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.
"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."
The next morning, when asked if his officers make a habit of shaking up games in the inner city, Lt. L.A. Evenrud of the Minneapolis Park Police explains that it's the activity around an outdoor court, not on it, that usually causes concern. And he's sure the officers at Loring had good reason to interrupt yesterday's match. "In general, we're in a reactive mode with respect to problems on basketball courts. We wouldn't necessarily be looking for ways to intervene unless we had a series of complaints," Evenrud clarifies. "As a matter of habit, we do surveillance, conduct sweeps, and check garbage cans. And because Loring's population literally changes every 15 minutes of the day, that court is probably a gathering place for a lot of different kinds of people. We do watch that area, not because of who is playing, but because of what goes on around the game, such as alcohol use, weapons, and drug dealing."
Edward Reynolds smiles through a snort when he hears Evenrud's explanation. He's been running in games at Loring for years. By his lights, there's one and only one group hanging by this court: his group, trading the day's gossip and enjoying the weather. Sure, they might toss back a beer, or a nonplayer might take a toke. But they're not peddling their vices or waving them in the faces of other park habitués. Reynolds is convinced the police aren't always about preventing trouble; sometimes they're about looking for an excuse to shut down the game--for good. "If they can come up with a reason," the thick, 30-year-old post-up player insists, "they'll rip this court up and turn it into a wading pool."
Given what's happened over the past decade in the Minneapolis park system, it's hard to dismiss Reynolds's theory. There are still more than 60 outdoor, public basketball courts in the city (along with 21 indoor gymnasiums). But after fielding a slew of complaints by residents who live near certain city parks--irritated about noisy late-night games and what they see as the increasing volatility among the (mostly black) players who play them--the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has opted to take out ten of the city's most storied outdoor basketball facilities.
In 1990 two full courts at Peavey Park--a hot spot for hustlers at the corner of Franklin and Chicago--were ripped out and replaced with three half-courts. Soon after, Farview Park in north Minneapolis lost its full court, where local high school stars had often settled their athletic rivalries in legendary off-season tilts. In the last six years, full-court players at northeast's Logan Park; Lowry Hill's Mueller Park; and southeast's VanCleve Park have also been forced to look elsewhere for a two-hoop, outdoor game. In 1997 one of the most competitive spots in town, in Bryant Square Park, at 31st Street and Bryant Avenue in south Minneapolis, fizzled when that always-hoppin' full court was traded up for one with a single basket that these days attracts almost without exception only grade school kids.
Maureen Durand, the assistant superintendent of recreation in Minneapolis, stresses that each of these alterations was made for good reasons. Say the court was located close to residential streets: Neighbors complained about the noise. "It doesn't even have to be that crowded," Durand says. "Sometimes, if the court is right across the street, it could just be the bouncing of the ball on a warm night in the city when people have their windows open." Or say park patrons notice that little kids aren't getting the chance to shoot hoops, because the big boys who've driven in from all over town won't share the court. That situation, Durand recalls, has caused more than one block club to marshal its forces and demand that council members and the Park and Rec Board do something; that something has often meant divvying up a full court.
What comes up most, though, Durand notes, is neighborhood groups' concerns about "the nature of the competition" on the courts: When the contests gets fierce, the court gets a reputation as the place to play ball. And that reputation, Durand points out, tends to attract more players than most city parks were designed to handle--either on or off the blacktop. Mix talented, high-octane players on a full court, and the adrenaline starts pumping, the trash talk starts flying, and the occasional punch gets thrown. Spectators, in turn, treat the pickup games as they might a street festival: drinking, playing loud music, and gambling into the late hours, past the neighborhood's bedtime.
"People end up going to the full courts after the bars close," Durand says, "so there can be a lot of noise and a lot of people. In those kinds of situations, the closer the court is to the parking lots, the louder it will be. People might be playing their stereos or they might have coolers in their trunks."
Durand also insists that there are more than enough full courts available for serious players, from Powderhorn to Kenwood. If residents aren't griping, she says, the Park and Rec Board lets the games go on; even when they do gripe, the board's response is to exhaust every avenue toward settling the scene down before making a structural change: "We'll lock it at night or take it out of play for a while. Then we'll consider going to half-courts before we remove them altogether."
The board has no plans to shut down more courts this summer. For that matter, according to park planner MaryLynn Pulscher, the city is hoping to spruce up the cracked, slanted slab that is Loring's court before the leaves fall. "Loring is centrally located," Pulscher says. "You've got great trees, just a great setting. We want to give the place a paint job, brand-new hoops, and some newer benches. We're even talking about putting in a drinking fountain."
Reynolds wants to believe the department will actually come through, but he can't help being a bit suspicious. Last year park workers took out three barbecue pits near the picnic tables, where he and his buddies would kick back and cook out after working up a sweat. At the time, there were promises of replacement. Now, it seems, they're gone for good--a fate he fears the court might follow too. "My worry is they'll bust up the pavement, promising something better, then leave it unfinished for good or until everyone scatters," Reynolds says. "I can hear it now. 'We don't have enough money to finish the job just yet. We'll do it next year.' Blah, blah, blah."
Be these fears real or imagined, Reynolds and his cohorts don't want to give those opposed to their game any excuses to shut it down. So they keep a watch out for the cops and an eye on their own crew. Late one June afternoon, a weathered, potbellied con artist, dressed in a soiled tank top, ratty khakis, and a battered Vikings cap, wanders over and unrolls a dirty yellow bath towel near center court, pulls out a wad of twenties, and throws down a pair of dice. "Lay your bets," he howls. A police car starts to crawl, very slowly, across the park. "Put that away," Reynolds pleads. "We're trying to do something positive here, and you're going to fuck it up. Next time I see you down here, I'm going to call the cops myself."
The man, speaking in a slow slur, responds with a barrage of insults. L.J., a boisterous young player, dribbles over to enter the fray on behalf of Reynolds. Soon all three men are trading abuse, one-upping each other until what began as a tense confrontation shape-shifts into a comedic crowd pleaser.
"What's with the Vikings hat, old man? There's one white guy on the whole goddamn team, and he misses the field goal," L.J. razzes, referring to the squad's heartbreaking loss in last year's playoffs.
"That's right. And when that motherfucker missed that field goal," the man counters, "all 45,000 people in that stadium should've stood up and shot his ass."
Reynolds and L.J. fall out, chuckling as they wander back to the court for one more run before knocking off.
Halfway through the 1998 book Hoops Nation: A Guide to America's Best Pickup Basketball, author Chris Ballard concludes that "the Twin Cities are less than equal when in comes to hoops.... In fact, Minneapolis is almost an only child, though a few decent runs can be found in St. Paul." Those looking for a serious tilt in the capital city will find satisfaction, according to Ballard, only at Mounds View High School or on the asphalt at Martin Luther King Park--sorry pickings, all said, up against the legendary boroughs of New York City, the multicourt digs in Philly, or the semipro pickups in Detroit.
Minneapolis doesn't fare much better. The Arena Club in downtown Minneapolis gets the guidebook's highest rating. No wonder. Especially during the summer months, bold souls who frequent the indoor, air-conditioned facility, located on the lower level of Target Center, can play alongside high school elites and local collegiates, or test their skills against bench players from the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Arena Club is members-only, though (accompanied guests pay $12; unaccompanied pay $17). So to many inner-city players, its posh locker room is no more accessible than, say, an NBA contract. For those looking to play without paying a cover, Ballard submits an alternative: "A less friendly game goes on at Loring Park, where sideline drinking can cause tempers to flare." Earning three of four stars ("average high school level of competition"), the run-down court is dubbed "physical"--by Ballard's measure, "no blood, no foul."
Preacher Owens believes Ballard's evaluation in regard to tempers, one he's heard circulated for years, misses the point. A 37-year-old shooting guard who played college ball for Northern Michigan University's Wildcats, Preacher says those who glimpse the action as they stroll through the park often confuse Loring's intense competition with hostility. What they don't see, he believes, is that the court's congregants keep the faith, and keep company, because there's a sense of community, of mutual respect. Still, he won't deny that every point on this court is hard-won.
"People down here are from the heart and soul of the city," Preacher testifies. "They'll play with jeans on, they'll play with work boots on. They don't care how they look. Because down here, man, it's the gridiron. Everybody knows the brothers will kick, scratch, and bite for every basket. That's why only a few white guys can make it out here. Because only a few of them have heart. Yeah, we're older, a little slower. But that just means we win by knowing good basketball: passing, posting-up, trapping, and solid defense."
James Brown, known as J.B., a 29-year-old Chicago native who played for Augsburg College in the early 1990s, seconds Preacher's sentiment. He figures that "80 percent" of the Loring allegiants he knows--and he knows almost all of them by now--have logged hundreds of hours on high school teams, in junior college programs, or both. Some, like St. Paul Central graduate Anthony Jackson and Preacher, have played for money in Pro-Am tournaments around the Upper Midwest region or in pro leagues such as the Continental Basketball Association. "You come down here, you bring it back to the original game," J.B. brags. "You're bringing it back outside, in the toughest conditions. See that manhole at center court? If you set the ball down on the baseline, it's going to roll downhill. See that support pole? It's two and a half feet from the rim. Guys go in hard for a lay-up, they're taking their life in their own hands. But no one cares. We'll take the wind, the sun, and suck up the stink coming off that pond over there. Guys out here will play with ligament tears. No one complains. That's what makes this court real."
"It's true," Reynolds adds, "there's just something about this game that just drags you in. Guys will come down here dressed to go out on the town, and the next thing you know they're out there running in a game. You just breathe it. And just because you get older doesn't mean it goes away. You still think you can do it."
Of course, Loring isn't the only outdoor, two-hoop game in town. Quality players can sometimes "get a run on" at places such as Painter Park on West 34th Street or on the courts in Linden Hills at 43rd Street and Xerxes Avenue. Among those in the know, though, only one other sunlit scene competes with Loring's lore. Over the past decade, Lynnhurst Park, at 50th Street and Minnehaha Parkway, on the edge of Edina, has earned props for attracting some of the metro's hottest athletes. If Loring is for the seasoned street pro, Lynnhurst is for the up-and-comer still testing his limits off the dribble and in the air. There are always a few lifers on hand to drop knowledge, in case the school kids forget what's what.
Mike Contrers, a 30-year-old St. Paulite and former shooting guard for Concordia College in St. Paul, makes the pilgrimage to keep his three-pointer tuned. ("These young guys try to take over. So us old guys have to stand our ground.") Karl Gilleylen--affectionately known as "Killer"--has been part of the up-tempo games since he moved to the Cities from Aberdeen, Mississippi, 12 years ago. ("I'm a talker. That's my game. I get in their heads.") "White Boy Chad" Latvala keeps filling the quota, because, to his thinking, this is the best pickup in town. "Lynnhurst is all about the young guys who think they're MJ," he offers with a sly grin. "Loring's all about a bunch of smoking, drinking, old motherfuckers who think they can still play."
Lynnhurst's weekend pace is frenetic. Games are played to 13. Winners stay to take on all challengers. On crowded summer days, once your team loses, it's unlikely you'll get another run for hours. Because the court is right in the middle of one of the city's most affluent parks, and features a picturesque baseball field and a state-of-the-art playground, no one dares gamble, smoke, or drink around the court. There's plenty of trash talk, sure. But there are fewer tangles than there are at Loring. For starters, the players are younger and more fit, and they don't rely on petty arguments to slow up the pace. There's also the shared awareness among the regulars that someone's always looking to scotch their deal.
In 1996, heeding the call of neighbors concerned about growing crowds, profanity, and a lack of access to baskets for younger kids, the Park and Rec Board tore up one of Lynnhurst's two full-sized courts and replaced it with a couple of half-courts. The reasoning, according to assistant superintendent Durand, was simple: Because the court furthest from the playground was kept intact, older players could still compete, youngsters on the swing set wouldn't be exposed to the game's verbal intensity, and those looking to shoot a game of horse would have somewhere to go.
Killer doesn't argue with the rationale, but he and everyone else competing on this gorgeous afternoon in early June can't help but mourn the loss of their second court, nor wonder if their days at Lynnhurst are numbered. "When we had both courts, we called one the NBA and the other the CBA. Losers would play on the CBA court, winners would play on the NBA court. It meant more games for everyone. So the crowds would be huge. Back then, if you weren't here by 9:30 a.m., you were four or five runs down."
"It's a shame!" Latvala shouts. "You need to get that court back. And you need to make sure this one stays as is. You tell them a white guy said that. Maybe they'll listen."
Contrers, citing beggars' logic, admits there will never be enough outdoor baskets for the pickup addict. But to lose another full court in a city where they're already on their way to the endangered species list would be tragic: "Man, it's like this: If they had lights out here, we'd never leave. We'd be here until midnight, every night. Guys would be getting divorced."
A decade ago Farview Park, near the corner of Broadway and Lyndale avenues in North Minneapolis, was ground zero. On the sidelines it had all the scenic trappings of Loring's never-ending picnic. On the court the stick-thin teens could make today's Lynnhurst look like amateur night at the Apollo. By 1990, though, the neighbors had seen, and heard, enough.
Park officer M.S. Swanson, who has patrolled Farview since 1989, says the full court was removed mainly because it was too close to a parking lot, where crowds who'd come to see heated games gathered, along with their booming car stereos and coolers full of beer. The Park and Rec Board was also worried about the on-court competition, which had gotten so intense that loud arguments often turned into brawls that spilled into the parking lot; it wouldn't take much for the brawls--relatively harmless stressburners--to turn really ugly.
"A really, really intense game needs to be inside, where a rec center's staff can provide supervision," Durand says. For Paul Jaeger, who runs Farview's indoor recreation center, the question by the early 1990s had become, "What do you do when a few guys head to an outdoor court, looking to blow off some steam, and it causes some problems? You know, there's a bass booming, there's some loud swearing, a few beers between games. Now, are any of these things really all that terrible? No. But to the old lady living 50 feet away, it's a big deal. And when you think about it, it should be. She shouldn't have to put up with that."
The same year Farview's full court disappeared, the city built a rec center; staff at Farview then began offering an adult basketball league in the indoor gym on Monday nights. The call for players was an instant success. Today 60 or more of the city's strongest high school athletes and college prospects routinely show up to compete on the center's two full-sized courts. "We like to say this is where Khalid [El Amin] played when he was just a kid," Jaeger says, proud of the high school champ and NCAA star as is anyone on the north side.
The rules are simple. Hoopsters sign in at the front desk, where they must leave their bags, backpacks, purses, and jackets before entering the gym, just in case they're carrying a weapon, some booze, even a pack of cigarettes. Then, for a three-dollar fee, they can sign up to rotate in and out of games, from 8:00 to 11:00 p.m. Each contest lasts ten minutes. The team with the highest score when the buzzer sounds wins. By design, the system is supposed to cut down on arguments, since the clock never stops and players don't want to waste precious time bickering.
Still, because the competition is so fierce, arguments often break out over petty fouls or last-second shots. E.J., a volunteer from the neighborhood who will only say he's old enough to be most everyone on the court's father, figures it is this type of confrontation, in the heat of battle, that casual observers take too seriously. "For some guys, talk is part of their game. It's about getting into their opponent's head. When you get two guys who talk, you get a situation that's hectic. But as you hang around this game, you understand what that's all about. In fact, you kind of look forward to it."
Tonight, the Knicks are playing the Pacers in game three of the NBA playoffs, so the crowd at Farview is smaller than usual. By coincidence or not, there also seems to be a higher concentration of talent. Part-timers from Loring's game and youngsters from Lynnhurst's have likely gathered at home to watch the game and maybe pick up a few new tricks from the pros. But ladder-climbers like state champ Tamara Moor--former star of North High's Lady Polars, Ms. Basketball Minnesota 1998, now a starter for the Wisconsin Badgers women's team--can't afford to pass up an evening of playing Class A ball.
"There's a lot of talent in this gym," Moore confirms, as she sits on the bleachers pointing out the stars. There's Calvin Hill, formerly of Patrick Henry High in north Minneapolis, now attending the University of Northern Iowa. A group of starters from Washburn High on the city's west side. Allen Anderson of northeast's Edison High. DeAndre Townsend, a promising ninth-grader regulars here call "Little Bear." A couple of Moore's former classmates, two guys who in 1998 helped bring home another state championship trophy to Minneapolis North, are just taking off their sweats. Female players are as scarce as white guys are at outdoor city courts; on Mondays at Farview, though, you can always count on four or five women to mix it up with the men.
The demographics at each of the city's most popular courts reflect different styles of play. Loring's older crowd prefers a slow, physical game, where perimeter players feed a bigger post man who either takes a shot or passes it back outside (think New York Knicks, pre-Latrell Sprewell). Fouls are frequent in the paint, and, if anyone's running, defense is weak. As Ballard put it in Hoops Nation, no blood, no foul. Lynnhurst, like Farview, is populated by fit, game-ready athletes. Like their elder brethren at Loring, though, they play together frequently, so they know what to expect from one another on both offense and defense. As a result, the game is more team-oriented. Crisp passes around the arc often lead to open three-pointers, or free up playmakers for a quick slash into the lane. Selfish players find themselves subject to verbal lashings from both observers and teammates.
Mondays at Farview are all about individual performance. Showtime. Ball handlers look to drive, shooters fire at will, big guys turn rebounds into rim-rattling dunks. Moore, who has just run onto the hardwood to play her first game of the night, led last year's Badgers in assists, free-throw percentage, and steals. So she'll use her quickness to exploit the one-on-one defense at Farview, frustrating some of the best men with a mean crossover and dead-on aim.
As they watch from a set of bleachers across the gym, Bemidji State's Larry Smith and Henry High's Quinnone Berry try to get inside Moore's head. "You got to take that shit!" Smith cries when she passes off a shot. "That's what I'm talking about!" Berry taunts when Moore's man hits a jumper. Each time they toss out an insult, the Badger hikes her shorts, rolls up her shirt sleeves, trains her stare harder ahead, and turns a deaf ear toward the two. Eventually, Smith and Berry get bored. To pass the time before their next turn, they start trading tales, like a couple of fishermen on a no-catch day.
"The other day I went up over this guy and broke the rim right on his head," Smith deadpans. "The backboard just shattered, man, cut his leg from knee to ankle. I still have the glass in a jar at home." Berry roars in approval: "Yep. That's how it be sometime on the north side."
Back at Loring Park, Miles Tarver and Kevin Clark, senior starters for last season's University of Minnesota Golden Gophers basketball team, are milling around the playground equipment just a few yards from the hoops at Loring Park, taking in the action. When Reynolds spots them, he can't help but wonder if they're planning to join the tournament J.B. is organizing for the weekend of June 12. The admission fee is $100 per team (any team that pays, plays), winner take all. If the tournament proves anything like last year's, the competition will attract talent from all over the city, including mainstays from both Lynnhurst and Farview.
Asked if he plans to suit up as a ringer, Tarver--understandably skittish, given the ongoing media scrutiny around his alleged involvement in the Gophers' academic fraud scandal--shakes his head. "No, no, my knees would go if I played on this blacktop."
Clark just stares at the court, where another errant shot is about to ricochet off the rim.
"Besides," Tarver adds, rolling his eyes, "I'm just here to enjoy the weather. Man, half these motherfuckers can't even play basketball."
It is a beautiful night--clear, breezy, a couple of hours before dusk. There's the sense that if Tarver and Clark didn't feel like bugs under the local media's microscope, they'd be over at the picnic tables, watching the regulars play dominos, laying odds on the Spurs, or maybe teaching the old-timers a few new moves on the battered, heat-warped court.
But no, they wander off. As they're leaving, Reynolds gets the word. "They're not going to play? Is that what he said? I wouldn't be surprised if J.B. convinced them to show up this weekend. Wouldn't be surprised at all. They're just like the rest of us, man--can't say no to a game."
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