(Editor’s Note: This has nothing to do with the Celtics. Sorry, folks, but enjoy.)
The basketball court at Hubbard Park, as it often does, smells of marijuana.
On a night when the park hosts its ‘A Division’ summer league games, a couple hundred spectators will surround the court, weed smoke will rise into the sky like clouds, and viewers are more likely than not to be carrying 40-oz. bottles of malt liquor. But on this night the C Division is playing, so attendance was lower and the scene was more tame. The strong scent of pot is the only sign that trouble would soon find its way to Hubbard Park.
The game begins as all games do, with a jump ball at center court. Night has already vacuumed the daylight, so only the park’s lights allow players to see. Mosquitoes have invaded the court; players are not so affected because running serves as a bug repellent. But the spectators who do not apply Off! spend the game swatting fly after fly, with the persistence of Mr. Miyagi but with neither his patience, nor his serenity (or chopsticks). Normally, the summer league’s director brings a bottle of bug spray to the games. Anyone can ask him to use it, but only the experienced Hubbard Park-goers know that the bottle of bug spray is for public use.
My team wins the tip. Our center used to play guard, and back then he was soft. He lived on the perimeter during his youth despite standing close to 6’5, despite possessing arms built to fix light bulbs and pick items from the top shelf. But the years have hardened him.
He, like myself, is nowhere close to ancient. Just graduated from college. Struggling to find a full-time gig. Living at home and asking himself why. His story should ring true to a lot of folks. But somewhere along the way, probably during college intramurals, he learned how to dominate the paint. He mastered the art of contesting or blocking shots without fouling, learned the perfect timing of a Rolex watch, finally utilized his gift from God—arms that started on Saturday and went straight through ’til Sunday. Our center had gone from a shot-happy point guard to the Hubbard Park C Division’s version of Dennis Rodman, and his teammates could not be more thrilled.
We start the game slowly, though. Our ball movement does not exist. Our possessions end in bad shots or worse, turnovers. We part the seas like Moses so the other team can get wide open layups. Everything is in slow motion; we are all a step behind. Maybe it is because a couple of us went to the bar before the game. It was my first time ever drinking before a game. I drank two beers. Two too many. Never again. I play in quicksand all night. We are on our way to a loss, but a loss doesn’t seem too bad compared to what would soon occur.
At least once in the past three years, a Hubbard Park summer league game was cancelled due to a murder threat—there was a hit out on one of the competitors. Several players each summer wear house arrest anklets. Fights break out routinely, though almost all of them are strictly verbal. One ref likes to berate the first player who speaks to him. One white man in his thirties says the n-word repeatedly. When I asked a black man why nobody responded to the racist comments, the man replied: “He’s from the projects. That white boy right there is blacker than any of us.” Oh.
Only the league director has a little bit of control. Kuda commands respect even from the people who don’t respect others very often. Springfield is the birthplace of basketball, but now it is a cesspool of violence. Just last week, a 16-year old got shot in the face while driving in his mother’s car. That set off a 48-hour span with three shootings. Authority has stopped meaning as much. But, at Hubbard Park, everyone listens to Kuda.
Everyone also has his own story. One had Big East offers to play both football and basketball. Legend has it that he once dunked between his legs, wearing jeans and Timberland boots, after no warmup whatsoever. Yet he scored low enough on his SATs that he never played a single college game. He started a boxing career that looked promising until he found out his jaw was made of glass. Now you can see him at the local bars, picking up women, drinking nightly, either trying to enjoy life or trying to avoid it. If he doesn’t wonder what could have been, everyone else does.
Another player was ranked number two in his high school class, so the legend goes. In the country. Unheard of for a Springfield boy. But this kid was good. Real good, they tell me. The best, others say.
“The Tom Brady of high school basketball,” one man explained to me. “He was just so smart. But a lot more athletic than Brady. He’d dunk on your head, too.”
Now he carries a tire of blubber around his waist. He can still score in spurts and his intelligence is always visible, but basketball never took him anywhere. The players who make it—some players in the Hubbard Park league have played in the NBA Developmental League, others have made good careers overseas—never attain legendary status. At least not like the players who had the good life at their fingertips and found a way to treat it like a dead goldfish, flushing it all away.
The opposing team’s point guard begins the game with two three-pointers. I briefly wonder what his story might be—I have played him every summer for five years, but I don’t even know his name. I know he can shoot with just a hair of space and I know he’s quicker than a virgin’s first time, but I don’t know whether he graduated college, or where he works, or whether he’s married, or if he has kids. I don’t know where he lives or what he calls his favorite basketball team. All I know is that he just hit two shots in my eye, and I better get a hand up. He is like I am, not a legend but one of the league’s peripheral figures. He or I could abruptly stop playing in the league and nobody would ask where we went.
A minute or two before halftime, someone emerges from the group smoking weed in the corner of the park and walks to the court. He looks menacing. He’s not too tall and he’s not particularly muscular, but there’s something about the way he walks, and the flames beneath his eyes reveal him as someone you should not fuck with. He stands silently until a dead ball. Then he starts in on the opposing point guard, the one I know so little about. I can’t hear every word Menace says, but I pick up enough.
“You’re a rat fuck,” he says. “A snitch. A bitch. Come and get it.”
Later, my brother tells me Menace also accused the point guard of smashing his car with a baseball bat. I have known the point guard for five years. He always seemed like a good guy. But if I do not know his name, I obviously don’t know much.
The point guard replies, “I don’t want any beef with you. I’m just trying to play basketball.”
“I’ll be right here after the game,” Menace smirks. He lifts up his shirt to reveal his belt buckle, and, I assume, what’s underneath it. I am not wearing my glasses because I have previously broken them while playing basketball, and I am not wearing contact lenses because, three weeks after getting them, I still cannot put them into my eye. But I have no doubts that when Menace lifted his shirt, he showed a gun.
The game goes on without stopping. My team continues to falter. I continue to play poorly. None of it seems to matter as much as it did a minute ago. At every stoppage in play, the point guard stares vacantly at Menace. I assume the point guard fears for his life. I assume he is counting down the minutes until he becomes dust. At halftime, he has twenty minutes left. Then it’s down to five minutes.
Finally, the last minute arrives and my team finishes our loss, and I don’t know why the cops came briefly and then left without helping anything, but I fear I might witness a murder. My heart beats like I just drank fourteen Red Bulls in five minutes. I want to do something, but there’s nothing I can do. I might as well be an accessory to murder. At the very least, I am no hero.
The two teams start to shake hands, but we stop immediately. The point guard has sprinted off the court. Menace stands between the point guard and his car, and Menace looks like he could bite through steel. The point guard bobs and weaves like Mike Vick, somehow navigating around Menace. I am enthralled, and the scene takes less than four seconds, and I still fear for the point guard’s life, and I am more spooked than I have ever been.
The point guard opens his front door and jumps inside, and in one motion puts the keys in the ignition. If he had missed the ignition on the first try, Menace would have opened the door and who knows what would have happened. But the point guard puts the keys in seamlessly, and he drives away while Menace gropes for the door handle, and if you saw the same getaway in a movie you would walk out of the movie theater calling it unrealistic.
A few seconds later, the point guard’s teammate is the first one to speak.
“Man, he left with all my stuff in his back seat.”
I shake my head. Who cares about stuff? We almost just witnessed a death.
Menace returns to his group of friends and gets ready to leave the park. Nobody speaks to him, and he looks at nobody. All the players grab their things and prepare for departure, too. I am convinced I came inches away from seeing a man die.
I walk to my car to drive home with my brother Tommy and one of our teammates.
“When he lifted up his shirt, he was showing him he did NOT have a gun,” Tommy explains.
At Hubbard Park, sometimes you need glasses to see the difference.