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
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.
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
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.