Rick Telander thinks that heaven is a playground. Some who read his book may conclude that Foster Park playground is at the other end of the theological spectrum.
But for the Brooklyn youth who gather each warm summer day at Foster, the alternative could be hot, indeed - the world of junkies, thieves, pimps . . .
Telander, a former football player at Northwestern and a contributor to Sports Illustrated, can be added to the short list of writers who have successfully written about the game of the ghetto. David Wolf first told us about the gamblers and fixers and point-spread arrangers in "Foul!.," the story of the downfall and exoneration of Connie Hawkins, Pete Anthelm, in "The City Game," fixed for history the legends of the superstars of the playground. "Helocopter" and Earl Manigault, Ken Denlinger and Len Shapiro, in "Athletes for Sales." recorded the promises, deceits, academic manipulations and under-the-table payments by college recruiters and coaches.
Telander, who spent the summer of 1974 among the Foster Park youth, brings us close to some people we may have reason to come in contact with elsewhere - Fly Williams, Albert King and Rodney Parker. But with the three main characters, we find Lloyd Hill, brother Cleanhead, Pablo Billy, Derrick Melvin, Danny Odums, Lionel Worrell, Calvin Franks and other participants in the playground basketball life whose success can be measured in varying degrees.
For every inner city playground star who makes it to the "bigs" - a major college and/or the pros - there are many more who move from the playgrounds to the streets. Young Derrick Melvin realizes how it is. "People think in the ghetto everybody is cheering you on to be a success," he says. "But that's not how it is. LIke those guys (he points to some men sitting in front of his apartment building), winos and junkies. They'll say, 'You're nothing buy a 5-8 dude and I can whip your . . . on the court.' A lot of them can, too, and they don't like to see me getting anywhere because they remember how they got (messed) over. The real pressure on you is not to make it."
The person who tries hardest to help people "make it" is Rodney Parker, a mysterious benefactor who spends his time, money, heart and soul in placing basketball players in a college, somewhere.
Telander never does satisfy himself as to Parker's motives. Parker's first discovery was a contemporary of his, Jim McMillian, who went on to Columbia University and then the pros (now the New York Knicks). No one seems to know whether Parker's avocation (he is a professional ticker-scalper) is arrived at through his desire to find a spot for the youth of Brooklyn or whether he hopes someday to latch onto a pot of gold with a ghetto superstar.
His potential pot of gold was Fly Williams, one of the most talented but unpredictable products ever to come off the Brooklyn-New York City streets. Williams was second-leading scorer in the country at Austin Peay, but this summer of 1974 he was driving Parker and his agent crazy by withdrawing from the National Basketball Association hardship draft at a time he was about to be declared ineligible for further college play.
Williams' temper tantrums in the playground ball, prep school and college were legendary and he had the well-deserved reputation of being a dude better left alone.
Williams was the local hero. But even some of the playground boys saw through the facade.
"Have you seen his Whirlybird?" asks a big, scarred-faced youth known as Sgt. Rock. "Where he comes down and spins around twice in the air like this." Martin, a 16-year-old, is more perceptive. "It's his attitude, though. He's always in trouble . . . My mom tells me you don't get something for nothing. I mean, someday he's gonna have to pay it all back."
Meanwhile, Parker is trying to convince 14-year-old Albert King, whose older brother, Bernard, is a star at the University of Tennessee, to go to a small high school in Pennsylvania rather than be constantly subjected to peer and street pressures in Brooklyn.
And Calvin Franks, a wasted youngster of questionable talent with a wellworn transcript of prep school grades, is wandering from handout to handout and sleepless nights to hungry days to confrontation with Parker, whom he begs for one "last chance" to find a spot to play college basketball.
Parker has more problems than Mary Hartman.
Even Telander cannot escape.
The younger boys of the playground talk him into coaching a team called "The Subway Stars," probably the most undisciplined and incorrigible basketball squad ever.
While coaching a losing team, Telander is able to describe the beauty and tragedy of Dr. Naismith's game, transformed from the YMCA to the asphalt. He tells us of an old German who delights in watching the playground game and who hopes upon moving to Florida in the winter that he will find basketball played on the streets of Miami. He also tells us of the disappearance of little Ernie, turned down by the Subway Stars because he was too small, who has become a part of the street/drug culture.
A year later, Telander returns to Foster Park. The "Fly" is still testing mankind. Albert King has followed his older brothers into a local, low-key high school. Ernie has not been heard from. Some of the boys are doing well.For others, the playground is as far as they will get.
Telender's story is incomplete; the people may change but the playground stays the same.
Calvin Franks has failed his "last chance." Albert King will probably be the most-sought-after high school senior baseketball player this season. Fly Williams, cut by the pros, is playing for television commentator Sonny Hill's Lancaster, Pa., team in the Eastern League.
" . . . I've had some measure of control over him," Hill said recently. "Right now, he's about 90 per cent. . . . He has the talent (to get back in the NBA). He needs 1) the opportunity, some team to give him a chance, and 2) Fly has to realize he must maintain his cool - stay under control."
Fly Williams may yet make it, but if he doesn't there's always a spot in front of Derrick Melvin's apartment house.
And always another player begging Rodney Parker for one more "last chance."