Outdoor basketball is everywhere in NYC. And there’s something about watching the games that captures the mood of the city more generally. The game is way more confrontational here; the talking is louder, the fouls are harder, the body language is more aggressive, and even the courts themselves have a menacing and foreboding feel. They’re cracked and broken and uprooted. Everyone is always jostling and elbowing and fouling and marking territory; but there’s also a peaceful tolerance of physicality, as if pain were simply a feature of the game, whereas in LA, physical contact causes so much hysteria, driving people to fits of petulance and indignation. I’ve seen people barely get fouled, and then quit playing and drive off in a Porsche if the world doesn’t stop. Of course the general passivity of basketball in LA doesn’t apply to the inner cities, where basketball is just as aggressive and rough as it is in NYC, but the character of the game in LA is definitively one of style and grace– far less about force. Watching basketball out here helps you appreciate players like Ron Artest and Antony Mason (RIP), ballers who played the game with ferocious intensity, like monster trucks crushing a garage full of Pintos. Even the more graceful players that emerged out of NYC– Kenny Anderson, Stephon Marbury, Marc Jackson– were tough dudes that backed down from no man. Their games also had the flair and panache associated with streetball; where being good means owning the court, owning the talk, and creating memorable plays that cause people to scream and gesticulate and sometimes collapse and occasionally implode.
It’s common in NYC for the more competitive games, especially at the more well-known courts (and I haven’t been to the Rucker yet), to feature a dude with a microphone narrating the game, not from the sideline, but on the court. This court jester (pun intended) clowns players for getting crossed over, gives everyone a nickname, and shuts down the game when someone gets dunked on.
The game is played at all hours in NYC. People play serious games until 10 pm. I saw one game where the court was completely dark, and the ball just looked like a dim silhouette, barely discernible. But still, no waning of intensity. In LA, when it turns 7:30, people start cherrypicking and the pace of the game slows down; people start discussing dinner plans and sharing their favorite Louis CK jokes. Nothing of the sort happens in NYC, where darkness is just another element that you deal with, like rusty double rims and chain nets.
There is also a race element that stands out in the NYC basketball scene. Everyone plays the game out here; Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, etc. But, the majority of the games, especially the good ones, the ones where the character of the hoop scene can most readily be detected, those game feature almost all black players, with the occasional super athletic white dude mixed in– and usually that white guy is superhumanly athletic, ala White Chocolate. I watched a game in Harlem the other day; an outdoor league game (nothing of the sort would ever happen in LA; all organized games happen in gyms), that was pretty much the most festive and dynamic and and expressive cultural event I’ve ever been to (outside of the Farmers Market in Spanish Harlem). The players played with such joy, immersion, and moxie. The experience of watching was likewise active and visceral, with so much giggling and shit-talking and prideful boasting and neighborhood pride.
One dude, crowned from top to bottom in bling, wearing an oversized red shirt with “Amsterdam” embossed in white lettering, mesh shorts that extended down to the ankles, red stunner shades, gold teeth, tattoos everywhere, kept yelling out “Amsterdam baby, you know how we do” everytime his team– and the team here is synonymous with the block they represent– scored a bucket. This guy loved the game and he embodied its renegade and exuberant charm.
Such a good time. I love basketball, and it struck me; this is where the spiritual essence of the game can be found, in all of its lived glory–not in cloistered, air-conditioned gyms with perfectly laminated parquet floors– but on the streets of NYC, where if you wanna play, you better bring it.
That said, the Knicks suck.