Brooklyn and Manhattan playgrounds (indeed, the good ones feel obliged to, like gun-slingers itching to hit Dodge City) or to the indoor hubs at places like St. John's University or CCNY. But just as often they will stay at home and culture their own neighborhood shoot-outs.
Such a place is Westbury, Long Island, a commuter suburb 15 minutes from Queens and a half hour from Manhattan. Westbury's current big shot is Dennis DuVal, a lean, handsome backcourt man who stars during the school year for Syracuse University.
Clad in cut-off jeans, orange practice jersey and knee socks, he sits on the steps of his parents' small home and takes exception to what appears to be obvious.
"This section of town looks almost middle class, doesn't it?" he asks. And it does—frame houses with tiny front yards, random, cool puddles of shade under elm and maple trees, little black kids playing in the silent street—perhaps too many of them, though.... Maybe lower middle class is a better term. "Well, I'll tell you, this isn't middle class. Not nearly. People here moved from the city. A lot of them are on welfare just like they used to be. I guess things don't look like they do in the ghetto, but I've seen the bad and the good here, and in a lot of ways that's helped me to get where I am."
Where he is now is nothing like where he once was headed. If a high school teacher asked him to stop talking in class, DuVal muttered back obscenities. He cut classes, he flunked courses, he fought in the rest rooms, he hung out on street corners, he drank wine.
Ed Krinsky, his school coach and. the person DuVal most attributes his salvation to, analyzes those early years. "When Dennis came to school Black Power and other racial movements were at their peak. There was a lot of pressure coming from all directions, and it focused on these young kids. Finally it all exploded in riots here at Westbury and everywhere else. Anybody who came through that period and still has the integrity that Dennis has can handle anything."
After three stormy years at Westbury, DuVal emerged from a postseason tournament the most valuable player over people like John Williamson, now with the New York Nets, and Sid Edwards, a starter at the University of Houston. College scouts from hundreds of schools tried to sign him, but Syracuse was his first and only choice, and his entrance there marked a radical change in his behavior. In a lot of ways he simply grew up. "All along I've always wanted more than what some of my old friends settled for—street corners, dope, a wad of bills. Now they see me and say, 'Dennis, man, use me as an example!' They watch out for me, you know, so I can be a symbol of pride to the community."
At New Cassel Park in nearby North Hempstead the crowd has already arrived. There are Bobby Brown and Bunky Reed, old high school buddies of DuVal's, men who, he says, "can handle themselves on any court." There is Gordon Roe, a superb jumper who is a student at Kansas Wesleyan. There are several high school kids who talk to each other in low voices as DuVal walks through the gate. There is one kid fresh out of jail and a green high-top sneakered player known only as Bobo who plays for the Harlem Wizards and keeps his identity secret because he plans to enroll in college someday.