The Boston Phoenix
June 18 - 25, 1998


The city game

From Southie to Malcolm X Park, the real basketball season is about asphalt and summer

by Tom Scocca, with Michael Crowley

Most everybody is wrong about basketball season. If you believed the NBA and television, on this early Sunday morning in Roxbury's Malcolm X Park, you'd think basketball was just about over for the year. Tonight, on NBC, the Chicago Bulls will lay a 96-54 thrashing on the Utah Jazz, effectively settling the outcome of the pro season. But basketball does not, despite the claims of so many commercials, begin and end with Michael Jordan. There is also Carlton Smith to consider.

By the standards of big-time basketball, Smith is pretty much a nonentity: a standout at Boston English and the University of Rhode Island in the early '70s, he never got drafted or invited to an NBA camp. His greatest glory came 26 years ago, long before the sport became a force in the entertainment industry, when he was part of the Boston Six, the high-school all-star team that shocked powerhouse squads from DC and New York by winning the first Boston Shootout, putting the city's invitational tournament on the map. Yet this morning, as Smith tries to keep his team alive in the John D. O'Bryant Old-Timer's League playoffs, it seems sort of pointless to worry about fame. Smith, a big-shouldered, bright-eyed man with a gold necklace under his purple uniform shirt, is someone to be reckoned with.

He does have the advantage of youth -- in what's officially a 45-and-over league, he's either right at the limit or a shade too young (either way, says league commissioner- coach-player Jimmy Myers, he does have two bad knees). But mostly it's a matter of talent. Smith is a sleek and assured player; though his team, the Raptors, is being befuddled by the crisp teamwork of its opponents, he keeps his head, works for his shot, cuts to the middle to rebound his teammates' misses. His game is powerful.

And so is the basketball world in which he built it: the city's patchwork street-level system of community-league, tournament, and pickup games. Even as the Raptors and the Magic are playing indoors, in the Shelburne Community Center gym, out on the park's terraced basketball courts there are two full-court games going at once, complete with referees and flip-card scoreboards -- part of the fifth annual Chill Tournament, organized by Willie "Chill" Veal Jr., the owner of a Dorchester auto body shop. Sixteen teams of adults and six youth teams have entered the event, drawn from as far away as Springfield by Chill's free hamburgers and the chance to compete. Later this same day, over at the Blue Hill Boys and Girls Club in Dorchester, a younger old-timers' league for the 35-plus crowd will be having its championship game.

Which is all just the prelude to the summer season. "In the game of basketball," says WEEI sports talk-show host Ted Sarandis, "the real quality players are developed in the summer." The day this paper hits the stands, another Boston Shootout will be under way. Forty-five hundred kids will be getting ready to play in the Boston Neighborhood Basketball League, to say nothing of the Amateur Athletic Union, the Boys and Girls Clubs, the pro-am Beantown Summer Basketball League, the James Bailey League, the Catholic Youth Organization leagues, and the All Dorchester Sports League. There will be the Peace League, in which gang members, including the city's own emergent Crips and Bloods, are scooped off the street, patted down for weapons, and matched against each other in a gymnasium. Chill Veal will be planning his women's tournament. Playgrounds citywide will be filling up with pickup games. In short, the time when the last NBA players hit the showers is the time the real season gets going.

Not that NBA players aren't the best in the world. But basketball, by nature and by design, just isn't a top-down thing. James Naismith invented the game to be a phys-ed activity rather than a spectacle, and the basic principles still hold. It takes less space than football or baseball. You don't need helmets or shoulder pads or a dozen and a half other people. Of the three big American-born sports, basketball is the least regimented and the most democratic; it flourishes in crowded public spaces, where people make their own amusement. The game is meant to be played. The game wants to be free.

Freedom comes in many forms. In a coed game of 21 at Malcolm X, a pair of slick-passing women help each other get around the long-armed males. At Columbus Park in Southie, two stumpy middle-aged men battle in the pivot like Chamberlain and Russell. A scrawny kid in Dorchester torments his bigger companions with a string of sneaky fadeaway jumpers.

Boston, says Chris Ballard, an ex-college basketball player who toured playgrounds nationwide to write the new guidebook Hoops Nation (Owl Books), is one of a special class of American cities "where you can take a ball and head out, [and] always find a game."

In the city proper, the parks department lists 115 playgrounds with full basketball courts, at least 20 of which have more than one. This does not include the full courts across the river in Cambridge, which are some of the area's finest, or the courts under the jurisdiction of the city housing authority and the Metropolitan District Commission. Nor does it include gyms, or half courts, or the courts in schoolyards and on church grounds, or the alleys and driveways and parking lots with hoops tacked up over them.

You will find the best games, most everyone agrees, at the Malcolm X courts, along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in the relatively green and rolling section of Roxbury below Dudley Square. "This is the hotbed for basketball," says Alfreda Harris, the Boston School Committee member, former Shelburne Center director, and onetime women's college basketball coach who's known variously as the godmother and grandmother of Boston basketball. She is watching the opening games of the Chill Tournament from the sidewalk above.

There have been courts on this site since the late '60s, back when it was known as Washington Park. But the facility, renovated in stages from 1994 to last year, looks nearly new, with smooth green-and-red paved surfaces, the lines clearly marked. The rims on all four courts are true and unbent, with real string nets instead of chain ones or missing ones. There is no hint of the blasted asphalt and battered chain-link fencing that Hollywood associates with storied playgrounds; the city takes care of its parks (the other top playground in the city, the Jim Bradley Courts in the Back Bay Fens, is wrapping up an $80,000 reconstruction).

The city's commitment to basketball is a perfect example of how civic policy can improve civic life. Unlike other leisure-time activities, the sport is spread evenly around the city. You can't walk to the movies in Roxbury -- there isn't a single theater in the entire neighborhood, nor in Dorchester, Mattapan, or Jamaica Plain. But there are playgrounds everywhere, and some of the best ones are in neighborhoods where hoops is the proverbial only game in town.

As a result, the Menino administration enjoys an elevated reputation on the playground. "The mayor's very interested in keeping youth busy in their leisure time," Alfreda Harris says. As is, unquestionably, Harris herself, who moves regally through the crowds around the Chill Tournament. Large men take on the air of deferential schoolchildren around her; on spotting her, Chill detaches himself from the scorers' table and clambers up to the sidewalk to pay his respects.

The city's basketball culture thrives because there are the people and the community organizations to back it up, to make sure at least this one activity is effective and available. The history of hoops is the history of its backers, both neighborhood activists and regional giants -- the latter including Al Brodsky, a league organizer for 30 years and coach of the perennial AAU powerhouse Roxbury Titans; Leo Papile, now the Celtics' head scout, who runs the Boston Amateur Basketball Club; and Ken Hudson, the first black full-time referee in the NBA, who founded the Shootout. Harris sets down her own list in precise Palmer-method script: Jim Mahone, Jack Crump, Mike Haynes, Rindge Jefferson, John Shelburne, Harry and Dennis Wilson, Jim Bradley.

The result of this devotion is that basketball involvement is communitywide. Saturdays and Sundays, when the weather gets hot, players' and spectators' cars double- and triple-park along Martin Luther King Boulevard; people start cooking out on the grassy roadside strip. One afternoon early this month, says Seaburn Toombs, a 29-year-old who lives around the corner, he and his friends brought a leather couch out to the rocks overlooking the playground.

The strong sense of community can be, in this territorial city, a mixed blessing. On some playgrounds, at some times of day, there is a certain hostility that crops up toward visitors. If you're white and alone at Malcolm X, you may be asked to explain yourself. But the race question is rarely simple, in sports or in society. The first morning of the Chill tournament, an all-black group of spectators was riding one ref mercilessly for making calls against a white team from Stoughton. And one recent afternoon in Dorchester found Elmer Knudsen, a pale young Mormon missionary from Utah, resting in the shade by Ryan Park while his partner -- necktie snugly tied and tucked inside his shirtfront -- played half-court with a group of black and Hispanic kids. Playing basketball, Knudsen explains, is a way for the missionaries to "tell them that we're normal people."

But beyond any of its uses as a forum for social change and community activity, the street-level game is pure, simple sport. If it has produced leaders and role models, well, it's also produced players-- a line of creative and aggressive talent stretching back to the Boston Six and before.

Some of the stars went on to succeed in the NBA, after the example of Roxbury's Jimmy Walker, who joined the Detroit Pistons in 1967 and averaged 16.7 points per game over nine years, twice making the All-Star team. Of the Boston Six, Ron Lee fared the best, playing six years on four different teams. And Patrick Ewing, en route to college and pro stardom, wreaked havoc on the courts of Cambridge in the '80s.

Court order

How pick-up ball rewrites the rules of the city

by Michael Crowley

When asked why it is so important that the Knicks win, since at the end of the game or even the season nothing in life is affected one way or the other, I can only answer that basketball or baseball or any sport is as dearly important as life itself. After all, why is it such a big deal to work and love and strive and have children and then die and decompose into eternal nothingness? (By now the person who asked me why the Knicks winning is important is sorry.)

-- Woody Allen

In his influential 1995 essay "Bowling Alone," the social scientist Robert Putnam examined what he called "the strange disappearance of civic America."

Americans, he argued, are growing increasingly isolated from one another; his clinching evidence was that while more Americans are bowling than ever before, membership in organized bowling leagues has plummeted since 1980. "The broader social significance," Putnam wrote, "lies in the social interaction and even occasionally civic conversations . . . that solo bowlers forgo."

Putnam's theory occurred to me on the streets of my West Fenway neighborhood last week, when I ran into Alvan, a fortyish artist and manager of a local record label whom I'd met while playing pickup basketball last summer. Seated at a sidewalk table at a local restaurant, sporting black-rimmed glasses and funkily dyed hair, Alvan reported that he'd bought and hung a new net on a naked rim at the schoolyard court where we typically played. A good net makes a big aesthetic and practical difference, and I hailed Alvan as a local hero.

"Just my form of community activism," he replied with a laugh.

He was joking, but he was also onto something. I've come to feel that the basketball courts near my apartment are (along with the corner coffee shop where I dawdle on the weekends) my only real connection to the neighborhood, and to a Boston I rarely see. People like to rhapsodize about the diversity of urban life, but Boston remains one of America's most segregated cities, and the courts may be the only place where I could have met most of the people with whom I throw around an orange rubber ball.

I'm lucky enough to live within a block of two busy, well-kept playgrounds. One is tucked behind a Burger King and next to a dilapidated school. The other, one of the city's best, consists of two topnotch, full-length courts that lie in the Back Bay Fens. These courts are located between a halfway house and the Museum of Fine Arts -- which has always struck me as a fitting location, given the way the games veer from inanity and thuggishness to almost artistic grace.

Like a lot of urban courts, my local playground draws on a demographic jumble with no real counterpart in city life. I've played in games with a dozen stripes of Bostonian: black kids from Roxbury, college students, art teachers, teenage African immigrants, gold-chained Southie boys, fiercely tattooed ex-cons, middle-aged men with rickety knees, and indie-rock hipsters like Alvan. I've played with guys who were friendly and conscientious, with a long line of asshole college jocks, and with a series of rogues and misfits smelling of cheap booze.

There's a fortysomething taxi driver who plays in his blue jeans and looks like he smokes a pack a day, but who can run the court with the 20-year-olds. Once there was a pair of rastas who, for some reason, were convinced that people who worked for the Boston Globe lost all their teeth. ("Your teef turn green, an dey fall right out," explained one. I assured him that I don't work for the Globe, to which he replied with a broad grin: "You all right!")

Of course, the playground is not all-inclusive. Despite all the recent hype about the women's game and the WNBA, I see few women on the court. But at least there are plenty of women among the spectators who, on sunny weekend afternoons, line the green courtside bleachers at the Back Bay Fens by the dozens. There are parents out pushing their babies in strollers, gay Fenway couples, cornrowed teenage gangstas, European students, Back Bay yuppies. 

Close your eyes for a moment and try to think of another place in Boston where this group of people would congregate to watch another group of people congregate.

Daily life in a big city is governed by all sorts of unwritten rules. You stand to the side on an escalator. You don't block the sidewalk. You don't shove someone out of the way to get on the T. The organizing principle is to get where you're going as fast as possible while minimizing contact with strangers.

Pickup basketball runs directly counter to that impulse: it brings strangers to one place to rub against each other. And with no higher authority running the show, a new set of unwritten rules takes over. Know the rules and you can slide smoothly into a game with a bunch of people you've never seen before. Ignore the rules and you'll never get the ball.

Some of these are simple courtesy: during warm-ups you pass the ball back to someone who makes his shot; when a game has been interrupted, the team with possession starts play by "checking" the ball with a defender.

But the real guiding principle of the court isn't politeness. It's Darwinism. The clearest example is the simple, universal rule that winning teams stay on the court and losers walk. And ability rules in other areas, too, such as the way disputes are often settled by shooting. On the theory that the ball doesn't lie, free throws (or -- the playground being about bravado -- top-of-the-key jumpers) are used to settle everything from the makeup of teams to a contested out-of-bounds call.

Effort and hustle alone will get you only so far. One friend of mine, a solid pickup player who's more of a passer than a shooter, recalls: "I was playing with a guy who caught a long fast-break pass. He took three or four steps running to the basket for a dunk. So I called him for traveling. He turned to me, shouting: `What? You can't call a travel -- you haven't scored a point!' "

Getting respect on the court is also, like getting into a velvet-rope nightclub, partly a matter of attitude: you have to act like you belong. Ballplayers, like dogs, can smell fear. Show a lack of confidence, and guys will actually shout, "He's scared! He's scared!" when you're lining up a shot.

This kind of thing heats up as the play gets more intense. The hard-core games are great to watch, but I wouldn't exactly call them fun to play in. I'm more interested in exercise than in conquest; along with my middling skills, this generally keeps me out of the best games, like those on the "A" court in the Fens.

The "A" court, surrounded by bleachers, is almost as much a stage as a place to play games. On weeknights and all day on the weekends during the spring and summer months, it overflows with waiting players and spectators. The play gets lightning fast and skilled, and a hack like me is really not welcomed, or at least not passed to. At this point I'll retire to a three-on-three game on the "B" court -- or I'll just sit on the stands to take in the fast-breaking, slam-dunking, and trash-talking of the prime-time players.

My award for 1998's best trash goes to a twentysomething black guy with a shaved head who finished one tight game with a brazenly long-distance jumper. Even as his shot was still arcing through the air, the kid was sprinting to the top of the courtside bleachers, where he put his hands on his hips and faced the court. "Game over!" he shouted at the losers. "Please collect your valuables and exit the court in an orderly manner. NEXT!"

There's nothing worse than an arrogant jock, but the pure athletic meritocracy of basketball can be refreshing. The best players on a city court, the guys who make the rules and run the show, also tend to be people who've gotten the short end of the socioeconomic stick. But on the court, they are the overclass.

It's possible, of course, to be too sentimental about the social merits of basketball. A flipped dynamic isn't the same as no dynamic.

Precisely because my local courts are less homogeneous than most Boston neighborhoods, they can also be less comfortable. Where I live and work, I'm a white guy in a sea of white guys. On an integrated basketball court, I'm an interloper, and I feel it. Everyone on the court assumes a white player will be worse than a black one. (Sports Illustrated recently spun this idea into a cover story.) Sometimes being white just makes me invisible -- a whole game goes by and I don't get a pass. Sometimes it's more explicit. If I hit a good shot in front of a bunch of black guys, they'll often call out the name of a white NBA player: "Larry Bird!" perhaps, or "Kukoc!" (And it's not only a black-white issue. I remember a black guy telling a hot-shooting Asian kid: "Must be all that rice you're eating." It was meant to be a joke, but you could sense a subtle change in the game's mood after that.)

One friend who used to live in Roslindale tells me that at that neighborhood's Fallon Field, local whites would tear down their own rims when school got out for the summer each year, wait until the black kids had settled into other courts, then put the hoops back up for themselves. And the kids at a Dorchester court I recently visited were all convinced that the city had torn down one of their hoops because white people had complained there were too many blacks in their neighborhood. Whatever the truth in all these stories may be, they show that even a simple game isn't free from the city's racial mistrust.

The social truths of pickup basketball aren't all pretty. And although pickup ball can foster new friendships, it's not as if you're talking about politics and culture in between fast breaks. In most cases, "nice pass" might be all you say to a teammate. So it's not quite the ideal civic engagement that someone like Robert Putnam might hope for.

Still, it's the only sport where, night after night, groups of strangers spontaneously coalesce into teams. Someday, people of all races and classes might come together for deep and meaningful talk. For now, a little teamwork and a nice pass is a lot better than blank stares on the subway.

Michael Crowley can be reached at

The playground game doesn't necessarily translate into pro accomplishment, though. Bob Carrington of the Six made it to the NBA but lasted only two years. Then there was Owen Wells, his pictures and clippings all over the Shelburne Center, who saw 37 games with the Houston Rockets in 1975, before playing and coaching overseas in Holland, Italy, Australia, and Saudi Arabia. Wells, who died of a stroke in 1993, was a ball-handler with size, like a rough draft of Magic Johnson. "Owen was ahead of his time," Harris says.

Maybe the greatest local legend is Steve Strother, who crops up time and again when people name the city's very best players, but doesn't show up in the NBA Encyclopedia. After ruling the playgrounds in the early '70s, he had a decent career at Providence College and, like Carlton Smith, went undrafted. He now works for the parks department maintenance division; a 1995 Herald piece on playground legends focused on him, describing in detail his lingering ability to dominate, but the article misspelled his last name throughout.

Names are slippery on the playground: Chill Veal, listing the city's best crossover dribblers, gets to a guy named Tory -- "he plays on my team," Veal says, "but I don't even know his last name."

This is the reward of street success: fame tinged with inaccuracy. The legends of the game are actually legendary, untethered to historical record. Nobody films the games or publishes the scores. (Though the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield does have, through the end of June, a street-basketball exhibit featuring the work of Boston photographers.) Even before Harlem street player Earl "the Goat" Manigault, widely regarded as the most famous playground star ever, died last month at the age of 53, he had already ascended to Valhalla in a cloud of mystery. Had he really once stepped on a man's head on the way up to the basket? Could he actually pull off the "double dunk" -- go up, dunk the ball, catch it, and re-dunk it, all in a single bound?

Where to play

If you just want to shoot a basketball around, the best court in the city is probably whichever one happens to be closest to you. For serious game action, though, it helps to head out to a full-court facility. These are some of the top playgrounds in the area, along with a list of selected other sites with multiple full courts.

Malcolm X Park, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Washington Street, Roxbury

This is ground zero for Boston ball, ranked by Hoops Nation author Chris Ballard as one of the 30 best basketball sites in the nation. With four courts side by side, there's room for pickup play and shooting around even when league games are going on.

Hoyt Field, between Western Avenue and River and Montague Streets, Cambridge

Two spacious but fenced-in courts are sited in the heart of a Cambridge neighborhood. Lively pickup, with league play on weekends. Added bonus: parking.

Jim Bradley Courts, Back Bay Fens, Park Drive and Jersey Street, Boston

Located in the grassy heart of the bustling Fens, this is one of Boston's most demographically and competitively diverse playgrounds (see "Court Order," page 5). Two well-maintained courts lie end to end, with intense full-court pickup and league games on one and casual hackery on the other.

Riverside Press Park, Memorial Drive and River Street

Corporal Burns Playground, Memorial Drive and Flagg Street, Cambridge

Situated within blocks of each other, both playgrounds are home to two full courts. Riverside is cleaner and better surfaced (although its nets need replacing), but Ballard says the more dilapidated Corporal Burns offers better games -- as well as a view of the water.

Other key multiple-court facilities (courtesy Boston Parks and Recreation Department):

Allston: Ringer Playground, Allston Street and Griggs Place

Brighton: Rogers Park, Lake and Foster Streets

Dorchester: Ronan Park, Adams Street and Mt. Ida Road

East Boston: LoPresti Park, Summer and New Streets

Hyde Park: Iocono Playground, Milton and Readville Streets

Jamaica Plain: Murphy Playground, Carolina Avenue

Mattapan: Harambee Park, Blue Hill and Talbot Avenues

Mission Hill: McLaughlin Playground, Parker Hill and Fisher Avenues

North End: DeFillipo Playground, Snow Hill Street

Roslindale: Fallon Field, South and Robert Streets

South End: Peters Park, Shawmut Avenue and East Berkeley Street

South Boston: Columbus Park, Day Boulevard and Columbia Road

West Roxbury: Hynes Playground, VFW Parkway at Bruce Street

As sad as Earl the Goat's heroin-addled life story was, there was something potent about it, too -- something the most accomplished pro players, paradoxically, could never share. When Michael Jordan retires, every single thing he's done on the basketball court will be on videotape and in the public record -- dead, stuffed, and mounted. But Earl the Goat's 360-degree dunks, and the night Steve Strother rode Celtics guard Charlie Scott clear out of the playground, will live on by word of mouth, recorded only in memory. There will always be magic about them.

Thanks to that lure, many pros have playground legacies of their own. A patch of pavement by the Malcolm X courts bears the shoe- and handprints of NBA players who've graced the playground there, from the late, sainted Reggie Lewis to lumbering Celtics center Brad Lohaus. Waiting for his team's turn in the O'Bryant League, 59-year-old Lemuel Mills recalls the time he faced Wilt Chamberlain in a playground game -- in which the Stilt was "pretty much the way he was as a pro," Mills says. "He could stop anybody coming to the basket if he wanted to." Another O'Bryant Leaguer, Darrel Cole, says he played against Julius Erving in a summer league in Springfield, when Dr. J was at UMass. Erving, Cole says, was "literally unstoppable."

The NBA, though, is the wrong yardstick by which to measure the playground game.

In the wider world, people think of street basketball as a tool, a way station to the pros. To the audience of a movie like Hoop Dreams, success means getting off the playground. But that's not quite it. Playground ball isn't a half-formed version of the big time: it is its own game.

This is often misunderstood, even among basketball fans. The phrase playground ball has become a term of disparagement to sports observers, who use it to suggest selfishness, unsound defense, and reckless play. But those parts of the playground game are exaggerated. Today's young pickup players, says O'Bryant Leaguer and Malcolm X habitué Clyde Adams, have better basketball skills than ever. "You won't get chosen if you don't contribute defensively as well as offensively," Adams says.

As for recklessness, if someone wants to try something unorthodox in an off-the-books basketball game, well, that's where most of the interesting stuff in the sport came from in the first place. Aesthetic concerns take precedence. "Anyone can dunk," says Chill Veal, using anyone in a narrow sense -- "it's just, how do you get to the dunk?" And next to watching the Bulls slowly grind up the Jazz, it's easy to see the appeal of a crossover dribble or an over-the-shoulder alley-oop.

The game takes care of itself. Older players know each other for decades, build up rivalries, instruct younger ones -- above all, keep playing. Darrel Cole never came closer to the NBA than eating Dr. J's dust, but in the Shelburne gym, in the Old-Timer's League, he's a star, one who turned an expansion team into a playoff contender. After leading an upset of the regular-season division champions, evening their best-of-three series at one game apiece, Cole watches the entire Magic-Raptors game, scouting the potential second-round opposition.

Jimmy Myers, too, keeps up a running commentary as he stalks the gym, commissioner and sportscaster and ref all at once. "The flame will not be extinguished," he says.

Carlton Smith drives on the left side, picks up his dribble, and gets double-teamed. All in one motion, he bounces the ball off the forehead of one of the Magic players, Terry Finn, and catches it again, breaking free of the trap. A video replay would record that he dribbled the ball off his foot moments later and fumbled it out of bounds. But there will never be a replay. What lingers is the memory of the ball spanging off Finn's bald head, so quick and outrageous it's hard to believe it even happened.

The game proper works out like this: the Magic control things most of the way, running a patient, low-post offense through the towering Finn, who once played for Yale. But Carlton Smith keeps the Raptors close. Then, inside of a minute to play, the Magic, leading by four, forget to try running out the clock, commit a dumb foul, and turn the ball over to the Raptors. Who promptly nail a three-pointer, cutting the lead to one. The Magic are fouled immediately and make one of two free throws.

So with 16.7 seconds left, down by two points, the Raptors go to work. They inbound the ball and bring it up the court, where someone forces up an off-balance shot from the left side, missing. Carlton Smith gets the rebound, leaps, and launches a high-arcing jump shot. The ball hangs in the air, comes down wide to the left, no good, and is corralled by the Magic. The Raptors manage to get one last possession, with Smith streaking downcourt in hopes of another shot, but their desperate length-of-the-court pass is picked off. The final buzzer blares, reverberating painfully in the mostly empty gym.

For Carlton Smith, the playoffs are over. Which is anything but the end of the world -- in two weeks, he says, there'll be a whole new season under way.

Tom Scocca can be reached at

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