THE HEARTBEAT of the Turkey Thicket basketball court palpitated to the rhythm of full-court sprints in brutal heat.
Off to the side, alone, on the outside looking in, Ken Robinson shifted his eyes elsewhere like an alumnus searching for something familiar about his old school. He looked lost.
"Not really," he said, "I ran here as a kid."
He's no kid anymore.
"Old. I haven't run here in years . . . or anywhere else."
"Drugs," he said, measuring the shock value of his answer. "Don't worry. I'm past that. I'm together -- except for my game. With all the junk I put in my system, schoolyard ball never left. I need it. I'm playing all summer. I gotta get my game back."
On 12th Street and Michigan Avenue, backdropped by Catholic University, Turkey Thicket is a summer halfway house for Robinson, because, along with maybe seven other D.C. playgounds, Thicket has a plush slice of Washington's elite schoolyard basketball.
Ballplayers, wicked ballplayers, come from all over town for a piece of this action. They come because they love it. And, like Robinson, they come because they need it. They need basketball and they need each other for their own complementary reasons. Basketball is the life cycle here . . . part of the urban symbiosis. The summer season is a new beginning.
Raymond Barnes is planning on "living at Turkey Thicket" this summer.
"I got a lot to prove to myself," he said. "I know I'm a ballplayer, but this winter I was way off my game. I'll be here until I get it all down."
Barnes talked about basketball like a hobby. Most of Turkey Thicket's players approach the "city game" as their life style.
With ultimate honesty, Benny McGee spouted the classic schoolyard quotation.
"Without schoolyard ball I'm scared to think of what I'd be up to," McGee said.
As long as the rims of Turkey Thicket hold up under the strain of shattering slam dunks, McGee can rest his mind at ease. The action will pulsate here all summer.
From mid-June through mid-September all day on the weekends and after work Monday through Friday, Turkey Thicket is inundated with basketball. It's a three-month season scheduled by the heat of the sun; a three-month season where the summer clothing line isn't dictated by Gucci, Fiorucci or Halston but by Adidas, Nike and Converse.
"Did your father hit the number this week?" is the caustic greeting a shabbily outfitted player gets as he steps on the court in electrifying red and white Adidas Superstars. They go for $40 a pair.
In three months, the pivoting and pounding will leave them treadless. Throwing them out in September will be like throwing out a Bible, but the value of the investment is never doubted. There's a value to schoolyard ball that transcends inflation and recession. Maybe it's measured in pain.
"When I go to work in the morning after playing here the night before, my body aches . . . it feels good," said JoJo Marshall. "I know I've achieved something. A man needs contact. You don't worry about the bumps and bruises. You just gotta go to the game."
Marshall goes to the game. Even when waiting to play, he watches intently. If eyes could salivate, Marshall's would. When he plays at Turkey Ticket he's in a trance.
"I give it my all," Marshall said. "Winning means a lot to me. I don't take any glory shots . . . no Dr. J. stuff . . . just getting the ball as close to the basket as possible -- Motta's theory. There's a lot of mental strain out there. Some don't look at it that way . . . I do."
Marshall is 30. He tried out for the Redskins a few times at linebacker.
"There were six boys and two girls in my family, so I couldn't go to college," Marshall said. He grimaced slightly as he flicked at the folden earring looped through his left ear. "I've got a helluva head. I know that. I know what I could have been with college."
What he feels he could have been is a highly educated professional football player. What he is, is a man of insight and native intelligence, who satisfies his competitive hunger at Turkey Thicket. He looks introspectively at himself and then looks at others and their pasts and futures.
He can find someone for any typical playground story at Thicket.
Pointing to a young ballhandler, Marshall said, "If he plays it cool he'll be on the Celtics one day." Pointing to a tall, statuesque player, Marshall said, "His name is Rick. He could bust C. J. (Charles Johnson of the Bullets) anytime."
Eric Barber, 13, enthusiastically agreed. "Rick would make C. J. look sick." Barber's friend, Rodney Gaskins, said, "If someone would come down and watch Rick . . . " All of Thicket knows Rick.
Rick Faucett is 24 and made for basketball. He has a body that should have "Erected in 1955" etched on it. His long black legs seem to launch him off the black court into the black holes of space as he kisses off silent but deadly jump shots.
Meanwhile, Charles Johnson, an established professional, is taking a verbal beating on the sidelines. Could Faucett really take C. J. apart?
"No question," Faucett said.
Otherwise, Faucett is humble. He doesn't claim to be the answer to the Bullet guard problems.
"You have to be in the game to know what's really going on out there," he said.
Faucett never was really in the game.
With all his talent, Faucett and the Basketball Establishment never got on together.He said he was done out of a scholarship and several other promises at D.C. Teachers College when it became part of the University of the District of Columbia. He was forced into a working world not groomed for a person of his physical ability.
"I worked at Fox-Jones Office Supply -- order filler," he said quietly. "The pay isn't that well, but it's something coming in."
When he isn't filling orders, he's filling baskets.
"I play here for the personal satisfaction now. I'm happy to just work on and improve my game."
Somehow, that doesn't fly. He's writing the words to a sermon that no one will hear. People at Thicket know how good Faucett is and he seems to know, too. He knows there should be a higher level of competition for him. He talks as if there is.
"I don't play that hard at Thicket because I don't want to get hurt," he said. "I could stick it on fast breaks, but I just lay it up because you can get killed sticking it with everyone under there."
So Faucett saves himself -- for something he's not sure of. He obviously coasts through much of a game with an aloofness not unlike Walt Frazier's. But Faucett is solid state -- he turns it on and off instantly.
The young kids watching him from the sidelines don't perceive when Faucett turns it off. They watch him in a daze.They fantasize about having his game.
Faucett is even clandestinely watched by everyone playing on the same court. When the game is down to the wire, when it's no longer a personal showcase, when it's win or sit out the next five games, both teams are thinking about Rick.
Somewhere in the corners of his mind, that might be what keeps Rick Faucett coming back to Turkey Thicket.
While Faucett may have been forsaken by established basketball, Tyrone Pugh beat the establishment to the punch. As a schoolyard player, Pugh is in semiretirement. He's 20. He comes to Turkey Thicket "just for exercise."
"I used to chase ball," Pugh said, talking of when he went from schoolyard to schoolyard looking for the best action.
"You look at the tube and you figure if you work hard enough on your game that could be you on the tube. I went to Five Star Basketball Camp and won MVP and top defensive player . . . I really worked on my game, but I decided it's nothing but a dream. I just didn't see where ball put money in my pocket."
Pugh now goes to Hampton Institute, where he scored 26 points per game in intramurals. But mainly, Pugh studies accounting. He's working for the Internal Revenue Service this summer.
"My family couldn't understand why I didn't want to play ball. I got college offers and thought about it, but I'm realistic," Puch said with unwavering confidence.
Pugh saw a friend riding by on a bicycle.
"We played together at Coolidge (High School), but he's still chasing ball. Ball is all he thinks about. He won't be learning what he needs to make a living in Turkey Thicket."
His friend cracked an I-know-but-I-don't-want-to-hear-it smile. Then he pedalled off to another schoolyard.
Pugh shook his head.
"Everybody plays ball. There are millions of great ballplayers here in the schoolyard. They think because they can play ball the world owes them something," he said.
"You gotta be able to leave Thicket behind. There's a lot of ego-tripping (dudes) who are just average but keep on playing like they'll be pros next year."
The only concession Pugh makes to the schoolyards is that, "If you're good and you play ball in school, then ball might keep you in school. But usually it's nothing but a dream."