In Brooklyn, most boys can remember a time when a gang took over the local playground, imposing a hierarchy that was enforced even on the lowliest courts. Traditionally, some of the best undisciplined ballplayers have been members of gangs like the Black Spades or the Jolly Stompers of Brownsville, and the basketball talent wasting away in New York prisons puts those programs on a par with many universities. The coach of the Auburn State Penitentiary says, "What we have here in upstate New York is a transplanted ghetto playground."
Ultimately though, the two paths of behavior—call them the good and the bad—must split and a choice must be made. Basketball or not.
Jim McMillian, a star forward with the Buffalo Braves of the NBA, remembers when his family had just moved to East New York from North Carolina and he was forced to make a decision about his future.
"I was 13 and I'd never played basketball before," he recalls. "I didn't know anyone, not a soul, and I was terrified of everything. I'd just go by myself to this park on Sutter and Ashford and shoot baskets alone. I had the vague notion that maybe I could be good someday, but I didn't really even like basketball at the time. I mean, I didn't watch it on TV or have any idols or anything. I took to it because I was so introverted.
"I started playing all the time, weekends too, and when you do that it gets rough. Gangs, bullies, everybody gets on you. You take all kinds of abuse. You have to keep from getting pushed around. When you get down to it, it's hard to say what makes a kid stick out."
Being a loner was a blessing for McMillian because it helped him avoid peer pressure. But the single most positive influence came not from his father, who was no longer around, but from a fast-talking neighborhood man. "This guy kept coming into the park that first summer, I guess he was about 25, and I remember he had lots of money. At least it seemed that way because he had a big roll of bills and he was always peeling a few off to buy sandwiches and soda for everyone. He was always smiling and everybody seemed to know him except me.
"Then one day he came up to me and just started asking questions—how old was I, how long had I been playing, did I want to go to other parks to play? He said he could get me into a good high school if I kept working hard.
"He seemed so knowledgeable, not just about the park or basketball, but about society, the whole world. I asked him what his name was and he said ' Rodney Parker' and that was the start of it."
Rodney Parker, who lived just two blocks away in the East New York district, would remain young McMillian's guide throughout his amateur career. He would buy him shoes, teach him strategy, lose money to him purposely in shooting games so the boy wouldn't starve, then later watch proudly as the flowering athlete went on to become All-City at Jefferson High and later an All-America. There were no strings attached. Rodney was always just there, giving the companionship and direction McMillian might have received had he had a real father.
When it came time to choose a college, Rodney was busy making sure McMillian went to the top. Deciding that the Ivy League would be a good setting for his gem, Rodney began riding the subway to Columbia University in Manhattan, visiting coaches, administrators, professors—literally talking his product into the elite school—then returning to hard-sell Mrs. McMillian and Jim as well.