These are the last fine days. Every morning, Ronald, Kenan, Shawnte and the other guys walk over to the Palmer Park Community Center in Landover. They thunder up and down the basketball court for a couple of hours, taunting each other, wrestling over loose balls, taking wild shots.
Shawnte Ambrose and Kenan Mason are 9; Ronald Melton, almost 8. Their daily routine is changing. Elementary school is about to intrude on their basketball games.
With the end of summer comes the end of summertime rituals. No more afternoon swims. No more hanging out. Friendships are reshuffled; time is less plentiful.
To the children and teens whose days revolve around pickup basketball, the last of summer brings the end of a lazy kind of immersion in the sport. The games will continue, of course. The leagues will gear up again, the competition will be formal and fiercer. But the days that were often just one long basketball game are over.
"In the school year, we only play on Saturday," said Andre Woody, a senior at Ballou High School in Southeast. Woody, a long-limbed 16-year-old in jeans and a purple shirt, was playing one-on-one with a friend on the rough asphalt court behind the Watkins Elementary School, also in Southeast.
"In the school year, there's too much else to do," Woody said as he lazily dribbled the ball.
"Yeah, sure, like homework," grinned his friend, Timothy Jones, also 16.
By most accounts, Shawnte Ambrose, a fourth grader at Robert Frost Elementary, is the showoff of the Palmer Park courts. A fledgling player completing his first real summer of daily basketball, he is small, proud and fast. Sure, most of his shots end up as air balls, and he often travels with the ball, but he looks good as he zips up the court, tongue stuck between his teeth.
"I'll miss these fellas when they go back to school," said Jane Connolly, assistant director of the center, as she watched the antics of a dozen boys on the indoor court on a recent overcast day. "They're not very good yet, but they're a riot to watch." Their style? "Freestyle," she said with a laugh, watching Ronald and Kenan tackle Shawnte in football fashion. "They're still really innocent."
This is a relatively slack period at the recreation center. The summer playground program, which attracted 400 children, ended a couple of weeks ago. Soon, on each day from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., the basketball court will be filled with adult players -- mostly men in their twenties, thirties and forties who work nights, Connolly said. But for a few more days, it is the domain of Shawnte and his friends.
Shawnte, who is by far the shortest player and has a growing reputation as a ball hog, disappeared with the ball to the far end of the court, where several teen-age boys were playing. One of the older boys reached down and scooped him up, ran with him yelling back to the younger players, and dumped him on the floor under the basket. Shawnte quickly regained his dignity and attempted a layup.
"Hey, Ronald, just get another ball if he does that again," Connolly said to one of Shawnte's teammates.
There was a time a couple of weeks ago when Shawnte was banned from the center for a few days for disciplinary reasons. He was horsing around on the court and pulled down another player's pants. Every day during his punishment, he'd show up and ask to be allowed in, Connolly said. "It just killed him," she said. "He was tough, but his eyes would water up."
Off the court, Shawnte, who wears jeans and a Nike T-shirt, remains cool; he has little to say about himself. He has a 13-year-old brother. He lives nearby. He likes basketball best of all. The summer has been good. About school and the upcoming adventures of fourth grade, he shrugs.
"When school starts, these guys will be here at 4 o'clock every day," Connolly said. "I can count on them."
The best playground games, the most heated confrontations, are in the cool of the evening. The return to school doesn't change that. What does change are the rhythms of the day, the long stretches of afternoon with nothing to do but play basketball.
Andre Woody and Timothy Jones, both high school seniors, had the court in Southeast to themselves on a recent mild, cloudy early afternoon. The court, surrounded by angular brick school buildings and apartment complexes, was enclosed by a high green chain-link fence. The orange rims of the basketball nets were bent from all the dunking. The sky was pale gray.
Woody and Jones figure they each play basketball four hours a day. "You know, we're out of school," Woody said with a laugh. Both were involved in a summer job program for two months.
As the day passes, they said, the court fills up with players. "There may be a hundred people here sometimes," said Kenneth Sims, 21, a neighborhood resident who walked up to join the game.
"Yeah, sometimes there'll be girls up here," Jones said. "And sometimes there'll be fights, depending on who's losing."
The court was quiet except for the thump-thump of the ball on the asphalt. The sun came out. Around the corner, another teen-ager appeared with a basketball under his arm.