IT'S 7:30 on a Tuesday night at Turkey Thicket and the infighting to see who plays the next full-court game is worse than the guerrilla warfare at a supermarket checkout line. The sidelines are teeming with challengers (even on a school night), but it is firmly established that JoJo Marshall has the next game.
JoJo, obviously, would be a good person to get to know.
Winning his "down" (schoolyard jargon for his turn) is priceless to Marshall. He scouts the players on the team comfortably ahead, 28-18, in a game to 32. A thin, 5-11 player sinks a soft 20-footer.
"He can shoot," I say.
"Yeah, but what about his legs?" says Marshall. "Can he run? That's what's important."
We talk some more. Marshall looks at me and says, "Can you play?" With stunning cockiness, I say I grew up in the schoolyards of New York where we paid people to keep their car lights on so we could play at night.
Marshall looks at my legs. I figure he's a leg man. My legs pass the test. He asks me to play on his team.
I'm absurdly lucky to get into a game this easily . . . I hope I feel the same way after the game. After all, I'm new here. I'm on trial.
To top it off, I'm wearing a Lacoste shirt. A poor choice. It makes me look too suburban. To shatter this illusion, I make sure I'm up on all the rules and etiquette of the schoolyard.
Besides no Lacoste shirts, it's good to know that all games are played to 32 (two points a basket), and when someone calls a foul or violation, the call should be respected. Also, if you lose, it's generally accepted that you have a long wait before you play again (unless you have great legs).
With all this very far in the back of our minds, the Marshall squad takes to the court. I'm the only white person in the area, but the schoolyard is color blind. Nobody cares about your race. They care only about your game, so I don't feel intensely Caucasian.
Nonetheless, the first time I touch the ball, I lose the dribble and feel myself turning a whiter shade of pale. The guy "who can shoot" filches the ball away from me and flies in for a layup. His legs are pretty good, too. I do a quick take at my teammates, but they greet me with silence -- the bluntest of blunt instruments.
Throughout the game, no one is outwardly criticized by a teammate.
JoJo, who has a smooth shot and a good head for the game, constantly barks out instructions and encouragement:
"Get back. Get back. Get back. I got the man with the ball: You got help."
After the game, my teammates say how much they like playing with JoJo. "He keeps your head in the game," one says.
A major surprise is that we start out playing a 2-1-2 zone defense. With so much incredible one-on-one talent, the zone just doesn't fit the picture. Ultimately, it is fractured by constant fast breaks.
I'm in good shape. So I fly up and down the court with every fast break. Toward the middle of the game, I notice myself being "the trailer" on a lot of breaks. Toward the end of the game I notice myself losing control over my major muscles on fast breaks. I'm not completely alone in this category, but others just never stop running. The fast breaks are blinding.
Midway through the game, it looks like a Marshall court tonight. JoJo & Co. are leading, 16-12, and looking strong. I find myself scoring on open 15-footers consistently, but I don't get much satisfaction.I feel I must "go to the hole" to see what this game's all about.
I finally get an open lane to the basket and dribble in unmolested . . . until the lane closes, and then I am thoroughly molested.
I manage to release the ball in the vicinity of the hoop before being sandwiched by two guys on their return trips from the top of the backboard.
While the word "foul" at Turkey Thicket is used only in the most severe circumstances, one of the two players admits to fouling me as I stand hunched over trying to pull my faculties together.
Without referees to keep things somewhat in line, the lane is mayhem. Two players on each team grab nearly every rebound.
The fact that most rebounds are retrieved over the rim is my rationalization for not grabbing one the entire game. That and my being relocated by several quick elbows.
Finesse is out of place under the basket. Pure physical strength and leaping ability win out everytime. His teammates subdue their own delusions of grandeur and start feeding him the ball.
Next to a slam dunk, the most admired feat at Turkey Thicket is violently blocking someone's shot. The hoots from the sideline have me yearning to reject someone's shot, since I'm sure I won't be slam dunking.
A guy everyone calls "Hollywood" drives along the baseline. I set my sights on him, sure that there's no way he'll get the ball over me. He doesn't. He goes under me. Swish. Some of these guys can really improvise.
With the score 26-22 our favor, suddenly Rick Faucett of the other team starts shooting. He doesn't miss. Other players have been trying to dazzle with Julius Erving moves or by calling out "Bobby D" after making shots. In fact, the Bullet influence is noticeable in the game of several of the players. But Rick Faucett has his own game.
He hits two shots from 15 feet then, back to the basket from deep in the corner, he jumps straight up, spins 180 degrees and rifles in another. His teammates subdue their own delusions of grandeur and start feeding him the ball.
Down 30-26, I find myself driving right into Faucett on a fast break. I look him straight in the eye and float the ball over him for two. I'm euphoric, although I should mention that Faucett didn't go up with me.
Justice is done at the other end as Faucett backs me in and abuses me with a short bank shot to win the game.
The thought of losing completely cancels out having scored 12 of my team's 28 points and playing effective defense Like everyone else on the team, I know I'm doomed to the sidelines for anywhere from a while to eternity.
JoJo somehow has a big smile. He says to me. "Hey, man, you played. You did the job."
Then he scurries back on the court. He has been chosen to play in the next game, thus explaining the smile.
For the rest of us who lost, there will be other nights.