A sinewy man in white sweatpants, white baseball cap, and an oversize white T-shirt sits on a picnic table next to his sullen, black-clad counterpart. The diamond studs in his ears sparkle as he talks on a cell, intermittently yelling at some basketball players. "You got to square up when you shoot. Square up! What do they teach these kids in the schools these days?" he asks no one in particular. When a Sumo wrestler of a guard blocks a shot, sending it ricocheting off the chainlink fence that surrounds the courts, the man in white puts his cell on the table, stands up, and stomps his feet: "Sasquatch! Yo, Sasquatch is in the building!" A look of minor irritation crosses the behemoth's face.
There are two regulation basketball courts at Moore Park in Allapattah. On a busy night, 30 or 40 players might show up looking for some run. Needless to say, many have to wait.
"I don't come here too much really, because I don't know anyone who's going to pick me," says Sean, a seventeen-year-old Goulds resident who usually plays in South Miami-Dade. "I have some cousins up here, and there's good games here, so I play a little bit, but I have to get here early, claim a court so people can see what I can do." Sean is maybe five feet nine inches tall, and husky -- not the first guy who gets a look when teams are chosen. He says he models his play after Miami High and University of Florida alumnus Udonis Haslem, the Miami Heat's six-eight forward who had a spectacular season this past year.
Many of the players at the Moore Park courts are a testament to the rubric that appearances can be deceiving. Of course, there's no shortage of zero-percent-body-fat dudes standing around waiting to get picked. Any reasonable person selecting a team would choose the lean leapers, the guys who look like they were conceived in test-tubes with spliced-in greyhound DNA. But the teams that are chosen by those who know better, by the Moore Park regulars, feature all manner of players, from Sasquatch to guys you'd think were too small and maybe a little too old to even be on the same court as the youngsters.
Streetball combines the acrobatics and lung capacity of regulation play and subtracts fundamentals such as teamwork and rules. Individuals stand out. In streetball the tactics are fluid, improvised, based on the players' specific strengths. Though the positions are not as sharply defined in pick-up ball as they are in an organized game, the two most important categories of player remain: bigs and smalls. Bigs get under the basket and muscle their way into point-blank shots or, if possible, dunks (a streetball rarity). Smaller players, the guards, slip-slide around the court, trying to escape their defender long enough to get open, get the ball, and get a shot.
The skinny guy in white sweats is 41-year-old Richard "Choo-choo" Perry, who at five-six does both. He skitters around the court like a water bug, scooting ahead of his man for open jump shots, or slicing into the post for a layup. Defenders who play him too close get burned when he spins around them and darts away. Players who back off, hoping to intercept him, wind up leaving him open for the J. He began building his skills on these courts long ago, playing through the long, hot hours of Miami's summer days.
Now he is by far the shortest player on the court, but he's more than used to that -- he was the shortest player when he started coming here at age ten, almost 30 years ago. These days Choo-choo is a veteran of many battles on the concrete and something of a local streetball legend.
The mostly black and Latin men who run the courts at this playground do so inside a bubble of light. Headlights streak by on NW 36th Street and windows glow in some of the nearby storefronts and small stucco homes, but the courts form their own luminous arena whose boundaries are sharply defined by the blackness of the soccer field and park behind the courts, and the sounds of traffic whooshing by on the Airport Expressway and I-95.
In gritty Allapattah, the cleanest sight is usually the roll-out racks of shiny new rims on sidewalk displays along NW 36th. But the Moore Park basketball and tennis courts are spotless and in excellent condition, a stark contrast to the unused, garbage-strewn courts at nearby Miami Jackson Senior High School.
During the day, the courts are usually empty, except for a few stray games of one-on-one; in the summer, groups of schoolboys hone their skills. When the sun goes down, though, night ballers flock to the light. The parking lot is filled with every conceivable type of ride, from an enormous brown Lincoln with a rusted-out trunk to a gleaming new Benz, rims still spinning.
Damon and Charles are fighting over the ball, each holding it with two hands, whirling around in what looks more like a parody of ballroom dancing than a game of one-on-one. Damon is eleven and Charles is twelve, and they are skipping school.
"Teacher's probably glad we out here," says husky Charles.
The courts are empty on this weekday except for the two boys, who are waiting for Charles's grandmother to leave for work so they can go to his house and play video games. In the meantime, Damon is pretending to be Dwyane Wade and Charles says he's the popular "Udominator," Udonis Haslem.
"Udonis is good, but he's not, like, a superstar," Damon says.
"He is a star in Miami," rebuts Charles.
Elaborate spins and ferocious dunks are tough for eleven-year-olds to imitate; the closest Damon comes to Dwyane Wade is when he instructs Charles to stand still and then makes a series of slow-motion moves around him while counting the seconds on an imaginary shot clock. "Three ... two ... one ..." Clank -- Damon misses the shot, and Charles tells him it's time to play "for real."
Charles and Damon play the way young boys always play basketball, hunched over, their too-small hands slapping the ball more than cupping it, making dribbling an awkward, percussive act. Charles backs in toward the basket, Damon defending him by pushing his skinny chest against the bigger boy's shoulder blades. Chubby Charles gets about five feet from the basket and hoists an awkward, two-handed hook shot that careens off the rim and across the court.
Both boys live blocks away, in the clutter of homes built along the north side of the Airport Expressway. "My grandma didn't used to let me come here alone, but I'm twelve now, so I can come here," says Charles. "She has to work anyway." His father, Charles says, is in California and his mom is in North Carolina. Doing what, he doesn't know.
Damon grabs the loose ball and desperately breaks for the basket, biting his lower lip in concentration as he tries to maintain his dribble and slip around Charles, who's hacking away, attempting to knock the ball away. Charles bodies up, his chest hard against Damon's back. The smaller boy looks desperately at the hoop, a good twenty feet away. He knows he can't overpower Charles, so he cuts hard to his right. He spins on one dirty sneaker, making a run for it, and he's almost out of Charles's grasp when his left foot slips out from under him and he lands hard, on his left knee. He's still lying on his back cradling his knee as Charles takes the ball in for a layup.
"You all right?" asks Charles, panting as he walks back to his friend.
Damon lives with his aunt and three cousins. He's not sure where his father is, but his mom is in Miami. His braided hair, which falls in three-inch tendrils down the back of his neck, is proof of her involvement in his life. "It took her, like, three hours," he says.
The truants take off running upon spotting a car pulling into Moore Park's northern parking lot that looks very much like the car Damon's aunt sometimes borrows from her boyfriend. They slide across 36th Street and disappear into the maw of a graffiti-lined alleyway.
School may be back in session, but not the NBA. No matter. Streetball dominates the courts at Moore Park. The rowdy game is also muscling its way into a more formalized mainstream identity, which includes televised coverage of games starring nicknamed favorite athletes, a popular traveling national tour harkening back to the Harlem Globetrotters. The tour goes from city to city, pitting the best playground players against one another and drawing more than a half-million fans during its last jaunt. Support and MTV cred comes from Seth Berger, founder of the AND1 shoe company, whose apparel is endorsed by NBA players Stephon Marbury and newly signed Heat point guard Jason Williams. Rafer Alston, now with the Toronto Raptors, got his start as a ferocious New York City streetballer. With its fast action, trash-talking, audacious stars, and affiliation with hip-hop culture, streetball seems poised for prominence. But fame will still bypass many, if not most, of the Moore Park crew.
The AND1 streetballers play a hyperkinetic, ultraskilled game. They pass behind the back, dribble between opposing players' legs, throw impossible alley-oop passes that end in thunderous dunks. Because there's money in the traveling streetball tours, the game attracts players who are almost professional-quality. Certainly some of the guys on the AND1 tour are as athletic as anyone in the NBA.
The games at Moore Park are relatively earthbound, compared with the newly evolved form of professional streetball, because they're played by regular people. People who work in cubicles or behind cash registers all day, people who may "supersize it" on occasion. When shirts come off, beer bellies are sometimes proudly displayed.
But it would be a mistake to think these are less than all-out competitions. From the younger kids who ball after school to the older guys who come out at night and on weekends, Moore Park players take pride in their hustle and expertise. And the players display no shortage of basketball smarts: A game of three-on-three at the park probably won't feature a single dunk but will likely include crisp passes and players who know how to slip around a defender to get open. Football may be the marquee sport at local high schools, but you wouldn't know it from a visit to Moore Park, where the football field sees some action but the basketball court is the center of attention.
Optimal conditions for a big night at Moore Park have been reached: Though the air is muggy this night, the skies are clear and a breeze fans the courts. About 30 men of all ages are lounging on the park's benches and picnic tables, while the early birds play half-court games. Everyone is talking about the Miami Heat's upcoming prospects.
Choo-choo is picking a team for a game of full-court five-on-five. He's sweating already, dressed in a pair of shorts, blue T-shirt, and Air Force One low-tops. The guys waiting to get some run act casual, like they didn't even realize someone was picking a team. None of Choo-choo's older Moore Park compatriots -- like former Miami High star forward Andrew James or George "Big G" Rushing -- is around tonight. Choo-choo's team just won a game (first team to eleven baskets usually wins), but the rest of his guys have to split, so he picks four more from the waiting ranks.
The players nod and amble to the court. There are no shirts and skins; everyone just knows who's on their team. Choo-choo's squad is without any real big guys, the tallest a youngster who goes maybe six-three, maybe 200 pounds. The opposing team is led by a thirtyish man with close-cropped hair and a sleeveless black Heat T-shirt. He's not too tall, but his muscles have muscles, and he's pumped. "Come on, troop!" he barks. "Let's get 'em down early!"
Choo-choo takes the ball at half-court and dribbles slowly to the free-throw line, fifteen feet directly in front of the basket. He's watching his guys, trying to figure out how to play it.
This is the role of the point guard -- the court general, deciding about strategy and deploying his men. In streetball there aren't many set plays, the teams rarely having had a chance to practice together or devise a play-calling system. This leaves the burden on the point guard. "You have to see what they're doing, learn how to read your teammates," Choo-choo says. "If it's a guy you've played with a lot, sometimes you can just make eye contact and know what to do, but that doesn't happen much."
So Choo-choo sees the tall kid with the braids backing in to the basket and passes to him. Braids pushes madly against his defender, a much larger man. There are no fouls in pickup ball, so Braids is slamming his back against the guy, hair flopping and flailing against his skinny neck. Choo-choo decides this isn't going anywhere and claps his hands, the universal signal for "Give me the damn ball." The kid makes an over-the-head pass -- something you're supposed to do only if you're inbounding or throwing way down court -- and the ball goes flying, much too hard, almost over Choo-choo's head. He leaps up, snags the rock, and flies past his defender. Choo-choo snakes toward the basket and this time Braids does something right -- he keeps his back to his defender, blocking him from intercepting Choo-choo. Layup. One-zip for Choo-choo and company.
"Old man still got some moves!" laughs a young guy lounging on a bench, watching the game. His gold tooth winks in the glare of the court's overhead lights. He says his name is Chauncey, and he watches the games at the park occasionally, but rarely plays. "I've seen him, though," he says of Choo-choo. "If you come out here two, three times, you'll see him. He's always playing ball." Excusing himself with a nod, Chauncey says he has to "get back to work" and saunters into the sidewalk traffic of 36th Street.
Chauncey's job (he can later be seen offering what seem to be handshakes in exchange for cash with a few of the waiting ballers) is not an uncommon one in this part of Allapattah. Choo-choo grew up here in Miami's urban core, where Allapattah and Wynwood meet. "I've seen some ups and downs in this community," he says, "but I know this place would be better off if everyone acted like they do at the park, you know? Everybody who comes past watches for a minute, maybe cheers somebody they know. All these guys out on the court, dropping their differences, just ballin'. But whatever. I guess it's just a game."
While he avoids pretension at all costs, Choo-choo's simple statements about his community reveal a belief in its best qualities, just as he believes basketball is a kind of example of "community" at its best. "At the same time, though," he continues, "the game can be harsh. It can show you what you're made of." He laughs. "And what you're not made of."
And in the course of the game, sometimes Choo-choo's weaknesses are exposed, as on this night, when his muscle-bound counterpart in the black Heat shirt is making use of a six-inch height advantage. He pops a jumper over the shorter man's outstretched arms. Next time down the court, muscleman backs Choo-choo up to the basket and then lays it in, right on top of him.
Choo-choo's square jaw flexes with frustration and he stares at his shoes as he brings the ball back down the court. Suddenly he darts to his left, past his defender. The opposing center shoves Braids aside and lunges in front of Choo-choo, like a Hummer cutting off a hatchback. The guys watching the game collectively inhale as they await the inevitable collision. But at the last second Choo-choo passes the ball to Braids, who stands alone under the basket. Layup. Tie game.
The lights illuminate the Moore Park courts until 11:00 p.m. Choo-choo often closes the place. "Why not -- tomorrow morning will be the same either way," he says. It's true enough.
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The game is fast-paced, the teams evenly matched. Layups and jumpers fall for both sides until the score reaches the streetball equivalent of sudden death -- tied at ten, with the next made shot determining the winner.
The ball arcs like an asteroid after Choo-choo clanks a jumper off the rim. Braids is in the right place at the right time and snags the rebound. He knows enough to pass to his point guard, and it's off to the races.
Choo-choo and his he-man defender separate from the pack, careening toward the basket. Fifteen feet, ten feet, five feet. Suddenly Choo-choo is under the rim and leaping sideways, throwing himself at his defender, his body parallel to the ground. He underhands the ball past outstretched arms and into the air, just as he collides with his opponent and crashes to the ground. Before blood can start seeping from the four-inch scrape on his thigh, the ball rattles around the rim and falls in. Game.
Choo-choo stands up and hugs Braids. "Who's got next?" he yells.