The transistor radio was turned up full blast, even though the news was on. The voice came in loud and clear. "It's 94 degrees in Washington and if you're driving home from the beach you can expect to hit heavy traffic."
The sounds of summer.
The elderly man holding the radio shook his head, switched the sound off and put his cigarette out on the sidewalk. Then he walked into the sifling atmosphere of the Spingarn High School gym to watch his third basketball game of the afternoon. He hardly seemed to notice the heat.
On this particular Sunday afternoon, the gym was packed. To the fans of summer basketball, it is no more out of the ordinary to sit through a game in 100-degree heat than watching a playoff game is for fans of the Bullets.
This is a different kind of basketball. Although the Bullets are three-time defending champions in the Urban Coalition League, which plays its games on weekends at Spingarn, team basketball is not the name of this game.
It is one-on-one, take-it-to-the-hoop and put-it-right-up basketball. Scores like 150-145 are common. There is no 24-second clock, but it isn't necessary. A 10-second clock would rarely be heard from.
For the fans, it's a real show. They are dyed-in-the-wool hoop addicts, and, to them, watching young Bullet draftee David Reavis throw one in over Adrian Dantley is much more thrilling than watching the picture-perfect team defense that Dick Motta craves.
"These fans are the real diehards," former Maryland star and current Indiana Pacer Len Elmore said. "They love to watch basketball anytime, anywhere. The only problem is sometimes they expect too much in the summer."
"There is a definite need to play in the summer," he added. "I have to work on my individual game in the summer because training camp is only three or four weeks long and then you're trying to build cohesion within your team.
"Summer ball is like a laboratory. I can experiment, I can stay in shape and I can enjoy myself. It's fun as long as everyone remembers it's just a game."
It's not just the clashes between pros that the fans come to see. Summer basketball has become an accepted part of most high school programs in the area and the Urban Coalition League has 12 teams playing in its high school division. Each weekend, 1,000 fans pay $1.05 each and pack the gym.
The high school kids like to try and put on their own kind of show but in their games discipline is more evident. The coaches still maintain enough control that the basics of the game are not forgotten.
But when a youngster breaks loose for a showy slam-dunk, the crowd responds, imitating the move and inventing new moves to go with it.
Spingarn is not the only place in town that has a summer version of the winter game. At Montgomery-Blair high school in Silver Spring, Catholic and Metro League teams play in relative privacy on week nights.
The environment in Silver Spring, as might be expected, is completely different than in Northeast. Whereas the crowd at Spingarn is mostly black and young, those that show up at Blair are more of a mixture.
Parents bring young children and sandwich dinners. There is ample seating space most of the time, although when Mackin and De Matha play each other, the crowd grows.
Although the quality of the basketball is as good as the high school ball played in the Urban Coalition League, the atmosphere is somehow different, less intense.
The surroundings are the main reason. Outside the gym, in Blair's spacious football stadium, kids boot a soccer ball around while middle-aged women jog. A few yards away, young adults engage in mixed doubles on the tennis courts. It is almost a country setting. Basketball is a city game.
The Jelleff League, the area's third major summer league, has the atmosphere, but this year lost the Catholic schools and much of the luster it once had. The Catholic schools insisted that all their teams play in the league or none of them would play. So, they are spending the summer in Silver Spring.
Most of the Jelleff games are played on the small outdoor court located adjacent to the boys club building. A few quick steps away is Wisconsin Avenue and the sounds of motorists honking their horns and applying their brakes accompany the sounds of the referee's whistle and the yells of the players.
The fans at these games are less demonstrative than any place else. Being outdoors seems to inhibit them, as if they are afraid someone will notice that they are excited by a basketball game in the middle of July.
All the players view the competition differently. To the pros, the games represent a chance to stay in shape, have some fun and keep the competitive juices flowing. To older players not in the pros, the leagues are proving grounds. Put a fancy move on a pro and maybe someone will notice.
To the high schoolers, fun is still the big factor, but developing skills is also important.
"The older you get, the more your attitude towards playing in the summer changes," Mitch Kupchak of the Bullets said. "When I was in high school, I played in the Rucker League in New York. Then summer ball was a chance to have fun and be able to do things one day that I couldn't do before. I was maturing and so was my game.
"Now, I'm just trying to keep a physical edge and stay in shape. You get a little stale in the summer and you need to cut back on your basketball some. That way, when it gets to be September or October you can go crazy."
The pros are marked men during the summer and they know it. Although the crowds show their appreciation when an Adrian Dantley or a Truck Robinson makes a move, they go berserk when a star is the victim rather than the victor. And they are quick to criticize
"Don't bother running man, he ain't about to give the ball up," one teen-ager cried to a Dantley teammate, as the NDA rookie of the year backed towards the hoop in the waning moments of close game. When Dantley missed the shot, there were scattered boos. But when the game was over, Dantley was surrounded by fans who just wanted to shake his hand. Dantley didn't stay long, however. "Gotta catch a plane." he said as he broke from the crowd.
"You have to keep in the back of your mind the thought that a lot of these guys are trying to prove themselves and they're gunning for you," Kupchak said. "I know a lot of guys worry about getting hurt in the summer. You can't afford to worry about it, but it is something you are aware of."
Greg Nance, a 1977 graduate of Carroll High School who will attend Tulane in the fall, is playing with Dantley and Robinson the Pappy Parker team. He admitted to being very aware of the pros' presence.
"It's a challenge to play with them," he said. "These guys can show you a lot of things. You can see things when you're on the court that you don't notice when you're just watching.
"I knew if I can play good against these guys then my game is in pretty good shape. That's why I'm trying to stay in top condition."
The pros see it differently. "If we're out there in a summer game and just working on different things, I'm not going to dive on the floor for a loose ball." Kupchak said. "But," he added, "if we were down one and it was the last minute I guess I might dive for it."
Why not? No matter what the temperature is, it's still basketball. And in Washington, that's the name of the summer game.