The City Game: Boston
SLAM 125: The 2008 championship was just the latest notch on Beantown’s impressive basketball belt.
With Boston balling again, we thought now was a good time to run Ben Collins’ City Game from SLAM 125. So if you want to learn a little bit about hoops in Beantown, read on…–Ed.
by Ben Collins
Last season, during halftime of a blowout Celtics win on ABC, commentator and Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon was asked a question, and he was forced to look stupid for the sake of television. He had to look stupid because he was asked a question with no right answer: Who are the five best Celtics of all time? His list: Larry Bird, Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Dave Cowens, Sam Jones.
What, no Cousy? No Chief? See the dilemmas?
Seventeen rings, the most by any non-pinstriped team in American professional sports, and if you leave out a player in the top five, you leave out an innovation with it.
Cousy? There’d be no point guards. He invented the turnover-free, airtight-handled PG. He was Stockton with six rings between the ’50s and ’60s and the greatest New York City point guard product ever (sorry, Messrs. Archibald, Anderson and Marbury).
Russell? There would be no centers. Eleven of those 17 rings are on his fingers and one of his toes (presumably).
Bird? There’d be no position-defying freaks dropping dimes and hitting 17-footers from behind the backboard. No LeBron, no Dirk, no Kevin Garnett.
Speaking of KG, now that he and Paul Pierce delivered that 17th banner, where are they on the list? Top five? Top 15?
BIG MEN ON CAMPUS:
Boston College has been waiting for an NCAA Tournament dance partner to show up nearby for years. Fifty minutes west, hidden in the trees of Amherst, the UMass Minutemen have churned out Julius Erving, Rick Pitino and Marcus Camby. But this is the girl who lives in the woods, the homeschooled kid—too deep and dark and unconnected to civilization for anyone to make the drive to see her.
Former University of Michigan coach Tommy Amaker is the dad trying to push his smart, antisocial daughter on the BC Eagle. He’s huddled in the Harvard gym in Cambridge trying to figure out how to grow an elite program in the Ivies. Too worried about midterms, though. Too uptight. He’s actually getting some players, but BC will pass for now.
Boston University cut its football program in hopes of funding winners in men’s and women’s hoops. Eleven years later, neither team has seen the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Meanwhile, the Eagles, who were coached by Cousy in the ’60s, have slowly built themselves into one of college basketball’s elite. After Billy Curley and Dana Barros revived the program, they’ve been a national contender several times under coach Al Skinner, in both the Big East and the ACC, which BC joined in ’05. Besides boasting great college players like Troy Bell, BC has pumped out some NBA ballers lately as well. Craig Smith was a second-round steal by the Timberwolves in ’06 and averaged nearly 10 and 5 last season, while ’07 first rounders Jared Dudley and Sean Williams quickly showed their value to the Bobcats and Nets, respectively.
There is one other Boston school, Northeastern University, that could claim one of the best to ever play in the city, but Reggie Lewis had a school too small and a life too short to prove it. The school has turned out only one NBA player since, on-the-rise Dallas guard Jose Juan Barea.
Time to gussy up, BU, Harvard, Northeastern and UMass —the team in maroon and gold from Chestnut Hill is still just a bit out of your league.
Patrick Ewing’s run with coach Mike Jarvis at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, one that catapulted PE to a starring role at Georgetown and a Hall of Fame NBA career, was a kind of dominance unrepeatable. But the Hub has some good stories from players trying.
Before Travis Best started his journeyman world tour throughout the NBA and Europe, he once dropped 81 in a single game for Springfield Central in the shadow of the Springfield-based HOF. And Travis may not have even been the best PG of that era in Massachusetts.
Salem High’s point guards—skilled-but-undersized scorer Scoonie Penn and well-sized-but-underskilled leader Rick Brunson—stormed the Witches to a pair of state titles. Brunson became the NBA’s walking cup of coffee, playing 331 career games on 10 different teams and garnering only one guaranteed contract in eight seasons. Penn went on to flourish in Europe after a Final Four run with Ohio State.
Let’s not forget the Boston College royalty: Barros (Xaverian Brothers High) and Curley (Duxbury High), or a center from a few years back who played at Governor Dummer Academy in Byfield, MA. Word was he’d be a surefire NBA big man and take over games just like Patrick Ewing used to. His name was Dan Gadzuric, and at least part of those rumors were true.
Streetball in Boston is nothing like it is in New York City or L.A. But there was a time, and it wasn’t all that long ago, where that was a good thing.
“There were kids headed to D1 schools who still played in the streets. They weren’t locked into teams or groups—it was all in terms of their population base,” says local hoops historian Bijan C. Bayne.
“So these high schoolers, how they interacted—whether they were from East Boston, Arlington Catholic, (Boston) Latin, Fall River—it was all the same: they were all just Eastern Mass kids. They wanted to test their mettle everywhere. People wanted to be legit.”
Bayne, who has long chronicled streetball in Beantown, says the end of the boom came with the highest level of players—like future pros Chris Herren and Penn—who would brave hours of traffic to head to the Eastern tip of the state to break in a new court and test out moves. “Some kids would go anywhere, they’d have these see-how-things-are-different, go-to-Newton, let’s-see-what’s-happening-on-the-Cape attitudes,” he says. “But that’s changed.”
Bayne thinks AAU snatched up all the talent—and even some creatvity—and locked it up in gyms. Tourneys died off after the Boston Shootout, a yearly event that featured area D1 recruits in a streetball environment since 1974, turned into a run-of-the-mill AAU tourney in 1999. He sees the same thing happening in bigger cities.
But Bayne thinks Boston is the only city that can withstand the AAU recruiting blow. This city, after all, boasts the oldest neighborhood basketball league in United States, Boston Neighborhood Basketball League, which formed in 1969. The league is now sponsored by Reebok, which has the swag ammo needed to keep some competition on cement.
“A lot of these kids would be playing outside, but they’re promised equipment and some organization with their (AAU) teams. This city has the Boston Neighborhood Basketball League, so it has the potential and it’s giving them an organized place to play,” says Bayne. “There are a lot of empty playgrounds. You’re not getting a 14-year-old, a guy off work, an out of shape guy and a JuCo guy all on one court. But we’re getting back to all of that.”
New Edition member and Boston native Michael Bivins has been known to set up some streetball tournaments in the summer, too—perhaps because he doesn’t want us to forget his appearance in Crossover.
The YMCA’s main role in Boston is to fill up gyms with pickup ball. There’s a reason, too, why the YMCA’s headquarters are here: It’s the only place to hoop in the usually tumultuous, ball-deflating winters. The gyms in the 16 locations are usually full, cheap and diverse—from weekend warriors to AAU players looking for a little extra burn. Leagues are always full and elbows in the paint are secretly very welcome.
For the more hands-off, matador defenders, there are six full courts across from the Garden at Basketball City Boston…when there isn’t an AAU tourney or league holding down the courts.
When the snow finally clears to reveal a three-point line in Washington Park, it becomes the center of a formerly famous summer scene that would boast the best of local talent. While we wouldn’t expect any to-be D1 players dropping by anymore, this may be a good thing for both your five and your self-esteem.
HOW WE DO:
Expect some cold veins from the weather and colder veins from 15 feet. Expect point guards who fight for rebounds like centers cause it’s just too cold not to be active all over the court.
Expect your game to be compared to obscure players from the ’90s because people around here never forget. (Side note: Be ready to leave the court promptly if your game is compared to any Celtic who played under ML Carr’s disastrous reign.)
Expect to dive for every loose ball, and expect someone to yell “Tommy Point!” when you do.
And when you hear it, you’ll be channeling Reggie, Larry, Cousy, The Chief, Ewing. And you’ll understand why they put up with these winters to begin with.