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Winston Karim, a 23-year-old Trinidadian immigrant now residing in Flatbush and working in the Wall Street area as a clerk in a shipping firm, is known as Rodney's "man." He follows Rodney around, plays him one-on-one, chauffeurs him in his (Winston's) new Oldsmobile. For his services he gets nothing. "I let Winston hang around with me," says Rodney, "because my life is so damn interesting." This is not entirely true. Winston is his own man, a friend who lets Rodney play the role; he stays around because he enjoys their association. This Saturday, Winston goes to the crumbling Fort Greene section of town to pick up young Albert King.
At Foster Park Albert steps out of the maroon car, seeming to unfold from the waist down. He has a long, dark face with deep-set eyes, eager yet cautious like a fawn's; his skinny arms are attached to exceptionally broad, bony shoulders. He is wearing baggy gray pants, a tattered yellow T shirt and the inevitable Converse All-Stars, blue and salt-crusted, and he is humming Rock the Boat. Rodney scurries up like a crab going after a fish head.
"The King is here! I'll put you straight in the pros. The hell with high school!" Rodney laughs joyously over his prized possession. Albert smiles, embarrassed as players stop shooting to watch.
The park is filled. There are games at every basket. Handball and paddleball are being played on both sides of the cement wall separated from the courts by rusting wire. Swings are screeching, soccer is being played by Haitians and Jamaicans in the asphalt outfield, a few white kids are playing soft ball, screaming "foul bool!" and "Trow it da home!" A crap game is under way beneath the trees with dandies frozen in gangster poses. There are babies in strollers, men in undershirts drinking warm beer, women hollering at children, old men watching in silence. Rodney clears a court and sets young Albert on one team against Mike Moore, a 6'7" pro from the European League, on the other. As the game begins Albert opens his mouth in concentration, and moves with a dexterity that brings "ahhs" from the small crowd. His boyish face looks misplaced on a body stuffing two-handed behind-the-head, batting shots away, hitting bullet outlet passes, screening the heavier, older players to snare one rebound after another. "Do it, Big Al!" screams Rodney.
People approach in disbelief. "Tell me the dude ain't 14 years old, Rod," says a small crap shooter outfitted like a tiny chunk of rainbow. There are moans as Albert slides by his man and hooks one in from the baseline. Albert stares straight ahead and ducks his chin to sprint, not responding to the crowd, embarrassed by his talent. After the game he hurries off with Winston for orange juice.
"Yeah, he's good," admits Mike Moore to Rodney after being soundly whipped. "But what about five years from now? The streets have destroyed better talents than his."
Sitting under a tree Albert clutches a borrowed radio and presses it to his ear, soothed by the blasting vibrations. He had met Rodney the previous summer in his neighborhood and was convinced to visit Foster Park for some pickup games. Rodney, who wanted Albert as badly as any boy he had ever seen, began showing up whenever and wherever Albert played. He bought the boy hamburgers and gave him subway fare, and at the beginning of this summer got him a job working in the office of sports agents Jerry Davis and Lew Schaffel.
Their alliance has now become somewhat official, though Albert is still less than certain as to what it all means. "Rodney was always just hanging around," Albert says. "People told me to stay away from him but I couldn't see why. He just seemed to like helping kids."
It hadn't taken any particular genius on Rodney's part to know that Albert, then 13, 6'3" and in the eighth grade at Sands Junior High, was a rare find. In one game against older players, Albert had snagged a rebound, dribbled full-court, switching hands en route, and stuffed the ball. His potential appeared as unlimited as it was natural. Once, when asked how he developed a left-handed hook, Albert said, "I don't know. I tried it and it was there."
But perhaps his greatest asset was a natural intelligence and a humility that made him eminently coachable. Told to fake left, go right and shoot from the key, he did just that. His teachers called him bright. He had no disciplinary problems. Ballplayers called his game "straight up," meaning it was aggressive, simple, effective—a rare thing in the ghetto where it is difficult to get youngsters to perform the basics, to convince them that Walt Frazier is great not because he passes behind his back but because his jumpshot is picture-perfect, his defense nearly flawless. Albert seemed to grasp this intuitively. When as a 13-year-old he had dribbled full-court and dunked, he had done it, he explained, only because no one had been open for a pass.