Albert King will be 17 this December and every college in the country that wants a national basketball championship is after him. Albert's brother Bernard left their Brooklyn home two years ago for the University of Tennessee, led the nation in shooting as a freshman and took the Volunteers to a 21-6 record last season. The scouts who have seen Albert say that he will be even better. They have been watching him since he was 14; that's when the terrible pressures began to build and that's where this story begins.
Rodney Parker is on the first court, standing 30 feet from the basket, slowly cocking the ball. He is wearing red sneakers, sweat pants and a sun visor that splits his Afro like a line between two cumulus clouds. His tongue sticks out of one side of his mouth and, as he shoots, he tilts his entire body sideways like a golfer coaxing home a putt.
The ball arcs up and through the steel hoop and Rodney bursts into laughter. "Oh my God, what a shot! Pay up, Clarence. Who's next, who's got money?"
In 1966, Rodney, his wife and two children moved from the East New York district of Brooklyn to the Vanderveer Estates, the housing project that cups Foster Park on the north and east sides. At that time the area was a predominantly Jewish, Irish and Italian neighborhood. The Parkers were among the very first blacks to move into the Vanderveer, and Rodney, a basketball fanatic since childhood, became one of the first blacks to hang out at Foster Park.
Never one to maintain a low profile, Rodney was soon organizing games between the white neighborhood players and his black friends from East New York and Bedford-Stuyvesant. He would preside over these frequently wild contests, usually from his vantage point as fifth man on a team that might include several college stars and pros. He would be everywhere, screaming, refereeing, betting money on his 30-foot shots, with 200, 300 or more people whooping it up on the sidelines. For identification purposes some people began referring to the playground as "Rodney's Park."
Then as now, Rodney's occupation was that of an independent ticket dealer, an activity that took him to all the big sporting events in the New York area and put him in contact with most of the sporting stars. He already knew several basketball heroes from his neighborhood, among them pros Lenny Wilkens and Connie Hawkins, and with the connections he made through ticket sales it wasn't long before Rodney was giving reports on Brooklyn players to coaches and scouts and anyone else who might be interested.
Rodney, whose education ended in eighth grade and whose basketball abilities were never better than average, derives a deep sense of personal worth from his scouting hobby. "I can do things that nobody can," he likes to say. He helps boys get scholarships to college, he pushes them into prep schools, he gets them reduced rates to basketball camps. He is known around the park as somebody who can help out if you play ball and aren't getting anywhere on your own. Kids say that Rodney knows everybody in the world.
Anthony Harris, a huge teen-ager under Parker's guidance, tries to explain what he knows about Rodney. "See, it's just that he helps a lot of us—particularly the ones that are in trouble—and we listen to him. He gets us into prep schools to fix up our grades, he tells us when street games are happening, he buys us soda and he never asks for nothing. I used to think, 'What's in it for him?' and when I'd ask him he'd just smile and say, 'Be cool. Be cool.' I call him the Mystery Man."
About himself Parker is alternately vague and provocative. "I like the ink is all," he tells me. And later, "I'm a story in myself."
It is a common saying in the ghettos of Brooklyn that if a boy is bad, he joins a gang and if he's good he plays basketball. Indeed, outright crime or idleness aside, there is not much else a boy can do. To ask any sampling of young men from Brownsville, Williamsburg, Bedford-Stuyvesant or East New York about their formative years, is to get variations on only two answers: "I ran with the wrong dudes," or "I played basketball."