Sunday, September 18, 2016

HANDS OF BRICK by Peter Nolan Smith

Every high tide deposited beer bottles, oil containers, fishing lines, shiny candy wrappers, and plastic bags onto the sloping shoreline of Jomtien Beach. At low tide I harvested the trash into sea-worn rice bags. Within a half-hour the sand was devoid of any human refuse and I could smugly regard the pristine strand with pride.

While tourists rolled their eyes in disgust at my ecological efforts, the Thais from the beach cafes congratulated my work without ever breaking caste to aid my task. Such labor was beneath them and from under a parasol my girlfriend expressed her embarrassment by saying, “Tomorrow have plastic again. Every day have. You stop nothing.”

“Doesn’t matter. At least the beach is clean for now.”

Every day I expanded my patrol and the bending proved very therapeutic to my aging boy.

My muscles ceased to creak and the aches vanished from my joints.

“Watch this.” I pressed my palms flat onto the sand.

“You only not hurt, because you stop play basketball.” Mam was unimpressed by my suppleness.

“I didn’t stop.” I shot baskets at the park in the elephant ranch near Sukhumvit at dusk,

“Yes, you stop.” Mam was less than half my age. Her belly was swollen with our son.

“No one plays basketball here.” Thais were mad about Man United.

The basketball courts at the schools were used for pick-up football games. Their backboards were warped by the tropical sun. Occasionally when I dribbled a basketball, the Thais waited for a show, except ballhandling had never been the mainstay of my game.

“You not play too.” Mam hated my picking up the trash on the beach and said that I looked like a crazy man, but she wasRight. I had not picked up a basketball in months.

Two weeks later when my cousin came out to visit, Mam asked, “He good playing basketball?”

Bish and I had played our last one-on-one game twenty years ago yet he answered without hesitation. “He’s the dirtiest player this side of Bill Laimbeer.”

The Detroit Piston was legendary, but the name meant nothing to Mam.

“Sok-ka-phok.” She wrinkled her nose. "Dirty same not shower.”

"No, he plays foul." My cousin gestured violently with his elbow. “No, dirty same the Mafia.”

"Kow-jai. Gaan len sohk ga bprohk

“I played defense tight.”

“In your shirt and then some.” Bish was not wrong. My fouls on the street courts had to be approaching the half-million mark. Despite this record, I loved basketball and had so from even before I saw one.

In the 1950s I lived on a quiet street across the harbor from Portland, Maine. My brother, my best friend, and I spent summers playing baseball, chasing seagulls from the mudflats, and exploring the offshore islands in leaky rowboats. Autumn was dedicated to football and every winter my father constructed a hockey rink from long planks of two-by-tens, where we played hockey from the second we got home from school to the collective call to dinner from our mothers. We shouted back ‘five minutes’. It was more like ten.

One night my older brother ran into the backyard and declared that he had seen a rattlesnake in the front yard. We hobbled into the house on the skates and Frunk called the State Police. The cops approached the suspected snake with drawn guns. The deadly reptile turned out to be the silhouette of a paper bag flapping in the wind.

During dinner we joked about the episode, however my six-year’s old mind filled the dark with snakes’ sibilant slither. Panic-stricken I ran into my parents’ room and leapt into the bed. “There’s snakes under my bed.”

“Maine doesn’t have snakes.” My father was exhausted by this fiasco.

“Frunk thought he saw one tonight.” If he believed snakes in the winter, then they might have slithered into the house. “Can’t I sleep with you?”

“You’re getting a little old for this.” My father protested with closed eyes.

“He’s young.” My mother threw back the cover.

The disruptiveness of my nocturnal intrusion escaped me, until I was a little older.

The following day my father brought home two crystal radio sets shaped as rockets. They were made in Japan. My father explained their workings. He was an electrical engineer with New England Bell.

“You attached alligator clips to a metal object. The signal is transmitted to the antenna and you tuned the radio with a retractable space needle jutting from the nose of the rocket.”

“They aren’t going to get electrocuted.” My mother’s fear was for our own good.

“There’s no electrical charge. The radios capture the airwaves.” My father was an electrical engineer for the phone company. He knew about these things. “These are better than TV. You can hear the rest of the world.”

TV reception is Maine was limited to three very snowy channels during the day.

“Okay.” My mother accepted their harmlessness and my father handed my older brother and me the sets.

At bedtime I dressed in my Davy Crockett pajamas. Before I could plant the earpiece, my mother ordered us to hand over the sets. My brother surrendered his and rolled over to sleep. I needed any explanation.

"Because I said so." She held out her hand.

“But they don’t have any batteries.” I had read the flimsy instruction sheet. One side was in Japanese.

“At night they play things you shouldn’t hear,” she exhaled with adult exasperation.

“Things?” This cryptic comment reanimated my dozing brother.

As a devout supporter of Tailgunner Joe’s battle against the Reds my mother was deeply concerned about the subversion of the airwaves.

“Yes, things.”

“There’s nothing on the radio in Maine that can hurt them.” My father came into the bedroom and contradicted my mother’s demand, “Let them listen to the radio. It’s a free country and the radio scares away the snakes.”

“You shouldn’t be telling them stories.” She gave him a withering glare.

“I just want a night’s sleep,” he whispered with a wink.

My mother begrudgingly returned my brother’s set and kissed us both.

“Sleep tight.”

“And don’t let the bedbugs bite,” my brother and I replied in unison.

Once the light went out, my brother fell asleep and I attached the alligator clips to the metal bed frame. The little rockets range expanded across the country at night.

The airwaves soared with voices from Montreal, Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Wheeling, West Virginia. Their accents scared away the snakes. Music and radio shows appeared between the squawks of static, until a hoarse man cried out, “And Cousy has the ball.”

I soon divined this broadcast was a basketball game at Boston Garden between the Seventy-Sixers and the Celtics.

Each play mattered to the excited announcer and the roar of the crowd was as bloodthirsty as the Romans in the Coliseum. I rooted for the Boston team, since my mother had been born in Jamaica Plains, but Bill Russell was not stopping the dreaded giant, Wilt. Luckily the Sixers were befuddled by the Jones boys and at breakfast I recounted how the two brothers’ defense stopped the Philadelphia team.

“When did you fall asleep?” my father asked and I answered, “Around midnight.”

“Don’t tell your mother or the Jones Boys will have a curfew.”

That night I listened to every game.

Without touching a basketball.

In 1960 we moved to Boston. My father took us to the Garden. It didn’t matter that KC and Sam Jones weren’t brothers.

Seeing the game hooked me on basketball, despite my dribbling being rudimentary and my shooting abysmal. My skills didn’t improve in high school or college, yet my merciless ‘in your shorts’ defense allowed me to compete against much taller and more talented players.

In 1976 I left my teaching job at South Boston High school and moved to the East Village.

No one play basketball in the junkie b-ball courts on Avenue A and I wandered onto West 4th Street courts on Avenue of the Americas.

Truthfully I didn’t deserve to stand on that pint-sized court with its high-flying leapers, deadeye shooters, and dazzling dribblers, but the players recognized I didn’t give up on defense. This sacrifice allowed them to devote everything to offense.

One summer day a muscle-bound guard from Mott Haven drove toward the basket. I planted my feet and took the charge. He bounced off my shoulder and I passed the loose ball for my teammate’s easy lay-up. Before any congratulations were offered, the guard said, “Point don’t count.”

“Why not?” Incredible talent didn’t stop great players from calling shitty fouls.

“You charged me, Opie.” He pushed me.

“You ran into me like a drunk driver hitting a telephone pole.” His grudge against Andy of Mayberry’s son wasn’t shutting my mouth.

“You think you’re funny?” The laughter from the line-up of ‘next games’ ignited the guard.

I ducked his punch and wrestled him into a headlock. His elbow cracked my jaw and the blow loosened my tooth. We dropped to the ground.

Our respective teams separated us and I shouted over the shoulder of the forward, “That was your best shot? Damn, that was a real Twinkie.”

“I’ll show you a shot, Oppie.” He reached into his bag for a gun.

I fled the court.

When I returned to my SRO room on West 11th Street, my hillbilly girlfriend tended to my black eye.

“That’s it. No more basketball.”

“I didn’t do anything.” It was a weak counter.

“Like always.” She threw my old baloney-skinned Spaulding out the window.

Not wanting to get shot I obeyed her edict, until hearing the familiar thump of rubber on Avenue A.

A Puerto Rican teenager was dribbling into Tompkins Square Park.

I went outside in my sneakers and asked, “Mind if I shoot around with you.”

“Not at all.” He bounce-passed the ball and I launched a high arcing shot, missing the backboard, hoop, and net.

“Shit, man, you better be good on defense.”

He retrieved the ball at the top of the key and flicked the ball into the netless hoop.

If he hadn’t been right, I might have been insulted.

“I can’t get my shot right.”

“A couple of hundred shots each day. You gotta improve. The name’s Izzy.”

Izzy was short, lean, and worked an early shift for the sanitation department. I was stocky and worked at a discotheque as a bouncer. We met every afternoon to play all-comers.

The picks I set in a two-on-two game created a bond between us. Izzy scored the points and I defended the hoop. Anyone big, anyone rough, anyone with weight, Izzy would say, “Stick ‘em.”

Before games opposing players dunked the ball for intimidation and Izzy warned them, “Don’t try that shit on the Rock during the game. Players have scored more points and others have more rebounds. No one has more fouls than the Rock.”

The dunker smirked, only to discover Izzy hadn’t been kidding.

Basketball became my refuge from the storm.

When my hillbilly girlfriend and I broke up over my infidelity, I treated the pain by shooting in the park. During the AIDS epidemic I shot baskets to forget my friends’ deaths. The only time my body and soul didn’t hurt was when I was playing ball.

The park was my gym, therapy, and social club. I met friends, we told stories, and shared future plans. Izzy and I played in any weather other than rain, sleet or snow.

There were a few other all-year players; Terri with the knot on his head, Carmelo with the sweet touch and the evil temper, Doug, the swing guard from Chicago, Jose, the mad Peruvian, Jim Thorne from Maine, the pure shooting Mark, crazy Hollywood with his fifty-foot swishing hook, JD’s devotion to winning, Big Ed with his sweet hook, Shannon’s swooping glide, Church Charles with his Walter Bibby perfection, Mouse with his slashing drives to the hoop, and they helped me win a few more games than I should deserved to have on my record and I played everywhere in the world.

I have squared against Chinese soldiers in Tibet, run full-court with heroin dealers in the mountains of the Golden Triangle, elbowed for position with French forwards in the dusty court inside the Parc de Luxembourg, fast-breaked barefoot with Filipino sailors in Penang, and faced baby gang-bangers in North Hollywood, but my home court was the three bent rims and buckled metal backboards of Tompkins Square Park in the East Village.

Some of the kids from the Boy’s Club across the street reached the college ranks. Their names went up in lights. Sadly I remained a dim 40-watt light bulb.

Teammates groaned at blown lay-ups, unchallenged tap-ins missed from under the basket, and long bombs rattling out of the cylinder. My opponents’ laughter inspired frenzied heights of defense. Great scorers gave lessons in cradling the ball, and I spent hundreds of hours shooting baskets, hoping one day the mechanics might click, yet I remained a 20% shooter

My teammates never went to me in the clutch and even Izzy shunned me on the court.

One afternoon we had an insurmountable lead and Carmelo bounce-passed the ball to me. The ball struck my hand at an awkward angle and went out of bounds. Izzy pointed at my dislocated finger.

“You should go to the hospital.” Izzy was eying a rasta named Roberto to take my place.

The dreadlock power forward had game.

“No way.”

I had popped knees, cracked ribs, shattered teeth, had my eyes blacked from elbows, twisted ankles, and torn ligaments from head to toe. So had the other players in the park.

“I can fix this myself.”

“Hey, that’s your hand you’re talking about.”

“It’s my left hand.” I didn’t use my little finger for eating pizza and tugged it into place with the crack. “Good as new. Our ball.”

“Your ball?” our opponents crowed vainly, since I had the most seniority on the court.

Carmelo inbounded the ball and I spun to pop the ball toward the basket, a move I had been practicing for years without any success. This time the ball glided through the rim.

Carmelo blinked with disbelief and glanced at my left hand.

My grip had been altered and I nodded for him to pass the ball.

The other team was familiar with my awful shooting and didn’t bother to dee up. I released my shot at the top of the key. The ball actually had spin on it and dropped through the basket.

“It’s your birthday,” declared Izzy.

“It’s the finger.” I held up the swollen pinkie.

I won every game that day and walked off the court a hero.

Next morning I ran into Richard at the court. The mailman was a solid 6-4 power forward with a deadly shot from behind the arc. My losing streak against him stretched over a decade. After he scored three unanswered points, I rebounded an errant bank shot and launched my shot. It sliced through the rim with a whish. His eyes slitted with suspicion.

“Luck was what that was.”

“A football coach once said success is 95% hard work and 5% luck.” Anyone would trade 50% of the hard work for another 5% of luck and I was one of them. I dribbled the ball from right to left. My ball-handling remained a disgrace.

“Stupid, dumb white boy luck.” Richard spread his arms. His wing span rivaled a condor.

“Luck it is then.” I entered a space/time warp of probability. Hooks fell, three-points rained, and lay-ups spun around the rim to drop in the hole.

“No, I broke my finger.” I flexed the crooked digit. There was a little pain. I challenged Richard to another game. “Best out of three.”

He lost two straight.

My longtime friend, Andy Kornfeld, had beaten me for over twenty years and mockingly berated my newfound skills. I defeated him effortlessly. My nickname went for ‘Brick’ to ‘Comeback’, although I had never been anyplace from where to comeback. Players discussed defending me. Their strategies were a waste of effort.

I was on fire.

The other players on the court called out my name like I was a MVP free agent and I didn’t fail them either.

I beat my old adversaries.

Not with an inside game.

Long range.

I stepped farther and farther from the basket.

Day after day my thirty-game winning streak challenged UCLA's record under John Wooden, but the long hour sessions of basketball were tearing apart my body. My doctor witnessed me limping into a restaurant.

“You’re almost fifty. You have to give your body a rest.”

“I’ll be fine.” Pros get a day off. College players rest after a game. I couldn’t stop. I was invincible. I would live forever.

I would win win win.

The next day a college kid asked why I was playing at my age.

“Old man you should be in your wheelchair.” “Wheelchair?” I beat him inside and outside, but on a crossover dribble God strummed my right knee. The shot fell for the win, as I dropped to the floor in agony.

“No.”

The pain boiling through my knee did not lessened, as Carmelo helped me home.

The next time out my knee buckled and I limped to my apartment, praying that tomorrow I might be the same man I had been a week ago, only a month passed and then two. My knee was too weak to handle the stress of a three-on-three. My doctor was pleased to not have to listen to my litany of injuries and suggested, “Take up golf.”

“No way.”

I decided to ink my name on an extended disabled list.

I had no other choice.

A year has passed since that Spring. Not one day has passed that I don’t want to have the ball in my hands. I haven’t told anyone. Picking plastic off a beach has been a workout and I’ve been practicing my jump shot with plastic fishing buoys. My body’s suppleness improves day by day. My knees are flexible and my little finger remains crooked. New York is only 25 hours away by plane.

One day soon I’ll return to my home court. I’ll be greeted like a ghost from the dead. It will be the game of my life, because I have a basketball jones and the one place to scratch that itch is a day away over the North Pole, so start spreading the news, “I’m leaving today…..” THE DUKE OF ROCK by Peter Nolan Smith Back in the 80s and 90s Tompkins Square Park in the East Village had several basketball courts. Full-court games were played next to the handball courts closest to Avenue B. Half-court games was located against the fences of the asphalt baseball field on Avenue A. Players were split between neighborhood ballers and hoopsters from the rest of the city. The quality of the competition was not up to the standards of West 4th Street or 125th Street, but a total stranger could walk onto the court and claim ‘next’ without a beef. My apartment was located on East 10th Street. Several pairs of my dead sneakers hung on the streetlights at the intersection of 10th and A. I played half-court almost every day. My tenacious defense earned 50% the nickname ‘Brick’ with my atrocious shooting reaping claim to the other half of my on-court persona. “Stop the big guy, Brick.” My teammates pointed out taller opposing players. “Don’t let Big Man live in the paint.” “Gotcha.” I had a low center of gravity and thick thighs. My role on the court was defense, rebounds, and more defense. A deft touch on my opponent’s hip deflected artistic drives to the basket. My squat body stymied attempted dunks. Players cursed how my wide body blocked the path to the rim. No one had more fouls than the Brick. Not Kurt Rambis. Not Bill Laimbeer. My apologies were a lesson in sincerity. This was street ball. No one was getting paid and no one got hurt. Words rarely escalated to fists, for the East Village had a reputation as a bad neighborhood and bad neighborhoods attract bad people. My corner on 10th and 1st had been a long-time spot for ‘sinse’ and smack had dominated 4th Street between B and C, but the epidemic of crack cocaine struck New York with the force of a million sledge hammers. Cokeheads brazenly piped Cloud 9 on the steps of burnt-out tenements with their bag brides. Desperate chicken-scratchers searched the sidewalks and gutters for lost crumbs. Around the corner from Tompkins Square Park a barricaded tenement called the ‘Rock’ slung ‘glo’ 24 hours a day. Teenage Puerto Ricans worked the corners steering trade to the slingers of the Rock. Guns hung under their jerseys. Business was better than good and other dealers wanted a piece of the action. Fistfights were common on that block. At night nasty blasts of 38s, 45s, and 9mms barked in the night like mad dogs. The police skipped patrols on that block. 11th Street belonged to the Rock. Two of my teammates lived in that five-story drug den. Carmelo was my point-guard at 5-6 with a sweet 3-pointer behind my screens. He lived on the 2nd floor. Duke ruled the 3rd floor. His name was feared from Houston to 14th Street. Black and mean Duke swept by my picks to the basket. At 6-2 he really didn’t need my help. Slinging rock was their business. I wasn’t into crack. It was too strong for my tastes. The two of them were the same. They smoked ‘blunts’ for fun. Crack was their cash crop and business was better than good. Carmelo had money in his pocket and a smile on his face. Duke wasn’t so lucky. He had two girlfriends. Both had kids. The cops were after him, but he faced more dangerous threat from the other dealers in Lausida, who wanted him dead and their gunmen patrolled the East Village for a chance to kill him. The 80s were hard times. The incidence of shootings had doubled since the advent of crack. Some people said that CIA had dropped crack on the ghetto to finance the Contras. Others accused the GOP of targeting blacks and Latinos with the drug. Duke didn’t cared either way. He was trapped no matter what. His only vacation was a visit to the basketball courts on Avenue A. He was a better full-court player, but those courts were too far from his roost. The Rock was less than a 15-second from the hoop, although Duke wasn’t a runner and Tompkins Square Park was a truce zone for the crack gangs. No guns. No knives. No fights. Only basketball. Duke, Carmelo, and I were a 3-on-3 team. Ws were a tribute to our teamwork, shooting, muscle, and hustle. Ls resulted from my blown lay-ups or airballs from 10 feet. Duke and Carmelo laughed at my dribbling and threatened to call me ‘One-Hand.” When we balled on that court, nothing else mattered to us. The Rock was replaced by the joy of a stolen pass, money problems evaporated after a triumphant come-back, and women troubles were forgotten during a winning streak, but the East Village was the East Village and one afternoon in August 1991, Duke, Carmelo, and I had the run of the court. Carmelo’s shooting was unstoppable, I gathered all the rebounds, and Duke tapped the ball into the hoop from the paint. We beat a squad from Harlem. 15-6. I had one point. “Who’s next?” Duke spun with a smile on his face. We were invincible. “We got it.” The speaker was a muscular 6-1 Dominican with a scar highwaying down his cheek. Biz lived across the street from the ‘Rock’. Two years ago his gang had lost the block in a war with Duke’s posse. “This just b-ball, right?” Carmelo dribbled the ball glaring at Biz’s two other players. His boys were strangers to a smile. My man was Gordo. We had played maybe 20 times. The 25 year-old fat boy had a slippery move to the left and a vertical lift like he might have been Charles Barkley’s illegitimate son and I dealt with his shooting by slapping his hands. Hard. “Just basketball.” Biz hadn’t taken his eyes off Duke. “Our out.” I waved for the ball at the top of the key. Soon as it touched my hands I bounced the ball to Duke under the basket. “One nothing.” Duke was playing for blood and the players waiting for next games circled our half-court. The history between Duke and Biz was legend in Lausida. “That’s the way we’re gonna play.” Biz and his team settled into defense. Flacco braced Carmelo. The 19 year-old skinny Dominican had long arms. Carmelo pushed off his hand with a slap. We had learned a lot from each other. “That’s the way.” Duke tossed the ball out to me. “Check.” Every basket from that point on was a battle. My opponent outweighed me by 20 pounds and had a few inches height advantage. If he had just shot the ball, we would have been losing fast, but he wanted to stuff the ball in the hole. “No one stuffs on my boy.” Duke declared from the baseline. “I’m gonna.” My opponent knocked me off my feet and started for the rim. I grabbed his jersey and declared, “Foul.” “You can’t call fouls for me.” He was in my face. “Sorry.” I backed away. “Your ball.” Biz and Duke were sumo-wrestling for position. Biz backed up, dribbling the ball. Duke chicken-armed him out of position and scored a lay-up. 2-0. Carmelo hit three easy bankers in a row and I scored on an old school hook. We crowed like rooster on a hen holiday. 5-0 I took the ball at the top of the key. Gordo stood with both hands outstretched, leaving an opening between his legs. I inbounded the ball to a driving Carmelo and we were up 6-0. Duke high-5ed me. “You Bill Buccaneered Fat Boy.” “Don’t say that.” I’m a Red Sox fan and any mention of 1986 error by the Bosox was bad luck.
Flacco stole the next pass and on each position stepped back beyond the arc to drain threes. Our lead gave way to a rally by Biz. He outmuscled Duke under the basket. I tried to help twice and he burned us with on-the-money passes to Gordo. 8-6. “And we got more coming.” Biz shouldered Duke out of the way. He had to be stopped and I grabbed his arm. He didn’t call a foul and swung his elbow at my head. He caught my jaw. I fell backward into the fence and the thirty-plus players watching the game groaned, as metal seeped out of my fillings. “My ball.” “How’s it your ball.” “Flagrant foul.” I spit blood into the bushes. “And what about your foul.” “You didn’t call it.” We thumped chests and Flacco said, “Shoot for it.”
“Sure, Brick couldn’t hit shit.” He handed me the ball and I stepped to the line. No one bet on the shot, because my missing was almost a sure thing. “Ball don’t lie.” I lined up and sunk the shot. Biz’s attempt rattled in and out the bent rim. “Our ball.” I backed into Gordo, until I was three feet from the basket. I faked once and went up for a clear shot. Flacco stuffed my shot to Biz, who hit from 12 feet. “Ball don’t lie is right.” 9-6 They scored two easy baskets. I was winded by the battle with Gordo. 11-6. We needed a stop and I gambled at a steal when Biz turned his back on Duke. I grabbed the ball from his ball and caught Carmelo cutting to the hoop. 11-7 “Rolling dice numbers.” Duke clapped for the ball and he drove on Biz to the hole after a switchover dribble. 5 baskets in a row. We regained the lead and could taste victory. I sunk a three-pointer. 13-10 Two more baskets gave us a W and I passed the ball to Duke. He backed up against Biz, shimmying his body like the Bullets’ Elvin Hayes grinding it out against Sonics’ Spencer Haywood. Duke scored on Biz and nodded with the first smile I had seen on his face. “Point game.” “Man, you like butting into me so much, why don’t we make a date?” It sounded like a joke, but it wasn’t a joke. Duke dropped the ball to take a swing. Biz blocked it with his left forearm, but Duke countered with a straight left into Biz’s face. He went down and Duke grabbed a bottle from the trash, smashing the dazed player on the head. The broken bottle was a deadly weapon now. Biz’s boys were standing with hands at their side. This wasn’t their fight. I grabbed Duke’s arm. Carmelo grabbed the other. “Don’t ever stop me.” Duke shook us off. “I’m getting my gun, Biz.” He scrambled to his feet. He had a reputation to uphold. “I’ll be right back.” Duke stormed off the court. Biz disappeared into the park, but the rest of the neighborhood was a battle-zone. For a week gunshots echoed from the block. Ambulances took the wounded to Bellevue. The basketball games in the park were called off for safety’s sake and everyone avoided 11th Street between An and B. Firebombs burned out two shooting galleries on 4th Street. Biz operated them for the Mafia on 1st Avenue. The police were ordered to stop the violence. Riot squads stormed the Rock, arresting steerers, dealers, and users. Both Carmelo and Duke were swept up in the raid. The crack dens were boarded up and a police guard placed on the steps. The era of the Rock was over. Several days later Carmelo made bail and wandered over the basketball courts. An unwritten truce was in force between the warring gangs, although Duke had a contract on his head. I pulled Carmelo to the side and asked him with my hand over my mouth. “Where’s Duke?” “We need to draft a new power forward.” Saying nothing was the best thing to say, because Biz had inherited a big crew from his older brother. He came to the park with Gordo and Flacco. Carmelo and I teamed up with a kick-boxer from Barbados. No one messed with Roberto. We whipped Biz’s 3-on-3 team 15-9. None of us mentioned Duke’s name. He was gone for good. The crack epidemic ran its course and by the late-90s the murder rate and jail wiped out a generation of bad men. The prisons were packed to the rafters and the abortions of the 70s had decimated their replacements. The East Village became a popular destination for the Wall Street junior execs. They rented apartments without asking about the price. The old neighborhood was changing fast. A few years later I was in the Bronx with Jim Rockford. We were on the job checking out KFCs for the parent company. On Jerome Avenue I spotted Duke with a young girl walking across the street and called out his name. He scanned the sidewalks with his heels lifted to run, until he saw my face. “What you doing up here?” he asked with a little girl in tow. “Working KFC.” I handed him five of the chicken bags from the back of our late-model sedan. “I’m a chicken inspector.” “For a second I thought you were the cops.” He pointed to my ride. It was a Crown Victoria. “It’s a little square.” “Not for white boys. You still balling?” “Any chance I get.” “You’re shooting improve?” “A little, but not enough to lose the nickname ‘Brick’.” “Glad to hear some things don’t change. Anyone ask about me?” “No.” Carmelo held his sand and I knew that it was best to not wake up sleeping dogs. “Good, because my ghosts have brothers.” He tousled his girl’s hair. “I was a little crazy back then. Probably a little crazy now. But I got me a real job now too. You see Carmelo. You tell ‘em that. But don’t tell no one else.” “No, I won’t.” He stepped away and vanished into the crowd of early evening shoppers. Two days later I walked onto the basketball court to practice my shot. Carmelo showed up after a half-hour. He was glad to hear that Duke was alive without asking where I saw him. I heaved a ball from the 3-point line and it bounced off the rim for a long rebound. Duke had been right. Some things don’t change. Ever. BEATEN BY THE OLD AGE TRUCK by Peter Nolan Smith Two years ago New York’s newspapers reported that January had been the warmest January on record and I couldn’t recall a single day since early December with the temperature in the 30s. Late in the month the thermometer hit 45 on a Sunday Morning and I picked up the telephone to call Shannon. We had been playing basketball together for over twenty-five years. Our first game had been when he was in his teens. The tall photographer lived on the other side of Fort Greene Park. He was always up for a game. Shannon was a native New Yorker. “You want to shot some ball at deKalb.” The playground was three blocks away from my apartment. “Sure.” Shannon was willing to meet at 3. “I’ll warm up before you.” Getting the blood to flow in my veins took longer than bringing Frankenstein to life. “You’ll need it, old man.” “Well, see.” I pulled on my black sneakers and shorts. I thought they made me look thinner. My basketball needed air. I wasn’t putting any in the ball. The depressurized rock stole a better player’s dribble. As I was leaving my landlord’s wife shook her head. “You have coverage?” She has asked the same question when I had gone sledding with her husband and two kids in Ft. Greene Park. “No.” My only health plan was wine combined with aspirins. It was a miracle combo, although no protection against a twisted ankle or a popped knee. “I’m just shooting the ball. No games.” “Right.” Katie’s dismissive comment was for the good of my kids. “I’ll be careful.” I had to stay healthy at least until I’m 77 when Angie will be 26 and Fenway 21. Outside the air was cool, not cold. I ran on the sidewalk. My knees creaked with pain. I’ll never be fast again. Young passers-by checked out my dribbling. That skill was not my forte. Defense was my game. Stopping the scorer was my specialty. Hacking had made me a legend. I entered the park and surveyed the courts. The nearest baskets were occupied by young teenagers working a five-on-five. The ones against the fence were dominated by kids, except for the last one, where a lanky 6-4 black teenager practiced set shoots. His release was smooth as Michael Jordan’s bald head and I asked, “Mind if I shoot with you?” “You want to play one-on-one?” His eyes shined with a competitive urge. “Let me loose up a little.” Shannon would show up soon and I took a bunch of shots. My aim was off and his ball felt funny in my hands. It was punched to the bursting point. I watched him shoot and tried to hold the ball same as him. My shooting didn’t improve, so I said, “Hit or miss for ball.” “You want to shoot first?” He bounce-passed the ball to me. “Thanks.” At my age every advantage was a plus. My shot from the foul line clanged off the rim. He buried his shot. All net. The next possession he glided to the hoop for a lay-up. I was already sucking wind. Score 2-0. The following play was a grinding attack in the paint. His shot went off the backboard and in. 3-0. Shannon came into the park and stretched watching us. I scored 3 points in a game to 11. This kid was good. He beat Shannon 11-4. “My name’s Shea like the old Mets baseball park.” There was nothing old about Shea and I couldn’t remember ever being that young. Our second game repeated the score of the first game. 11-3. Shea beat me up inside and I fell over twice, blown out of my socks by his move to the hole. If I hadn’t been 57, this would been have a humiliating loss, instead of simply an embarrassing defeat. Shannon went down 11-6 with a struggle. Shea was getting tired. I got a 3-0 lead in the next game. It was all an illusion. Shea sucked it up and I didn’t score another point. My lungs were red-lining for oxygen and Shea hadn’t even broken a sweat. The successive games had had a toll on Shea and Shannon had him 9-8. Two more baskets and he could say in the future that he beat this teenage phenom. Shea didn’t let him get any. We spoke to Shea. He was a 16 year-old sophomore starting center for the local high school. His team had lost in the play-offs this weekend. He wasn’t happy about his play. “Truthfully I haven’t played against anyone better than you in all my years.” “Thanks.” No one ever wanted to tell Shea that. He was that good. Shannon and I teamed up for a 2-on-2. We lost 15-6. I scored no points. My hang-over was not a factor. My legs were too old for this game. I didn’t deserve to be on the court with Shea or Shannon, but I wasn’t sitting out this season. All I needed to do was practice my outside shot. I returned to the brownstone with a hobble. Katie looked at me with disgust. “Some men know when to call it quits.” “Not me.” Old age is only in my head. Age is only a number. My heart is still 15 and my head is much younger. I wish my body understood that. Maybe later this summer. If I’m lucky to last that long. Hanging Sneakers Several years ago the BBC News broadcasted a report on the ‘Mystery of NYC’s Hanging Sneakers’. The sight of laced Adidas sneakers draped over telephone wires had befuddled the British and their research came up with several plausible reasons for the phenomena. One social worker attributed the occurrence to a sign of gangs. If you were not of the gang then the members would beat up the intruder to their neighborhood and throw his sneakers over the telephone wires as a sign of disrespect. A Harlem resident commented that kids hung the sneakers to commemorate a dead friend, while another pointed out that the sneakers were a sign that drugs were for sale in that neighborhood. A street baller explained that the hanging sneakers were a sign of respect to their sneakers and I agree him, for I had thrown several pairs of Adidas over the traffic lights at the intersection of East 10th Street and Avenue A across from the basketball courts of Tompkins Square Park. I only chucked them up there once they were worn to the threads. Every time I saw them afterwards, I thought about having playing in them. The losses and the wins. Hanging sneakers is an honor to sneakers. And it ain’t easy getting them to get up there. The NYPD certainly don’t like it, then again they don’t like nothing.

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