The Scoop-penned story below, which we’re re-running in celebration of #ChiHoopsWeek, was originally published in SLAM 21 (October, ’97). Enjoy.—Ed.
Driving through K-Town with Mitchell “JJ” Anderson is a trip. He used to run this. So did Mark Aguirre, Billy Harris and Eddie Hughes. Now the game has changed. The things JJ used to do on the court that we considered revolutionary are now just considered “nice.” Nobody forgets what he used to do (he can still do most of ‘em), but on the concrete of K-Town, you’re only as good as—as Lamar Mondane would say—your last rain drop.
The west side of Chicago is unlike any other place in the world. It’s like two Harlems and half of the Bronx rolled into one, the heaven Rick Telander shoulda wrote about. It’s the most important basketball spot in the world. OK, maybe not, but it’s close. On this day, playground legend JJ Anderson reminisces. The parks and games that were his as a teenager belong to Michael Herman, Ronnie Fields, Kiwane Garris and Donald Whiteside now. In his day, JJ was special, something to behold: 30-point games in games up to 32; vicious tuck-the-ball-under-your-shirt cup dunks; baseline, behind-the-backboard finger rolls—you know, the regular.
Now, as Austin Park fades in the rearview mirror, JJ’s legacy is just stories, messages of what used to be his. His play at Bradley University and his run with the 76ers don’t mean anything now. More important to him are the stories of what he left on the playgrounds of Chicago. Shine on the concrete here, you’ll shine forever; once you get love here, you got love for life.
Andre Curry, City Worker: “I saw Paul McPherson do the most ridiculous shit I’ve ever seen anybody in my life do. Someone missed a shot, and Paul came from the baseline to, I thought, rebound. The ball bounced way off the back of the rim, it almost looked like it was going out of bounds on the side. Then from out of nowhere, Paul grabs the ball out of the air with his left hand, brings the ball down to his ankles—still cupped in his left hand!—and threw that ball through the rim harder than any dunk I’ve ever seen. There were still players running towards the sideline, thinking the ball was going out of bounds. All I could say was, ‘God damn.’ What made it worse was that he was still going up after he dunked the ball.”
Raul Sims, B-Ball Camp Sponsor: “Sonny Parker and Rock [Vernado Parker] both said that was the best dunk they had ever seen, but remember that dunk Ronnie Fields did two years ago? Not even that dunk, those two dunks he did back-to-back to end the game? [Oohs and ahhs around the room. Everybody remembers.] The first one was that one pass off the glass from Juwan [Howard], then the next time [was] down court on the breakaway. The 360. The one where he touched the ball with his shoes in the air before he windmilled it. The one that they had to stop the game for, because everybody came out of the stands and rampaged the court. Y’all remember that?”
Ronnie Fields and Paul McPherson are legends. Both are under 22 years old, and both have prodigious talent; then again, neither took high school seriously, and neither has a pro contract. Over the past three years, they have staged a war that will never be finished. In the parks and in the summer tournaments of Chicago, they have managed to create a show that will only be outdone if Jordan and Dominique decide that ’88 ain’t over. They manage to do things on a level that makes people lie.
“I saw Paul McPherson shoot a three, run, jump, grab the ball out of the net and dunk it back before he came back down.”
“I once saw Ronnie Fields end a game on a breakaway. He put his foot on the backboard, did a backwards flip and then did a reverse dunk to win the game.”
You know the rules. Myths. Fables. Street stories.
Both men represent the culture of playground basketball and what it means in Chicago. High school ball was just a day job to them—until the summer came, until the temperature rose. That’s when the stories get told, when legends are built. Immortality, formed. DePaul University? Junior College? The CBA? Please. Paul and Ronnie are bigger than that. NBA stories don’t last long, playground/park stories marinate forever. Paul and Ronnie know, more than most, that basketball is a game meant to be played on concrete and/or with no restrictions. You can’t stop a 6-2 left-handed kid built like a linebacker, with a 46-inch vertical and a jump shot soft as Joe Dumars (Paul). You can’t hold down a 6-3 Jordanesque prodigy who can score 35 at will, from every spot on the court; who plays defense, rebounds and has—literally—skied over heads to get his points across (Ronnie). Who needs the NBA when the Pro-Ams keep it real?
Carl West, Magazine Editor: “One time last year up at Hoops, Alvin Daniels strolled in to work out. R. Kelly and his boys were up there that day, runnin’. Now they didn’t know Al from a hole in the wall, they didn’t know the juice he has, they just thought he was a regular brotha up there to ball. Rob [Kelly] started talkin’ shit. Now Al’s a humble brotha, but he was getting tired of the unnecessary noise. So he nullified all of madness by dropping the final 18 points of the game on Rob. In a row! And on the final shot, he shook Rob and pulled up just inside the half court line—and as the ball dropped through the net he opened his arms and sang right in R. Kelly’s face, ‘I believe I can fly.’”
Daryl Materre, Jazz Musician: “Back in the day, I watched this unknown cat named David ‘Doc’ Robinson up at Whitney Young High School play against Darius Clemons, who at the time was the Sun-Times Player of the Year in city. This was in a pick-up game outside the school. Doc was killin’ Darius. Killin’ him. He did one move that I don’t think Julius Erving coulda pulled off. He went to the hole with the ball in one hand, you know like the old Doctor J move. It looked like he was going in for a dunk. Doc was only about 5-11. Right before he got to the cup, Clemons came across to block the shot. In mid-air, Doc dropped the ball behind his back into his left hand and brought it under Darius’ arm for a scoop shot off the backboard.”
Foster Park used to be the spot. Some claim that it still is. There was a time when a ballplayer wasn’t a real ballplayer until he took his game to West 84th Street for a test. It was, for a period of time, a landmark. Then again, so was Cole Park.
This is what makes Chicago unique, so unlike most of the country’s other cities where asphalt, building and basketball connect. One park, one playground, one court does not make a culture. Not here. There is a contest within. No one specific place represents where the best can be found. Ball players in Chi build, then travel. From park to park, Y to Y, Chicago State to I.I.T. From the Butler family to the Irvin family. No park is safe from Nick Irvin’s jumper or Imari Sawyer’s cross-crossover. No playground is safe from a Brian Leach 70-point game.
According to the Chicago Park District, there are over 500 parks in Chicago. Each one has a story to tell, each one has a legend to maintain. It is at these parks where Timmy Hardaway, Kendall Gill, Nick Anderson, Juwan Howard, Antoine Walker, Hersey Hawkins and Michael Finley became pros; and where Alfredrick Hughes, Daryl Sigh, Billy Harris, Paul King, Michael Newbell, Tyrone Bradley, Levertus Robinson, Efrham Winters, Marcus Liberty and Ben Wilson became legends.
But it also where the unknown score 50 in games, where somebody nobody’s ever seen of heard of runs the court—never losing a game—for hours. It’s in Chicago’s summer tournaments that NBA stars lose their shine to high-school dropouts and drug dealers. It’s at Avalon Park in closed-door games that “sponsors” come five strong with their squads and a loss can cost $50,000—and some players a lot more.
It’s at Gill Park, where some wannabe local legend, fresh from Tony’s Sports with his new Jordans, gets his sneakers took because he had no idea that the shortie he’s ballin’ against is Joel Bullock, the No. 2 JC player in the country. It’s at Malcolm X College, where an argument breaks out over a call, and the court empties when someone pulls a gun to prove his point. The only player not shook is this 5-11 kid from the suburbs, who remains on the court holding the ball in his hands and will not leave because he came into the city to test his game against the best—and he’s willing to die to prove that he belongs.
Brian Leach, Legend: “Tim came down and hit a long two, then I came down and hit a three. He came right back down court and hit a three, then I came straight back and hit another three. It went like that for about eight or nine times downcourt in a row. You know how you get in a zone—well, both of us were in it. But what made it so different is that we both stayed in there for the whole game. It was like a one-on-one full court. People had never seen anything like that on the Pro-Am level. After every shot, the crowd got louder and louder. All summer long, people kept asking me, ‘When are you and Timmy going at it again? When does your team play his team again?’ I still hear about it today [five years later]. It was just one of those things. I can’t even remember who won the game, but when it was over, Timmy had 72 points. I had 73.
Tim Hardaway, NBA: “That game was a good time. We won the game, but that wasn’t because I got the best of him or because he got the best of me. I’ll say this [laughing]: We got the best of each other. It was just the team I was on was better than his. Leach was a great ballplayer, still is. Every time we played against each other, we showed the crowd something explosive. I was scared to play against him, and he was scared to play against me, because we didn’t know what tricks we were going to do on each other. I wish he would’ve made it to the League.”
There will be cities with beef about this story. Mad cities, literally. Why? “What’s Chicago got that New York, Detroit or L.A. doesn’t?” That’s what they will ask. Easy. Basketball is equivalent to primary culture in Chicago. It is what hip-hop is to New York; automobiles are to Detroit; money, fame, police corruption and courtrooms are to Los Angeles. It is beyond a way of life; it is life itself. Let me put it this way: Hoop Dreams fascinated the whole country except Chicago.
I am Tiger Woods? Never. We are Agee and Gates. Always. The playground game’s importance has not changed since Cazzie Russell took his game out of Carver High. It has not changed since Ricky Green, Bo Ellis, Sonny Parker and Quinn Buckner. It hasn’t changed since the infamous Arthur Sivels. It remains the same in priority today because of Melvin Ely, Mike Robinson, Jimmy Sanders and Lenord Myles. In truth, it rests in the palms of Michael Herman.
Early June ’97 at ISEM free agent rookie camp in Chicago, Michael Herman is sitting in the bleachers, basketball in hand, contemplating his future. He has a decision to make: Stay and impress some NBA scouts or leave to play pick-up games at LeClair gym? Needless to say, the scouts were impressed.
Over the past three years, Michael Herman has put himself in position to not even be questioned as the Rafer Alston of Chi: the best on the block. It’s an important title, an unspoken one. Right now, it is something no one will really argue. He’s that nice. His continuous 40-50 point games against all comp in the pro summer leagues has given witness to a new legend.
Rumors about what he’s going to do are becoming legendary, too. His one year at Indiana University under Massa Knight was a mistake; so was his not continuing college. Right now, he’s probably the best kept secret not in the NBA.
Why? Despite his ability to put on shows, cross people up with moves unseen and piss opposing coaches off by being straight-up unguardable, he’s first and foremost a defensive specialist. As great as he is when he has the ball in his possession, he’s more dangerous when you have the ball. Yes, you. He lives for the challenge, the shut down, the memory of making your time on the basketball court a living hell. Stories of his performances are becoming more than legendary, they’re becoming consistent.
And in the hoop dream reality of non-professional basketball in Chicago, Michael Herman is not special. His story is no different than that of, say, Lamar Mondane (despite the Reebok commercials) or Billy Harris (often considered the best ever Chicago playground legend) or Teddy Grubbs (probably the most talented big man Chicago playgrounds will ever see). All had shots at making it to the League, all failed. All will be remembered as some of the best the Park District and summer leagues will witness.
In hindsight, it’s actually better that they didn’t make it and receive the check. Hell, only one in 50,000 of us make it to the League. Too often when you don’t shine in the NBA after shining on the block, people begin to doubt you. But nobody in any park, playground, street or alley with a hoop will ever doubt players like Mondane, Harris, Grubbs or Herman. Their reps are reputations you die with. Those are reps you live for.
Paul Wilkinson, Manager (Shark Bar): “I went to one game up at I.I.T. [Summer Pro-Am] to watch my boy Big Doug Johnson [brother of former NBA player Mickey Johnson]. I had a couple of people with me who didn’t know about Doug. I told them, ‘Watch my man, just watch him.’ Now Doug is thick, 6-4, 280! They laughed because Doug’s big; they just thought he was fat. Doug started doing his thing, backing in cats 6-9, 6-10, and scoring on them at will. Man?!? The people that were with me just sat there, looking at me in amazement. I was like, ‘I told y’all.’ They could not believe someone that size could be that nice, average 40 a game against pro ballplayers. But as long as I’ve been in Chi, Big Doug has always gotten his.
Charles “Rabbit” Honore, Police Officer: “About 15 years ago at Chicago State in the summer league, I watched Isiah Thomas do a move on Carl Nicks that was so sick, people gave him a standing ovation. The thing that made it so special is that it was just an unnecessary move, in that Zeke didn’t have to do it—he just did. I can’t really describe it—you were there with me—all I remember is Isiah alone on a fast break. For some reason, he waited for Carl to catch up with him. When Carl got there, he tried to rip him. Isiah did this spin move to try to get away from Carl, but Carl was hip to that move. Then Isiah did this other move where he got inside the lane, right before he tried to score. Carl was all over Isiah the whole time. But while he was in the air, Zeke turned his back to the basket, faked putting the ball up with his right hand, then switched and did a backwards lay-up, spinning the ball off the corner of the glass. Everybody in the gym lost it! The ref called the foul, the coach called a time out, because he couldn’t believe it. Man, people stood up and clapped during the entire time out and didn’t sit down until Isiah hit the free-throw when he came back on the court.”
Today, Chicago’s playgrounds are filled with unknown prodigies you and I will never see or hear about. The stars don’t come out to play anymore. Too much risk, too much drama. While the playground game’s importance hasn’t changed, the society and neighborhoods surrounding the game—and the playgrounds themselves—have. NBA insurance policies don’t cover “Pooky” bridging that ass when you’re going to the hole on the court outside of Cabrini Green Housing Projects, and that broken ankle you sustained at Russell Square Projects trying to guard “Li’l G Money” won’t make coach Riley happy when you come to camp in a cast. For these reasons, and many others, the playground game has been left for the people who still live there. And in all honesty, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
The “whatever happened to…” stories have become the norm. Most Chicago playground stories turn sad after a while. I guess all playground stories are that way. No one can predict what’s going to happen to Ronnie Fields, Paul McPherson and Michael Herman. No one really wants to. At this stage of the game, God has a plan for those who choose to use a basketball to make a living. For every Tim Hardaway, Mark Aguirre or Isiah Thomas that Chicago produces, there will always be a Brian Leach or a JJ Anderson it holds on to. It’s called the playground embrace. Everybody has questions, no one knows the answers.
Kevin Smith, paramedic: “What I remember the most about the playground, Scoop, is the shit you used to do to Andre.”
Andre Curry: “That’s cold, Kev. Why you go there? It’s cool, but don’t none of y’all forget what I used to do to him.”
On 72nd and Dorchester, behind Nelson Mandela Elementary School, in the under-15 Body Magic Basketball tournament, a seventh grader, Li’l Skony, loses it. Epileptic. After he gets fouled: “Yo ref, wassup with the call! Do someth’n, they gonna break my ankle out here!” After his teammate missed a jumper: I knew I shouldn’ta passed you the ball! Damn! Why you miss that shot?” After one of his turnovers: “Coach, I need some help out here. I can’t do this all by myself.” With 15 seconds left in the game, his team losing 58-52, after he fouls someone, after he walks off the court: “That’s it! Coach, sub me. I quit! This is bullshit!” A pampered star.
As he sits on the bench and changes shirts, Antonio Gaston is dropping a half court, no-look dime inside to one of his teammates as the buzzer sounds. Paying no attention to the fiasco of a coach trying to learn a child, Gaston runs to the scorers table to check the stat sheet. “How many assists did I have?” are the only words out of his mouth. He had 16. He’s proud. In the life of a 4-8 13-year-old, playground showcases—even small ones—are mandatory. As other players get ready to take the court, and some of Gaston’s teammates roll up to congratulate him, the words, “Tony Rome, MVP” are floating everywhere. He just smiles.
As Li’l Skony walks through the fence and away from the court with three of his boys, Tony Rome sips the juice. His uncle wraps his arm around his neck, “This is my li’l nigga here.” If he keeps his head straight, he could be the next “playground” legend in the making, holding down JJ’s old spot. Then again, the way basketball goes on the streets in Chicago, Antonio Gaston could be the next, “damn, whatever happened to… .”
Michael Jordan used to stop and ball out here. Rumors have it that Jordan used to get beat out here, too. Not to say that Jordan can’t handle his on the asphalt, but there aren’t too many people who will tell you that Billy Harris couldn’t hand it to MJ outside the United Center. Then again, these are just stories.