streetball junkie

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A story of basketball played on the streets of mid 1990s Chicago

Submitted: October 21, 2011

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Submitted: October 21, 2011

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The summer I turned 23 I became strung out on streetball, needing a fix at least 6 days a week, up to 10 hours a day. The court where I hung out the most was in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood. Bucktown was still a year or two away from becoming gentrified at that time. It was a neighborhood of Hispanic households that had more kids than bedrooms. There was also a handful of starving artists types who lived there because they were young and idealistic enough to think that going hungry was romantic and being poor and suffering was the only legit way to be creative. The rest of the neighborhood was filled out with white trash, wanderers and homeless types who hung around corner taverns with names like Danny’s or Estelles. On the larger four lane streets that formed the borders of Bucktown was the usual assortment of Laundromats, second hand clothing and thrift shops, a few greasy resturaunts, and still more bars.

Tucked away in this neighborhood on the corner of Wolcott and Cortland was the court where I spent most of my days that summer, and it was there that I was dubbed with the nickname "Flea". At other courts I had different nicknames like ‘the Caucasian,’ ‘Whiteboy,’ or ‘Mayonnaise.’ But on Cortland it was ‘Flea’. The last game I ever played there was one I’ll never forget. It was a typical day, around noon, late summer, clear sky, bright hot sun. There were four guys on the court shooting around with me. A Nirvana song had been running through my head as I practiced using my off hand. I had heard of college coaches making their players tie their dominant hands to their shorts and go through a scrimmage like that, using their weak hand only. So I had been playing with my right hand stuffed in the pocket of my shorts when I hoisted up a bank shot and a white Oldsmobile with no license plates and a tiny flag of Puerto Rico hanging from the rearview mirror pulled up alongside the playground. The basketball rim had a couple of loose lugnuts holding it to the backboard so it wobbled and bounced like an epileptic spring board as the ball rattled through the net.

"Hey!" someone called as I hurried to corral the ball after it bounced onto the pavement.

A gangbanger, not even old enough to vote, had raised himself out of the passenger side window of the white Oldsmobile and was pointing a small caliber handgun over the roof and directly at me. The song in my head that had been steering me around disappeared and the other four guys on the court slowly began backing away in unison.

The gangbanger called out, "Which of you’se is with the Unknowns."

Five other gangbangers were crowded in the Olds, all decked out in white and blue t-shirts, and it slowly dawned on me that this was a drive-by. I didn’t know if any of the kids I was shooting around with were in the Unknowns—a local rival gang, but I pulled my hand out of my pocket and for some reason took a step toward the Oldsmobile. Behind me I could sense the others still hedging backward so I stopped and shook my head at the kid with the gun as if to indicate that he and his buddies were in the wrong place. Then me and the kid with the gun locked eyes for 6 or 7 seconds in a state of confusion. It may not seem too smart to stare down a guy twenty yards away who’s pointing a gun at you, but I have to admit I had a strange fascination in being in that position. Generally I’m bored with everything—except when I’m playing hoops. But here I was with a gun pointed at me and it wasn’t boring at all. It was a curious feeling; I wasn’t panicking, yet I wasn’t exactly calm either. After another second and half the gangbanger kid frowned as if he was disappointed about something then ducked back into the passenger side window, said something to the driver, and the Oldsmobile pulled away real slow, not in any hurry until it turned the corner and disappeared.

I’d heard that to be accepted into some gangs you had to shoot someone in a rival gang. I wasn’t in a rival gang or anything, but I still wondered why the kid didn’t shoot me, it probably would have been enough to get him in to the gang. But I know that sometimes it’s hard to pull the trigger. I had been having thoughts of sticking a gun to my own head and blowing my own brains out around that time. Many of those summer nights I’d be lying in bed unable to fall asleep and these images would come. I couldn’t help it that these thoughts invaded my mind; they just did. Then one night I actually did pull a gun to my own head and was going to kill myself, but when I went to pull the trigger I couldn’t get my finger to do it. I imagine that’s what happened to the gangbanger—he just couldn’t make his finger pull the trigger.

When the white Olds was gone, most of the kids who had been shooting left as well. But suddenly feeling territorial I decided I’d stay. Physically the schoolyard wasn’t much to look at; uneven pavement, broken whiskey bottles, fast food wrappers and graffiti tags spray painted up and down the brick wall of the school building. But conceptually, tucked away somewhere in between Sector 3 (my imagination) and Sector 4 (my memory) this playground was paradise. It was the reason I got out of bed each morning even though the days were too hot and it would have been much easier to lie on the mattress in front of my clanky fan and wallow in the stench of my own sweat and body odor.

I jabbed my right hand back into my short’s pocket and dribbled the ball down to the other end of the court where, just off to the right of the free throw line was a gradual mound. Some sort of shifting in the earth or unsettling of the cement had caused this bump to rise up, just slightly noticeable—unless you knew it was there. I practice dribbling over it, knowing that it’s possible to use this bump as a mechanism to gain a step on a defender.

I learned this little trick from Martin. Martin, a tall handsome angular Mexican, was the undisputed neighborhood superstar. 31 years old, always dressed in profession styled warm-up jersey, Martin was a true streetball artist. With Martin it was all smoke and mirrors. He was the master of deception, making everything he did look like he wasn’t making any effort at all. At the blink of an eye he could be cleaning up a rebound, nailing down an outside shot or making a slick steal. But his best work was in the post, down around the basket. Slippery, seemingly misdirected inside moves, splitting the double team, and a quick release to the hoop was his trademark. Miraculously, he seemed to find a slightly different way of doing it each time as though he was just creating the move for the first time. Always easy going and respectful of others, Martin usually arrived around 3:30 in the afternoon as did the other regulars (approximately 90% Hispanic here on Cortland). Some came slowly, some came running, some came straight from work and some slithered out of strange and dark corners of the neighborhood.

By 6 pm that day the sun was hovering just above a row of trees lining the other side of the street. Visibility was good, but an elongated purple shadow began to stretch its way across the court. Somewhere in Sector 3, I had begun realigning my DNA: instead of being a 5’10" out of work lazy white guy wearing hand me down sneakers, I’d become a 6’6" basketball Jones with his own Converse high-top named after him. Meanwhile the young ones and the less serious had been pushed off to the sidelines and the mood for the rest of the afternoon was set. Some days it was serious, competitive, stress filled, trash talking, elbows flying, grudge matches. Other evenings it’s more relaxed—trick shots, jokes with the token fat guy and one on one matches with the little Mexican kid who wore a baggy white t-shirt that was so big on him that you couldn’t see what the advertisement on it read. He was one of a group of 7 or 8 little kids that bombarded the court between games, trying to get in as many shots as they could until they were pushed off once the real games started. And as always there was a flock of new school punkwipes, gangbanger types who were battling the latest NWA lyrics back and forth at the teenaged chicks in baggy pants and tight fitted tops: "Bitches aint shit, but ho’s and tricks. Lick on these nuts and suck the dick." Occasionally I’d catch a glimpse of the teenage chicks, their busts and buttocks blossoming in the summer sun as they packed together on the other side of the chain link fence like a row of carnations. And of course there was the ice cream guy, with his push cart and jingle bells (ding-a-ling, ding-ding) to provide concessions to the 20 to 30 kids who were just there to hang out on the sidelines. But as the summer heated up, the mood at Cortland took on the competitive edge more often than it did the relaxed one and as this happened certain players began to drop out while others began to emerge.

Martin’s arch rival was a thirty four year old black guy named J-ball who traveled up from Union Park on the Near Westside about once a week with a couple of other brothers—Green Jeans and Waxy. Green Jeans (about 6’3" and solid build) and Waxy (distinguished by his Super fly Afro circa 1974) were both in the habit of draining outside jump shots while telling you all about themselves in the process. "You can’t guard me," "See this one, this one’s in your face all day long mutha fuckah," and so on. But even they knew better than to say anything is Martin’s direction.

Before J-ball and his crew showed up, mainly because of Martin, there was a certain semblance of constructive competitiveness maintained between everyone on the court. It wasn’t unusual for friends to compliment each other, even if they were on opposing teams. "Good move," or "Nice shot," and stuff like that. But J-ball had his own twist on this; he’d kiss up to Martin between games, saying things like, "Damn Martin, you like Michael Jordan to everyone around here. They all love you, the little kids and everyone, like you was Michael Jordan." He’d say it with just enough smile to keep things nice and friendly between him and Martin, but as soon as the game began, J-ball would do everything in his power to disrespect Martin on the court.

On my last day at Cortland, with only a few hours of sunlight left, J-ball and his crew pulled up in his rust bucket yellow Ford Ltd. (I think it was ’73) and before he was even out the door he was calling, "I got next dammit! I got game!" spinning his genuine leather Spalding ball out in front of him. J-ball had come to humiliate the Hispanics, as he liked to do once every week or two just to get some kicks.

Martin gathered Amelio, a wide body and beer gut with an automatic set shot (when he was feeling it) who liked to play the point and distribute had slap-fouls to compensate for his lack of quickness. Then Martin picked Mundeez, a tall skinny 19 year old and the most explosive scorer on the court who could drive the lane or hit from outside. And to round off the quartet Martin eyeballed the sidelines, scanning the ranks for a hard-nosed defender who was also aggressive on the boards. He looked at me, the only true whiteboy in the lot (besides a clumsy, giant Ukranian guy).

"Wanna run Amigo?" he asked.

J-ball, aware of old school protocol, had seen the white bread and finds it necessary to comment, "Whiteboy, if you came out to get a sun tan you came to the wrong place. The beach isa that-ah way," then swoops his head and points it east. A little laugh spreads around the sidelines, but I noticed he called me "Whiteboy", instead of "White Bread" which was somewhat less insulting.

I tightened my shoelaces and stood up, "I’ll run."

"Well if you allis gonna run with a white boy," J-ball says as though running with a whiteboy was a disability, "then I’m gonna have to run with a white boy," and he chooses the giant Ukrainian guy to round out his foursome.

Since J-ball’s squad has just arrived our team gets the ball first. It was a ritual of Martin’s to be the last one to touch the ball before the game officially started. That way, the game didn’t start until Martin said it starts. Martin tosses the Spalding inbounds to Amelio then jogs down to our end of the court. J-ball’s team starts out in a zone defense, confident that they won’t have to exert too much energy to defend against us. They don’t even press.

Green Jeans fronts Martin down in the post, denying him the ball. So Amelio swings it over to me on the wing I dribble drive cross court and bounce an entry pass to Martin that just barely threads the needle. The giant Ukrainian lumbers over to help Green Jeans double team Martin, which leaves Mundeez open for a jumper in the corner. Martin knew he could spilt the defenders, but most likely they would only foul him so he wouldn’t get off a good shot. Of course our team would get the ball back on the foul, but that wasn’t the type of game that Martin wanted to run. He knew to beat J-ball’s squad he was going to have to get his teammates involved. So he makes his move to the bucket, extending the ball out way above his head as if he was about to throw up a shot, but then with only the slightest flick of his wrist, he dished the ball over to Mundeez who is in position for a 15 foot jump shot. The ball leaves Martin’s hands just a split second before Green Jeans and the Ukrainian sandwich him with a hard foul. Bone and meat crash and bruise and all three collide into each other like stock cars in a crash up derby as Mundeez lines up his 15 footer, takes the shot and misses the "gimme". Green Jeans rebounds the ball and throws a baseball pass down court to where J-ball is waiting for the easy lay-up. He scoops it in with a finger roll and says, "One thing I can do…is finger roll."

***

Midway into the game a dim street lamp from across the streets turns on. J-ball’s team has decided to turn up the heat and have switched from zone defense to man-to-man. As a result his team is on top and J-ball is looking for new ways to challenge himself and rub in his superiority.

"This games too easy," he cracks, hitting from outside to put his squad up 9 to 4 in a game to 15.

"Damn," Martin hurries to take the ball out of bounds. "Flea, let’s switch guys," he says, directing me to guard J-ball.

J-ball begins to laugh. "Oh day-um. You all must be desperate putting a white boy on me." J-ball pretends that he doesn’t remember me, but I’d played against him and even with him before, a couple times at Wicker Park and once or twice over at Commercial Park just off Chicago Avenue. One thing I had noticed about him was that he is a master of the game within the game. Sometimes if he doesn’t think his defender is a challenge to him, as the game progresses, he likes to disrespect the defender and also challenge himself by taking an extra step backward, lengthening the distance on his shot. This draws the defender further and further from the lane and loosens things up down low so his teammates have more room to maneuver for a rebound or be open for J-ball to hit them with a quick interior feed. By the time I begin to defend him he’s nearly on the out-of-bounds line.

Next time he touches the ball, J-ball dribbles it laxidazically at his side and in mock consternation surveys the court. "This games too easy," he says. I crowd him, knowing not to go for the steal, which would only give him his chance to shoot. I hold my ground instead, face up, my feet apart, one hand in his face and the other hand free to slap at the ball—the textbook defensive position. J-ball jukes as if to drive, I hear the screech of sneakers scuffling the pavement, causing me to shuffle slide to the right. But J-ball simultaneously backs off a step, giving him ample spacing for his jump shot. Realizing my mistake, there is nothing I can do but watch as J-ball’s shot leaves his hand.

Like every natural jump shooter, J-ball’s jumper has its own distinct peculiarities. Whereas Michael Jordan bites his lower lip in concentration, J-ball likes to widen his eyes, sorta like an old lady examing hier fingernails after a manicure. "Oh , that’s nice," he seems to say, "That is sopurty." And he releases the ball high above his head, instead of out in front of his him as many shooters do. This makes it difficult for a defender to reach out and block it, and is such a natural hitch in his shot that I can imagine he learned it at a very young age, probably playing against older and taller boys. Also, when he shoots, J-ball’s feet are relatively close together, making his center of gravity more stable and giving him a little extra lift from his legs (even though his feet only get a few inches off the ground) accounting for the spectacular range and steady alignment on his shot.

The balls sails over my head, softly, silently through the cool blue evening air in a perfect trajectory until its sinks through thehoop and is slowed by the bottom of the net with that crisp familiar "swish".

"This game’s too easy," J-ball gawks.

Martin grabs the ball before it can hit the pavement and hustles it out of bounds, up to Amelio. The guy with the afro, Waxy, is all over me, not respecting my space. I’m serious, maybe too serious. Waxy crowds me so that I can’t square up on my jump shot and says, "You can’t score on me whiteboy. I’ll block that shit right back to where it come from."

"He’s more worried about your damn afro blocking his shot that you blocking it," Martin yells as he tangles up with Green Jeans and the giant Ukrainian in the post. I pass the ball back out to Amelio on the point. Our team is dead, no energy. Then as I swing throught the lane, crisscrossing with Mundeez, I catch someone’s elbow in my jaw. Martin steps into Waxy and lowers his shoulder squarely into Waxy’s chest. There’s a thud followed by a gasp of air leaving Waxy’s lungs, and Martin’s ‘pick’ allows me just enough time to pop out to the three point line, if I hurry. But Amelio is out of breath, like an overworked old mule, and slow to richochet a bounce pass over to me, barely skipping it there before Waxy can recover from Martin’s pick. Waxy and his funky afro come chasing. He’s recovered the cocky smile from earlier and is confident that he is gonna reach me and reject my shot before I can square up to the basket.

Since the gangbanger incident earlier in the afternoon, the Nirvana song that had been running around in my head had been missing. Suddenly the sporatic patter of Waxy’s sprinting footsteps recreate the drum beat, and the song, somewhere out of sector 4 in my head, comes banging back. There are certain moments and certain shots during the course of a game that can define the entire game for a player. Certain shots depending on whether you make them or miss them, can influence an entire career. When Michael Jordan, as a freshman at the University of North Carolina hit the game winning shot in the NCAA finals, it was one of those shots that elevated his confidence and had a mark on the rest of his career. Conversely when Charles Smith or the New York Knicks choked in the final game of the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals and missed three straight shots form underneath his basket, that effort marked him in the annuals of NBA lore as a loser and a choke artist.

When I hear Waxy’s footsteps and see him coming towards me I realize that, in my own little world of basketball highlights, this is to be one of those shots to either make me or break me. But there’s no time to think about that. I have to focus on my shot. John Paxson after hitting a three pointer with just 1.8 seconds left that clinched for the Bulls their third straight NBA championship described the shot in terms of proper mechanics and the repetition of thousands of shots where you get your feet squared up, use proper balance then releasing the ball and following through. It was something that he and every other NBA player had done over a hundred thousand times in their lives. But the amazing thing about the shot was the time and space it happened in--and the heightened level of concentration it takes to balance aggressive with composure within such a time and space.

I saw the hoop—it was comfortably familiar; orange and rusty, broken chains dangling from it. And the look of nonchalance burrowed behind Waxy’s brown eye, strangely mixing into the murky late afternoon shadow that was now stretch across most of the court. I pull the trigger, but have to shorten up on my follow through just enough to avoid Waxy’s outstretch arms. The ball spins through the air and splashes through the hoop—all net. The giant Ukrainian simultaneously let’s a fart. The first threads of dissension among J-balls’ team appear.

"Man, why is that white guy’s farts stink the worse!" J-ball wails, motioning to the Giant Ukrainian. "What do you guys eat?"

"That wasn’t me," the Ukrainian protests, sounding too slow to hang with J-ball.

"It’s all that wiener schnitzal and Sour Crout and shit. Damn!" J-ball makes an ill advised pass; Martin intercepts it. Something has changed. Martin tosses the ball ahead to me and I drop in a quiet lay up.

But once again J-ball returns to the game within the game. This time so do I. He calls for the ball and positions himself to shoot. I give him plenty of room to square up for his outside shot, but this time, when he squares up to release, he sees something in my eyes. I make no effort to block his shot, but instead I charge straight at him, tapping his elbow and letting my momentum carry me, pounding him chest-to-chest and knocking him off balance—a solid hard foul that causes his shot to bank off to the left of the board.

"Foul! Man!" J-ball yells. "Man what the fuck is this, rugby! Don’t you whiteboys know the difference between basketball and ice hockey!?!"

I remain silent. Martin retrieves the ball and tosses it back to J-ball. "Just take your foul and play," he says.

"Damn white boy better stay the fuck off me!" J-ball continues, dribbling the ball low, below his knees out in front of him. He tosses the ball off to Waxy in the corner and Waxy fires up a 20 footer that hits the front of the rim, then the back of the rim, then the backboard, and then richochets off. Some players if they want to get noticed as a big time player, find it necessary to bring attention to an aspect of their game which would otherwise go unnoticed. At five foot ten, not many people would think of me as a solid rebounder, so sometime, especially after I’d gone awhile without a rebound, I’ll crash the boards like the tazmanian devil and let out a primal scream from the pit of my stomach as I jump and bump underneath the basket and fight my way for a rebound, letting everyone on the court know that I want the ball more than anyone else. And if there is someone else who wants it more than me, then that’s too fucking bad, because I’m the one who’s got it. So after Waxy’s shot bounces around the rim, I’ve boxed everyone else out and there I am to grab the rebound.

"AAAhhhhhhr!!" I scream and cradle the ball in my arms like it’s my first born.

J-ball laughs, "Crazy honky. Now he thinks he’s a rebounder."

I see Mundeez releasing down court and hit him with a side arm bounce pass which he grabs in stride and silently lays into the hoop, just before getting tangled up with the small Hispanic boy with the baggy t-shirt who was trying to sneak in a quick shot while the ball was at the other end of the court. J-ball chasing after the play and gets tangled up with the little boy as well.

"Hey! Get the Fuck off the court!" he yells at the kid.

"Take it easy, that’s my cousin," Martin says from the other end of the court.

The little kid with the baggy shirt grabs his ball and runs off the court while Waxy is slow about taking the ball out of bounds; J-ball sees this and calls for the ball. "Niggah, give me the pill!"

Waxy tosses it to up to J-ball at half court and J-ball turns around to shoot another jumper. I come charging at him, just like on the last play, and J-ball flinches. But this time instead of following through I put on the breaks and avoid touching him. J-ball’s shot misses completely. And from then on everything becomes subconscious—the way it’s supposed to be. An adrenaline high mixed with a confidence high causing my endorphins, dopameins and what not to swell up and intertwine, sending energy, mass and dark matter spreading throughout my veins and seeping from my pores.

By the time the sun had sunk completely below the row of houses across the street, our team had rallied ahead to take a 14 to 12 lead. One more bucket and we win. J-ball’s team had the ball though, until I snuck up behind Waxy and poked it away from him as he tried to slash down the lane. The ball squirted away cleanly and ended up in Martin’s possession. Martin held the ball with both hands and exhaled deeply. He and everyone else on the court was dog assed tired. He dribbled the ball at his side as both teams fell back in transition to the other end of the court.

At mid-court I call for the ball. Martin tosses it to me and I look for Amelio and Mundeez who are both out on the wings, too exhausted to shake their defender. The leatherhide basketball feels like it’s melting in my hand, it’s smooth and becoming even smoother every second. Waxy is sluggish coming up to defend me. So, "Screw it!" say to myself. "I’m going for it." I don’t have time to catch my breath. I jukethen jive down the lane, splitting the defenders—Green Jeans and the giant Ukrainian—then hesitate to do a quick cross-over, and in one fluid motion I drive the lane, losing Waxy as he stubles over the bump on the pavement that I know so well. I leave my feet and rise toward the basket with the ball in my right hand until I switch it to my left as I see J-ball leaving his man to come over and defend me. He rushes at me to slap the ball, but he can’t touch me. "Not today bro," I say just above my breath and before anyone can even think about it I serve the ball to the hoop and gently lay it in like a polite waiter serving a bowl of cream of broccoli soup. And with the dainty "swish" that follows, the game is over. Final score 15 to 12.

"Game!"

A round of cat calls spread sround the sidelines.

"I wanna rematch," J-ball bawks out. "20 bucks a man."

I didn’t stick around the court to conversate or talk trash. I was thirsty. "I’m outta here," I said to no one in particular and walked off the playground. On my way out the gate I see the little Hispanic kid with the baggy t-shirt that is4 sizes too big for him. I was curious. "Straighten out your t-shirt and let me see what it says," I say to him. Whn he stretches in out in front of himselfI can see that ithas a drawing of a lean and muscular silhouette of a man’s outstretched body slamming a ball through a hoop with a caption written underneath that read: "It’s all about respect, baby."


© Copyright 2017 Ed Wagemann. All rights reserved.

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