Black Men Can’t Shoot…
…a book. Spotlight on Philly again.
by Aggrey Sam
A few months back, a friend of mine texted me about a book that he read.
“This is the book you should have wrote,” it read.
Well, when I stopped through Philly in July to see a day of the Reebok All-American Camp during my seemingly-endless summer road trip, he gave me a copy. I flew to Chicago the next day and read the whole thing in airports and on the plane.
He was right. I should have written “Black Men Can’t Shoot,” Scott Brooks’ (not the Thunder coach) account of Philly’s high school basketball scene. It focused on the author’s firsthand experiences as a coach for the South Philly in the vaunted Sonny Hill League, mainly through his relationship with two up-and-coming stars in the city. While Brooks didn’t use the real names of players, coaches, high schools, colleges and neighborhoods (a grad student at the University of Pennsylvania at the time, it started out as his dissertation, so he wrote it from a sociological standpoint), anybody who knows the city’s hoops scene can piece it together fairly easily. Because he was referenced in the book, I asked another friend of mine if he knew the author, and after he passed me his number, I reached out to the Dr. Brooks, now a professor at the University of California-Riverside, while I was in Orlando covering AAU Nationals. With my recent move to Chitown and other hecticness, I only recently had time to sit down and talk with him about his book.
My love for Philly is well documented, and Scott is on the same page, as far as the uniqueness of the city’s basketball community, so I won’t run down our entire convo. Of course, the first thing I touched on was his title for the book, which could easily be misconstrued.
“I don’t even quite remember when the title took hold; originally I had something like “Philly Hoop Dreams,” but I wanted to distance it [from the movie] because I think it pathologizes black folks,” explained Brooks. “Like we’re serious about basketball, but not careers. Instead, it’s about choosing basketball over the streets and the inevitable dope dealing and violence.”
“The second part of it is young brothers are doing more than just shooting, jumping and running,” he continued. “They strategize and create the best opportunity for themselves…it’s about being smart and figuring out how to make it in this game.”
Correct. It seems pretty simple sometimes–the best players get the most shine. If you’re good and you work hard at your craft, you’ll get what’s coming to you. But with all the pitfalls along the way and the “business of basketball” trickling down to the grassroots level over the years, it’s a lot more complicated than that. As somebody who worked with ballplayers in Philly, I must say Brooks did a nice job of breaking down the network of “old heads” in the city who mentor kids.
“The old head structure is fascinating and you can’t talk about Philly basketball without it. [For the book], I went to those cats with direct knowledge–star players who had success, star players who it didn’t pan out for, people who have been around it, people who are just roadies of folks that just love basketball,” says Brooks. “Then you have the other old heads–it might be the drug dealers from around the block–who provide resources for these kids, whether it’s food, shoes, [subway] tokens or key information.”
“As black men who haven’t made it out of the hood, most people talk about role models as people who have been successful, but for folks in poverty, you have to talk to people who haven’t made it out–that’s why they’re on the playground every day–working night shifts or odd jobs; I’m watching these old heads juggle [high school] games (because of the threat of violence, varsity games are immediately after school during the week in the Public League),” Brooks recounted. “Saturday games are a big deal, like a rites of passage. You see how these men are involved directly–whether it’s telling them what to do in a game or running workouts–these old heads become like fathers, but you can’t have just one of them because they fill different roles.”
“There’s one for basketball, one for money, one gives rides–they do all the things that father figures or men in their lives might do, but it’s not just who you know–it’s what they do for you. When you got good old heads, they’re out there campaigning for you. If they have status or power, they can get you on different teams or more playing time,” he continued. “It’s a two-way street, too. Yeah, they might feel obligated to a younger brother and helping somebody out, but most of the time, it’s not so altruistic. You have these ‘hoop entrepreneurs, hoping for a meal ticket…it starts with a ‘young bull’ going to the playground and working on his shot. They see themselves in these cats.”
Very true, on all accounts. On one hand, it’s a good thing that (usually black) men are giving back to these kids by showing them the ropes. On the other, they often are neglecting their own families and responsibilities by doing so, and hanging on to a dream or living vicariously through these young prospects. The fact that they’re hanging around or have the time to do so usually says it all. At the same time, there are lot of people who make the time to help kids out and play a part in their development, both on and off the court. Unfortunately, not all of them have pure motives. As Brooks and I discussed, sometimes financial gain, personal status or a job in basketball is the motivation for older dudes to “mentor” a young player. Philly is unique in the fact that as an “old head,” you also have to be a PR professional for your protege, whether it’s talking to college coaches, creating a buzz in the city, getting a kid into camp, mapping out his AAU plans or just advocating for him in the hood.
“The biggest difference in a player is their understanding of the game–developing that confidence and that swagger, the willingness to take a risk even if you fail,” Brooks remarked. “Most kids just go to games; they like the idea of a workout because it carries more prestige. It’s hard when you’re in this culture of taking advantage of exposure and opportunity. There’s a whole lot of games to play.”
“When do you have time to practice? You can play three games in one day, then it’s not a craft anymore. I think some of them get burnt out,” he continued. “This whole system isn’t about loyalty, it’s about opportunity. It teaches them that you have to take the best offer.”
After being in other cities, I’d argue that the structure of Philly grassroots hoops is more about communal development than most places, but Brooks is correct. Kids in Philly (and elsewhere) have so many places to play and so much pressure to get “exposure” (I’ve come to hate that word), that simply working on your game has started to fall by the wayside, ironically, at the stage in their career where they need it the most. These days, if you’re not an elite player with a personal coach (and strength/agility trainer), you’re probably not working out on a regular basis. Kids with more resources do have access to that cottage industry, which in turn, often exploits those kids (and their parents) by selling them that D1/high-major dream.
“I think about it sociologically–it’s a process of making and re-making yourself. You get known at one level, but there’s another level,” broke down Brooks. “You get known on the playground, and that’s enough to get you on the high school team, but then you need to get known on the high school level to get you on a bigger AAU team.”
“They get advice from their old heads and older players, they play in different playground tournaments around the city to get known, then you got AAU and PAL (Police Athletic League), AAU to get known regionally and even nationally. You notice how big you are by how others respond to you because that has an impact on how they interact with you,” he went on to say. “It’s a constant learning process…like prison, where you get incarcerated and learn to commit better crimes or just like any other career, where you learn what it takes to get a better job. Sometimes people fall off because they didn’t continually remake their names, and other cats step up.”
Without a doubt. Like anywhere else, there’s definitely a certain order about which players gain recognition. However, in Philly, it’s so regimented that kids can’t really skip any step of the process. Unless a player’s outrageously talented, they make a name in their hood, at their school, in the city through leagues, then attempt to do it on the East Coast and eventually nationwide. If their game stagnates, that’s the level they remain at, and if they peak too early, they’ll get surpassed by hungrier prospects.
“When I talk about Philly as a basketball city, what I talk about first is what happened historically,” said Brooks. He went on to talk about the city’s early basketball history in the 1890s and the Jewish community’s dominance of the sport as players (such as the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association aka the Sphas), as well as Philly integrating within the sport early on, the city’s rich tradition of of schoolboy legends and of course, the Big 5. “You have a lot of knowledgeable people based on it being played by men and women, white and black.”
“It’s a cultural thing–having basketball from the cradle to the grave,” he added. “College coaches know [players from Philadelphia will bring] that Philly attitude, but you also get a certain amount of heart…in one context, they’re perfect–but when these cats snap, it’s over.”
I concur. Philly is definitely a city where people know their (basketball) history. it gets passed down through the generations, to the point where everybody thinks they’re an expert. I wouldn’t call it an arrogance, but Philly players have almost an air about them, where they truly believe that their basketball upbringing sets them apart from their competitors from other places. And as hard as most kids play, you’re bound to see an outburst or two, such as an infamous North Philly vs. South Philly brawl that occurred during a Sonny Hill League game a few years back, which Brooks and I discussed.
“Getting in there and being in that gym (Temple University’s McGonigle Hall), being part of that legacy, knowing there had been and still were big-time players coming in and out (at the Sonny Hill League), I felt honored to be there,” recalled Brooks. “When Claude (more on him in a second) left me alone to coach–I was a Cali kid and had that kinda attitude–I had family yelling at me like, ‘What are you doing?’ The league was kind of rough…Claude didn’t tell me this right away, but some of the people in the families of these kids were stone-cold killers.”
“I had to understand how to play star cats…[a kid] was like ‘I’m not doing what you say, even when you call a play for me.’ At times, it was the most frustrating thing in the world,” he continued. “Being a South Philly coach, there were cats that didn’t want to talk to me, especially after we won…I remember clearly after we won our [summer league] championship being seen differently.”
That’s how Philly is. You have to earn your respect in the so-called City of Brotherly Love (and Sisterly Affection), a place where (on the basketball court, at least), you can be regarded as a top prospect nationally, but people in your own city will question–and test–you.
“Claude Gross, who’s ‘Chuck’ in the book, is ‘the guru,’” said Brooks, who coached under Gross, a South Philly legend. On a sidenote, I first got knew Gross as the old head who always made sure I didn’t lean over the side to watch Hill games at McGonigle. Among the players either mentioned in the book, I talked about with Brooks or Gross coached during Brooks’ tenure (I’ve seen all of them play and a few even stopped by my workouts) include: Tywain McKee, Malik Perry, Kechan Myers, Marshall Taylor, Amir “Crazy Horse” Ryan, David Burton, Ervin Spuriel, Kashif “Caddy” Carr, Richard “Tabby” Cunningham, Shawn Sabb, Antoine “Doo Dirty” Brown, Maureece “Reece” Rice and Maurice “Mardy” Collins (the latter two are from North Philly). For obvious reasons, if you read the book (it’s real), they aren’t mentioned by their real names, but believe me when I say he’s writing about some legit ballers. Plus, if you know Philly basketball, it’s fun trying to figure out who’s who and what’s what. I never lived in South Philly (always North or West) and even though I worked with a few kids from there and attended games there, it always seemed somewhat isolated and like another world to me, even down to the mannerisms of the kids from there. I’ll put it like this: “Rocky” doesn’t paint an accurate picture of what’s going on down there today. Regardless, it’s a great read if you’re a basketball fan, looking for a good book or if you’re truly interested in some of the inner workings of ball at the grassroots level.
Anyway, speaking of “old heads” in Philly, one of the good ones is my man Rasool (he’s in the book), who recently had a Senior Sleeper Showcase game to highlight some of the city’s lesser lights. While sool has worked with some of the better prospects in the city, he’s dedicated to helping players on all levels get an opportunity to play in college.
One kid I mentioned a few months back was Will Adams, who was diagnosed with cancer after winning the city and state championship at Imhotep Charter last season. Will signed with Towson and while they will still honor his scholarship, he isn’t attending school this year to focus on chemotherapy. Well, being the kid I know, he’s already back on the court and when a few other players, didn’t show up, Will participated in the game, dropping 17 and according to observers, looking the best prospect on the floor. Other standouts included his teammate at ‘Tep, 6-4 senior wing Jamal Jones (22 points), 5-8 Robeson High School point guard Jay Harris (21 points) and the game’s only junior, 6-2 combo guard Carrington Ward.
Check out the highlights, courtesy of runhouse.net:
Real quick, I also wanted to shine the spotlight on my own personal (journalism) old head, Donald Hunt, a longtime sportswriter with The Philadelphia Tribune, where I got my first job after college. Don knows literally everybody in the city when it comes to basketball and is about as pro-Philly and pro-helping kids as somebody can get. Nicest guy I know, too. Anyway, a while back, I mentioned that he started a petition to get the late, great Wilt Chamberlain a stamp. I was pleased to find out that petition has been gathering steam. To get an idea of how passionate Don is about the cause, read his outstanding story about Wilt, featuring many of the the “Big Dipper’s” contemporaries.
Before I go, I wanted to also share a quick story. Back in the spring, a friend of a friend in ATL got my number and passed it on to somebody else (an AAU coach in Atlanta), who hit me up about a kid named Ryan Harrow. I’d never seen Harrow, then a junior, play, but I’d heard some good things, so when he asked for my address to send me some game tape, I was with it. The tape was very impressive, and when I saw Harrow, an NC State commit, play at the Pangos All-American Camp in Cali (link), he showed me that my eyes weren’t deceiving me. Well, when I was in Florida last month, for the Nike Team Florida Workout, the good brothers at courtcred.com said he was a kid they had a lot of footage on (they’re based in ATL) and offered to send me video of Harrow working out. For all the people who know a kid who’s small in stature (Harrow is listed at 6-0, but is probably closer to 5-10; he likely weighs a buck-fifty soaking wet), here’s what a top prospect’s workout looks like: