Original Old School: A New York Tradition
You’ve heard plenty about point guards coming up from the Brooklyn streets. But no one’s story is quite like Booger Smith’s.
Originally Published in SLAM 130
First, from NOYZ: “It was the night of May 6, and hell was breaking out all over the courts of the NBA. Ron Artest ran after Kobe and got thrown out of the Lakers-Rockets game. Lamar Odom was yapping up a storm in the same game and caught a tech. Over in the East, Rafer Alston slapped Eddie House in the head, earning a one game suspension for his odd outburst. What do the evening’s miscreants have in common? Queens, baby! What no one in the “MSM” was hip to was that these players were obviously honoring the real King of Queens, our friend Matt Caputo, who was wrapping up his full-time stint here at SLAM. But we knew what was up. Good luck at the Daily News, bro/dude/son/yo…”
Words Matt Caputo
Junior’s Restaurant in Brooklyn is home to what they call “The World’s Most Fabulous Cheesecake.” But it’s not for everyone. Today, Ed “Booger” Smith, who was the subject of the film Soul in the Hole and was later immortalized on a ’97 Sports Illustrated cover, skips the cheesecake and goes straight for a glass of Hennessey.
In the summer of ’93, Danielle Gardner set out to document the streetball culture of New York City. She originally wanted to profile three of the City’s most promising guards at the time—God Shammgod, Rafer Alston and Booger, who could make even the most difficult sequences on the court look effortless. Instead, Gardner was so captivated by Booger’s life as a prodigy who practically raised himself, she decided to make Booger and his team, Kenny’s Kings, the subject of the film.
“I think that when I said that if I didn’t make the NBA I’d be a drug dealer, people got scared of that,” says the now 33-year-old Booger. “But it was a real story. I mean, that’s what I was going to do. Did they want me to lie and say I was going to be an architect or something? I don’t regret saying it. She just told me to be myself, but I never really liked getting too much attention.
“The movie was cool though,” adds Booger, pulling the mahogany liquor to his thin face. “They didn’t know that I was hustling from the time that I was 9. I never disrespected basketball. But on the other side, I had to do what I had to.”
Growing up in a single-parent home in the Tompkins Projects in Brooklyn, Booger never met his father and had a sometimes-turbulent relationship with his mother. He rarely attended class and spent some nights sleeping on the park benches that lined the project walkways. He struggled in school, but his teachers and deans changed his grades so he’d be eligible to play basketball. Despite being named All-City as a junior, Booger dropped out of Westinghouse HS after three years. With little direction in life, for basketball or anything else, Booger’s heart and smile always seemed to make people want to help him.
“Booger is one of the nicest kids in the world, but he really always had to take care of himself. When he came to live with me, he was, like, 16 years old,” says Kenny Jones, who was Booger’s unofficial guardian for a large chunk of his early life. “When we did the movie, I thought it was something that would help get him exposure. I think in a lot of ways, he was afraid of success.”
As Soul in the Hole opens, Booger’s high school years are over and the summer basketball circuit begins. He’s lacking a basic plan for the future, having lived in a system that has basically policed him rather than nurture him, for his entire life. He deals with violence and poverty as if it were a part of the lives of everyone his age. Despite his hardships, Booger was one of the top players in the city, possibly even the country, by many accounts. Even with basketball skills that were more of a gift than a talent, Booger couldn’t see past life in his neighborhood.
“I would be on the basketball court and the fiends would line up on the side and wait for me to serve them,” Booger admits. “I would have all my work stuffed in my socks. I was 12 years old and I was selling crack. Even then, I never hustled for nobody. I did it on my own.”
As the film progresses, Kenny’s Kings become one of the most dangerous streetball teams of their day in New York City. Although they suffer some heartbreaking defeats, the team is comprised of players—including Charles Jones, a future Bull and Clipper—who went on to play college ball at the end of the summer. Except for Booger. Despite his talent, Booger was still without a high school diploma when he was approached with a second chance at going to college.
“Other people wanted more for him than he wanted for himself,” says Kenny Jones, who is in and out of touch with Booger today. “The super scout, Tom Konchalski, told the Arizona Western coach about Booger and I showed him some tapes I had. They never saw him play, but we met the coach at the World Trade Center and Booger signed right there.”
In the movie, Booger goes to Arizona Western in Yuma and the move seems like a great opportunity for him. He was living on campus, eligible to play during his second semester and beginning to assimilate into the somewhat normal life circumstances that going to college offered. Still, Booger couldn’t seem to shake the street element he’d grown so accustomed to. Although he says he was never a part of any gang, he became affiliated with several Bloods and Crips while he was in school. “When I was heading out there, I thought I’d change my life,” Booger says. “I said I wasn’t going to smoke weed or drink and just stay focused on basketball, but as soon as I got there, one of my teammates had a pound of weed under his bed. Everybody on our team was from the streets.”
After only one school year in Arizona and a little more than one semester on the court, Booger returned to Brooklyn and the streets he’d grown up roaming. He had a falling out with Kenny Jones and left his house for good that summer. Booger had grown irritated by the documentary process and says that he was reluctant to sign the release Gardner needed him to sign. But he eventually did, and despite encouragement from almost everyone around him, Booger didn’t return to Arizona Western.
“I was around a lot of the things he was around but not as deep into them,” says Charles Jones, the member of Kenny’s Kings, now a former NCAA leading scorer with two short NBA stints under his belt. “I made it to the League but all the baggage of being from NYC and hanging around in the hood hurt my stock with the NBA. I was just fortunate that teams took the risk. I think he could’ve and should’ve made it, but I think he could’ve gotten more help. Everyone who had him as a player was happy to have him because of how easy he made their job.”
Once Booger returned from Arizona Western, he spent the next few years engrossed in street life. He tried to return to the school in ’96, but by then, he was too out of shape to compete at that level and the coaching staff decided Booger should return home.
By ’97, when writer Rick Telander came to check on New York’s playground scene for SI, Booger had been shot twice, was a father and had faded from being a promising JuCo point guard. He was separated from streetball mediocrity only by an extraordinary ability to be both highly entertaining, creative and efficiently crafty with the ball in his hands.
“He was elusive, both in life and on the court. He did things that were too fast to capture,” recalls Telander, author of the celebrated Heaven is a
Playground. “I tried finding him for a while before I found him at a game at Tillary Park. He was quiet and kind of completely unobtrusive. Once he got the ball, he took over and it was a total transformation. It was as though he was attached to the ball. Things you knew he hadn’t thought of or could never have planned, he would do instantaneously.”
The August 18, ’97, cover of SI featured a photo of Booger completing one of his trademark difficult-looking passes with ease. That same summer, Soul in the Hole was finally released to the public. Despite the exposure his talent was given via the film and magazine cover, Booger still saw little of that potential in himself. And if he did, he still couldn’t get out of the streets long enough to make something of them.
“Booger, to my way of thinking, was about the last guy who came up in the streets through word of mouth alone,” says Telander. “He’s like a real cowboy, an American original, for better or worse, for sadness or in heartbreak. He didn’t need to be in front of 20,000 fans, all he needed was a few hundred people leaning up against a fence.”
Though the film and SI cover made him known to millions of basketball fans, Booger seemed to always be a step away from having a formal basketball career. He played briefly with the USBL’s Brooklyn Kings, who played their home games across the street from Junior’s; for the Lacrosse Bobcats in the CBA, alongside Stephen Jackson; in the short-lived IBA with the Rochester Skeeters. In each of those stops, Booger left without completing a full season. He also appeared in some Nike advertisements and some other movies, including He Got Game and Pootie Tang.
In ’01, Booger jumped bail on a drug charge and fled to Chicago to hide from authorities. He says he found his way to Tim Grover’s gym, where he played in a pick-up game with Michael Jordan and was surprised by how prepared Jordan was to catch his no-look passes. Grover was impressed by his skills and invited him to participate in a pro tryout camp the next day. When Booger arrived with the cash required to register, however, camp officials wouldn’t let him participate and he missed what was probably his last chance at playing pro basketball. “I came back to New York and I had gotten into a car accident and I had a gun in the car,” Booger remembers. “They charged me with possession of a weapon, conspiracy and jumping bail. I went into jail in early 2004 and got out September 12, 2008.”
In prison, Booger spent most of his time playing sports. He was an outfielder and shortstop during baseball season and played his usual role during hoop season. At Gouverneur Correctional Facility in upstate New York, Booger was asked to autograph copies of the SI cover he graced and the prison library ordered Soul in the Hole.
Since his release, Booger hasn’t found anything to occupy his time or afford him a normal lifestyle. He coaches youth basketball and meets with a parole officer every week, where he’s drug tested. His daughter, Tanesia, is 14 years old and he says the two have a good relationship despite his absences. Without any serious job prospects or the ability to move out of Brooklyn, Booger is dodging the same bullets he was before his brush with fame.
“Each of these streetball legends had some great basketball skills and probably had transcendent flaws, too,” says Telander. “Woven in with their great ability and great works is this kind of subtle destruction of those same abilities. They may not even be aware of it, but they’re probably never really comfortable until their chances are gone.”