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A ONETIME PLAYGROUND CHAMP VISITS THE BIG HOUSE—AND FINDS A GHOST
John Wideman
March 07, 1983
I was at the State Correctional Institution at Pittsburgh, commonly known to the cons as Western Penn, to visit my brother. He's serving a life term and I'm writing a book about him and the prison, about two brothers losing touch and then finding each other again, because of and in spite of the stone walls separating them. That's why I was in the joint. To visit my brother and work on the book. I never expected to find Reds. Reds had been a cop, a good guy the last time I remembered seeing him. Then he materialized in the prison visiting lounge 20 years later, an inmate, a bad guy, a ghost.
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March 07, 1983

A Onetime Playground Champ Visits The Big House—and Finds A Ghost

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As a new generation of ballplayers—blacks from Homewood, East Liberty and the Hill, whites from Point Breeze, Morningside and the suburbs—came along, I battled them on even terms. My rep was established by the time I was 16, and I didn't need Reds or anybody else. Reds would show up occasionally, a faded star in the background still spinning stories about the times he'd beaten Stokes and Fleming.

I always greeted Reds, but as I became a king in my own right, we had less and less to say to each other. I began avoiding him when I could. He'd embarrass me the way he'd holler Spanky. I didn't like it but let it slide. Reds was Reds and always would be. To him I'd always be Spanky, always be a kid who needed his running commentary on passes I should have made and shots I shouldn't have taken.

Playing Big Five and Ivy League ball in Penn's Palestra kept me busy and sometimes happy. But college basketball lacked the spontaneity, the free-form improvisation and electricity of the playground game. Most coaches designed offenses more suitable for corn-fed Big Ten linemen than for the high-flying whippets and greyhounds the city game was beginning to breed. "Playground move" was synonymous with bad move. Not baaad move, but something undisciplined, selfish, possibly immoral. Twenty years later, coaches are attempting to systematize and teach the essence of the game invented on the playgrounds.

At Penn I became a better player, but I paid a steep price for that and other cultural improvements. Teachers, coaches, nearly everyone important in the white university environment urged me to bury my past. I learned to stake too much of who I was on what I would become; lived for the day I could look back, look down on Reds and everybody else in Mellon Park, in Homewood.

If Reds was around Mellon when I returned home from college to play during summer vacations, I can't recall. On the court I wouldn't have answered to Spanky. That I do know. The past was incriminating. The past was skinny legs, a silly nickname, a pickaninny pot belly that wouldn't go away till I was 15.

Yet Mellon Park continued to be a special place in my imagination. When I balked at the regimen, the monotony, the blue-collar ethic of practice, practice, practice, the prospect of beating Princeton or Yale was seldom incentive enough to inspire more effort. To keep myself hustling I'd imagine how lame I'd sound trying to explain to the older guys from the playground—people like Delton and Smitty and Reds and Rudy and George Brown—why I blew the chance they never had. I'd anticipate the golden summers at Mellon, the chance to show off my new skills and prove I hadn't forgotten the old ones, the only ones that mattered in my heart of hearts.

Mellon remains popular on summer weekends for Pittsburgh's high school, college, pro and playground royalty. The court's run-down now: scarred backboards, rims bent and loose, two cracks in the asphalt just beyond one foul line so driving down the lane is like walking up steps. Neglected, going to seed, the buckling, dark gray rectangle is a symbol for the potholed city. Tradition and location conspire to preserve Mellon's uniqueness. Over the years Pittsburgh's best—Chuck Cooper, Dick Groat, Jack Twyman, Si Green, Jimmy Smith, Kenny Durrett, Connie Hawkins, Maurice Lucas, along with Stokes and Fleming—have played at Mellon. And because the park's not really in anybody's neighborhood, it's a no-man's-land, the perfect place for a battlefield, one of the only inner-city basketball courts where white and black players confront one another.

At Mellon a few summers ago I learned what it felt like to be a ghost. Some of the "older" guys—I had 10 or 15 years on most of them—were waiting for winners and reminiscing about Mellon's good old days. They talked about this dude who went to Peabody High. He was bad, yeah. Played in college. Won some kind of scholarship or something. Had a nice game. What was his name? I said my name, and one or two nodded. Yeah, yeah. That's the dude. He could shoot.

When Robby had said Reds was a cop, a memory had been tripped. In my mind's eye I again saw Reds in his city cop uniform, dark blue like the prisoners' pants. It was Reds' face I saw under the polished black visor of the cap, but it was somehow different, ominous, even though he was smiling and basking in all the attention his uniform was getting, out of place at Mellon Park.

I was trying to explain Reds to my brother. Problem was I couldn't get the story straight myself. Loose ends, gaps, details I couldn't or didn't want to recall. Years and years since I'd thought of Reds, then suddenly there he was across the visitors' lounge, his long torso and big head, the bow of his belly, his hands still poised and ready for a pass.

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