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HOOPS COMES HOME
RICK TELANDER
October 15, 2012
Four decades after he chronicled Brooklyn's vibrant street basketball scene, the author returns to the borough that spawned generations of schoolboy legends (not to mention legendary characters)and finally has an NBA team of its own
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October 15, 2012

Hoops Comes Home

Four decades after he chronicled Brooklyn's vibrant street basketball scene, the author returns to the borough that spawned generations of schoolboy legends (not to mention legendary characters)and finally has an NBA team of its own

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In truth, for decades there was precious little built for anybody, of any race or ethnicity. Consider that in 1998, when a Marriott was erected near the Brooklyn Bridge, it marked the first new hotel to be built in the borough in more than 60 years. But a renaissance had been peering cautiously from the hole of irrelevance. Brooklyn looked livelier than it had for decades. Young professional workers, musicians and artists had realized that Brooklyn was huge, varied, full of residences that were cheaper to rent or rehab than anything in Manhattan—and just a subway or bike ride away.

But even with the rebirth there was no center to Brooklyn. A body can move only so long without a heart.

"The Dodgers held that town together," says Ralph Branca, a once-good Dodgers pitcher, who gave up the fabled Shot Heard 'Round the World home run to the New York Giants' Bobby Thomson in the 1951 National League playoff. "It was like we were second-class citizens compared to Manhattan. Then Brooklyn went even farther downhill. Ten years ago the yuppies came. And now a pro team is coming. It should bring back some of that Brooklyn-against-the-world feeling."

I was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on August 10, 1920, and moved to Brooklyn with my family when I was four years old. It was as though we had moved to the country.

—RED HOLZMAN, NBA title--winning Knicks head coach, in his 1987 autobiography, Red on Red

It was 1974, and my guide that summer was a 37-year-old ticket scalper named Rodney Parker, a jovial, hyperactive New York City native who loved basketball, lived on the fourth floor of the Vanderveer Estates overlooking Foster Park and fancied himself the biggest hoops talent appraiser and street agent in the city. And maybe he was. He got basketball-gifted, often hopeless kids into prep schools, into tiny, distant, directionally named colleges and junior colleges, and nobody ever quite knew what was in it for him.

When I'd ask him, as we scurried from one Brooklyn court to another, diving into subway stations like prairie dogs into their holes, he'd grin at me until his eyes squinted shut. "I'm a mystery man," he'd say, legs churning away. "I'm a miracle worker."

What Rodney had that summer were connections to a pair of outlandish talents who frequented the courts at Foster Park, two young men separated by seven years in age but light-years in disposition, outlook, focus and responsibility.

James (Fly) Williams was 21, a skinny, bowlegged, 6' 5" junior swingman at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn. Fly had the offensive skills of a scoring genius, the temper of a gangster, the bursting personality of a desperate comedian. He was missing most of the upper teeth on the right side of his mouth, and he had an Afro the size of a lamp shade, often with a multipronged pick stuck in it like a pitchfork in hay. At his college games frenzied students chanted perhaps the greatest cheer ever: "The Fly is open—let's go Peay!"

Fly was the third-leading scorer in the nation, an acrobatic showman and crazy gunner from any range. Along with another Foster Park regular, point guard Danny Odums, he had taken the APSU Governors to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances. His future in the pros should have been guaranteed, but nothing was guaranteed for Fly but chaos. In Heaven Is a Playground, I called him "a hero of failure." In time he would destroy his hoops career and nearly himself. He would be shot three or four times (he doesn't remember), in different settings; go to prison; lose his limited wealth; have a heart attack; fall and break his hip; yet, against the odds, survive and become, at age 59, something of a living legend and a teacher.

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