Full-court basketball used to be a Twin Cities parks mainstay. Then the neighbors complained.

JUMP BACK A YEAR. Ballplayers are rolling out to their local cineplex to check Spike Lee's latest flick, He Got Game. What moves will the director of Do the Right Thing, a dyed-in-the-wool Knicks fan, make to celebrate America's latest, greatest pastime? Will Michael Jordan fly across the opening credits? Will New York's nemesis, three-point-shooting guard Reggie Miller, get slapped with an inside dis? And what about the soundtrack? Will it be Miles blowing over a sweltering groove, à la Jungle Fever? Could be. Sly & the Family Stone puffed up and plugged in? Maybe so. Chuck D. bouncing rhymes off a backbeat? That would work.

The lights fade. The projector rolls. A corn-fed redhead nails jump shots through a naked rusty rim fixed to a barn somewhere in the heart of the nation's breadbasket. Slow-motion cut. Two little white kids dribble the rock on a suburban driveway, Anywhere, USA. Cut. A half-dozen shirtless teens navigate the cracked blacktop courts skirting a run-down housing project on Chicago's south side. No dialogue, just a swell of music backing the collage. "Lincoln Portrait," to be exact, composed by Aaron Copland--disciple of Debussy and Ravel, born 1900, died 1990--and commissioned by the Department of War in 1942. The juxtaposition of sound and image jars: Sure, Copland's track has that dramatic gust, but isn't this supposed to be a film about modern-day ball, a rags-to-rags street opera, and not some tired Western where John Wayne rides off into the sunset? Is Spike on the pipe? Is he selling out?

Not so fast. Copland, see, was a rebel--a trailblazer who, as his life wound down, became known as the first significant classical composer to turn against all influences European. As much populist as patriot, he had little use for class distinctions or prejudice. Spike Lee gets it: This mood music is a cinematic salvo, fired across Hollywood's racial divide. Basketball isn't about two backboards, ten players, and a ball. It's about attitude, and bodies black, white, and the spectrum between, blowing off steam in the hottest of summer suns. It's about team play and the solo ride, about busting a break, turning your moves into music, getting loose, going free.

Wing Young Huie

"Work for the man nine to five, come down here to get me a game, and these motherfuckers come rollin' down the hill," someone shouts from inside the knot of players sweating up the court. "It's harassment, man. It's bullshit." Elvin "Preacher" Owens has picked up his dribble. The early-evening game at Loring Park, just west of downtown, has made for a bruising duel, tied at seven as the mercury hits 80, and it's dead--for now.

Two officers from the Minneapolis Park Police have driven their cruiser down the grassy hill that leads to the park's lone full-length basketball court, and parked next to a cluster of trees. Another couple of cops, sporting sleek bicycle helmets and mirrored sunglasses, have pedaled over from the tennis courts to offer backup. Loring's regular hoopsters, a clutch of thirtysomething men, greet them with narrow stares and a barrage of murmurs.

"Shit, we're just down here trying to get some exercise."

"While you motherfuckers are down here eyeing us up, five people will get shot over on Chicago and Lake."

"You want an arrest? I'll take you down to Seventh and Hennepin. You want to know what's going on down there? Dude just sold a dime bag at a discount, that's what."

A few yards away, perched on a picnic table nestled in the shade, the handful of spectators who've gathered to take in the evening's pickup games, down a few beers, blow a dube or two, and shoot the breeze, snicker and shake their heads, amused by the singsong banter bouncing off the backboards, disgusted with what they see as the cops muscle-flexing for show only. "Yesterday, they had those damn horses down here sniffin' in our faces," an old-timer known as Pops snaps. "Now they're trying to run us over. If I drove my car down here--no road, no sidewalks--they'd haul my ass to jail."

After a few uncomfortable, stalled minutes, the police pick up stakes. It's unclear for whom or what they were looking ("Some brother must've broken loose," an onlooker jokes, conjuring a howl). On any other day, the standoff would've faded into thin air with the next offensive juke or gritty defensive stop. As they turn their squad car around, though, the officers run tracks over a pile of gym clothes lying in the grass. "Yo, man, you just ran over my shorts!" one of the players screams as he sprints toward the heap. "Oh, uh, sorry..." the driver mutters, and retreats up the hill.

"Did you see that? Man, they just drove down in here and fucked my shit up!" As Preacher yells, "Ball in!" restarting the game, players in line to challenge for game two, still pacing between a pair of paint-chipped benches along the court's faded sideline, take up the incident as an excuse to engage in a boisterous, poetic bull session. If this were a white game somewhere in Edina, the men complain, the cops would be down here laying odds; instead, since everyone on this end of the park is black, they're playing it like Clint Eastwood: hardball--no manners, no respect. One young man suggests that the next time Johnny Law comes sniffing, everyone ought to take off running, just for a laugh. That'd freak 'em. Amen, one player shouts as he stretches a quad. After lacing up his spotless white high-tops, he thinks better of the prank: "They can always come up with some reason to arrest you, brother. There's always a reason."

Next Page »