Figure since everyone should have their issue 122 by now, I’m not ruining anything by placing an extended, unedited version of the great Rick Telander Heaven is a Playground excerpt here on the site. In case you missed it, Rick gave me a great interview when the issue came out, and in it, I promised to run the story on the site. Below you can find it pretty much how Rick submitted it to me a couple months ago. A little longer and less clean than the version that ran in the magazine, but just as compelling. If all of this is totally new to you, then your first step after reading this taste of Rick’s greatness should be to go to Ricktelander.com and order a copy yourself.
Here you go…
EXCERPTS FROM HEAVEN IS A PLAYGROUND
by Rick Telander
Coming around the corner of Foster and Nostrand at dusk, I see a ten-foot fence and the vague movements of people. Men sit on car hoods and trunks, gesturing, passing brown paper bags, laughing. Stains on the sidewalk sparkle dully like tiny oil slicks in a gray ocean. Garbage clogs the gutters. At the main entrance to Foster Park, I step quickly to the side to dodge a pack of young boys doing wheelies through the gate. When I came out of the subway, I had asked directions from an elderly lady with a massive bosom like a bushel of leaves, and while she spoke I had involuntarily calculated the racial mix around me—ten percent white, ten percent Latin, eighty percent black. Now, as I walk into the park I am greeted by a lull in the noise, pulling back like musicians fading out to display the rhythm section at work: a million basketballs whack-whacking on pavement.
“Come on now, let’s be serious,’’ says Eddie. “We down twenty-four, twenty-one.’’
The ball is returned and the contest starts again. Laughter fades. Everything is in earnest, and yet I am blind; I cannot follow the game with my ears. Rodney Parker shouts but does not exist. Quietly, on an inbounds play, I walk off the court.
“Hey, hold it,’’ says Lloyd. “Where’s that white dude we had?’’
“Yeah, we only got four men.’’ Someone counts. “Where’d he go, Rod?’’ The players look around.
“He went to get some water, I think. He’s not used to this shit, he’s quitting. Just get another man.’’
“Come on, little brother,’’ says the tall player called “Muse’’ or “Music’’ to one of the hangers-on. “Put the weight to this dude and keep him outta the sky.’’
From thirty feet away on the bench, I can barely see the occasional sparkle of medallions as they catch the street lights along Foster Avenue. I’m exhausted and relish the chance to wipe my face with my shirt and rub my sore knees. I can hear the players’ voices, and it sounds to me like they’ll go all night.
While watching Danny Odums warm up before a Hoboken, New Jersey, tournament, Rodney Parker noticed a teammate of his—bowlegged, bony, shifty-eyed, perhaps 6’5’’, with as much arrogance and razzle-dazzle as Danny had shyness. During layups the youth floated to the basket, grinning at the crowd, and threw down stuff shot after stuff shot. Occasionally he whirled in midair and flipped in delicate jump shots or launched soft bombs from deep in the corners.
They called him “the Fly,’’ a spectator said, or just “Fly.’’ His last name was Williams and he was from Brownsville in Brooklyn. “He’s got an attitude as bad as a killer,’’ the man added. Rodney was blinded to all else except the sheer overpowering talent he saw in the boy’s every move, every gesture.
“I want the Fly,’’ he said to himself.
At the park the benches are lined early with the local ballplayers. The season is young and there is enthusiasm for all that summer will bring—the warmth of the sun and the late-night dancing in the street, the ice cream trucks, the girls in halter tops, the beaches, the arguments and beer drinking and marijuana, the competition on the courts.
Behind Albert King kids jump into the fence and hang there upside down like bats. A ball gets stuck on one of the rims and the young players yell for help. “That’s how you learn to jump,’’ hollers an older player, turning unconcerned, as the boys, none of them five feet tall, leap again and again pitifully short of the rim.
The fat ex-coach named Manny Goldstein walks up to Fly and greets him sarcastically. Almost immediately the two are arguing in loud voices.
“He says we got money at Peay!’’ screams Fly. “Tell him, Danny, we got nothing. Going to the coach for cash was like asking Jesus Christ to summon the Devil out of hell!’’
“Nobody plays fair and wins,’’ says Goldstein, turning as red as his shorts.
“Bullshit, we win. I wouldn’t go near your campus.’’
“Fly, you’re stupid. Admit it, they’re using you and you’re using them.’’
“I ain’t using nobody,’’ Fly shouts. On the benches a few of the players get up and move away.
“They’re using you. They’re using your ability,’’ yells the visitor.
“So what! I’m using the coach’s ability. Man, where’s your head at!’’
“Think they care about you? Fuck, no! And you say you’re going back to school—you should just take the money and run.’’
Fly raises his hand and waves at the man in disgust.
The argument at an impasse, Goldstein, who one day will help bring down the University of New Mexico’s basketball program, along with disgraced head coach Norm Ellenberger, spouts to anyone who will listen.
“You have to cheat to win, to get to the Final Four. Give me a satchel full of money and I’ll get the best players in the country.’’
People drift away and the man is left without an audience. Corruption, the players all know, is one thing; in the ghetto it’s just another way of getting by. But yelling about it is something else.
In his apartment Rodney reads a letter from the coach at Guilford College asking if Danny Odums would like to finish his two years there if he is declared ineligible in the Ohio Valley Conference. “As I recall, Danny was an extremely nice guy who had good grades and who would fit in well…’’
“I had a friend,’’ Doodie tells me in his most serious tone, “and he was growing just like King. Thing is he been drinking wine since he’s thirteen. Dollar-nine wine, too. His guts is all erosion and he can’t sky no more on account.’’
As a fixture in Foster Park I’m beginning to blend in. I’m no longer a stranger; boys expect me to be around. They think I play basketball funny but that, as I tell them, is only because I happen to play “white,’’ the way I’ve learned.
“Don’t be scared,’’ says Lloyd. “Man, that first time you gots to overcome. The dunk is something, `specially for a little man.’’
There is an atmosphere of ritual surrounding 5’8’’ Cameron’s attempts to dunk this night, as though Cameron is in the company of braves, with Lloyd a chief watching from the perimeter.
Carefully removing his shirt and folding it into a square which he places on the sideline, Lloyd palms the ball and looks at the basket ten yards away. He puts the ball down and reaches into his pockets, pulling out an Afro pick, some change, and a dollar bill. He places these things on top of his neatly folded shirt and then picks up the ball. He rolls his shoulders two or three times and starts loping toward the basket. When he is close enough, his skinny legs uncoil and he sails into the night air, cradling the ball in the crook of his elbow before casually smashing it through the hoop.
He slowly returns to the front of the line. A player hands him the ball again. This time Lloyd runs in a little faster. While in midair he waves the ball around his head like a bolo before dunking. Again, he returns.
On his third approach he cocks his arm like a pitcher in his windup and throws a strike straight through the rim at the pavement.
For his final attempt Lloyd walks back and extra ten paces and blows on his hands. He grasps the ball in front of him and takes an all-out sprint at the basket. He cuts sharply through the row of silent boys like a halfback turning upfield and then, nearly ten feet from the hoop, flings himself into the air. As he floats slowly to the rim he rubs the ball on the back of his neck like a man with an itch under his collar and then slams it through the rim so hard it caroms wildly off to another court.
Lloyd walks silently back to the sideline. He picks up his comb and change and puts them in his pocket. He picks up his shirt and puts it on, buttoning it as carefully as he removed it.
The day starts out dreary and overcast, but not until bolts of lightning start flashing and the rain gushes down is it certain there will be no ball today at Foster Park.
Underneath the awning of Ray’s Luncheonette on Nostrand, Lloyd Hill stands staring at the swollen gutters and streets oily as licorice. He shuffles in place and sings to himself, “…diamond in the back, sun roof top, digging the scene with the gangster lean, oo-wee…’’ The decrepit three-story house where he lives with his mother, nine brothers and sisters and assorted in-laws is only three blocks away, but he would get drenched trying to run there now.
“You know, Rick,’’ he says as a bus squishes past, “I wouldn’t mind having me a nice Cadillac or Bonneville to drive home in. With a TV antenna in the back and gangster white walls.’’ He nods to himself. “Long as I didn’t have to work to death to get it.’’
Another thing Lloyd fantasizes about is a college education, actually playing on a university basketball team with uniforms and cheerleaders and locker rooms and fans. The collegiate experience is immensely confused in his mind, being a composite jumble gleaned from what he has seen on TV, what players have told him, and what he envisions words like “campus,’’ “fraternities,’’ “liberal arts,’’ and “philosophy’’ to mean. But he knows it is a valuable thing; that its meaning may be hidden too deep for his understanding, but that without it he is just another “dumb chump.’’
Herman the Helicopter, aged thirty now, sits in the bleachers and watches the games silently here at the Rucker. He is rock-solid at 6’4’’, with a bear, huge arms, and coal black skin. Like a stone, his body seems deeply at rest, as though movement would take the work of levers and sledges. His face is expressionless, as blank as an aquarium drained of water.
Ever since a childhood attack of meningitis he has had hearing only in his right ear, but until the pavement ruined his knees, that seemed to be his only infirmity. His game was built around his muscle and an almost superhuman leaping ability.
In games at old Rucker Park on 155th and 8th near Yankee Stadium. Herman used to outjump all the pros, being able to dunk the ball easily in one step from the free-throw line. Many people claim to have seen the Helicopter block shots a yard above the rim, a move that would put his feet nearly five feet off the ground.
Earl Manigault at a slender 6’2’’ had a game more spectacular than Herman’s, if not as physically overpowering. At eighteen he had such control on a basketball court that observers said only one other New York youth showed as much promise, a giant by the name of Lew Alcindor.
Earl, as vocal as Herman was reticent, became a favorite of young boys who followed him in parks wherever he played. Because they couldn’t pronounce Manigault, they changed his name to “Nanny-goat’’ and then just “Goat,’’ which he still goes by today. Though he could dazzle any crowd with his speed and moves, nothing tore people up as much as when he leaped, dunked the ball, caught it in the other hand, and dunked it again, all in the same floating vault. The Goat was becoming a legend in Harlem, but at the same time he was drifting into the world of drugs. One reason was that he did not appreciate the real worth of his skills.
“It all came so natural,’’ he says. “I men, an you dig that one night I had a dream about stuffing the ball and then the next day I went out to the park at 129th and Seventh and jammed behind my head, two-handed. I was only fourteen and 5’9’’ at the time. On the courts it weren’t nobody but the Goat; I didn’t have anybody to push me here or there. I didn’t care.’’
As I sit in what has become my favorite spot under the maple tree, watching the patterns around me, I suddenly hear my name being called. Doodie and Martin are standing almost in front of me, but my eyes have been focused beyond and, like the leaves on the tree, their bodies haven’t registered.
“Rick, we see you out here every day, writing and listening,’’ Martn continues, “and we—Doodie, myself and some of the others—well, we wondered if you’d like to be our coach.’’
I look at the boys and allow their features to sharpen. Doodie’s mouth is half-open and his arms hang limp at his sides. Martin’s arms are folded on his chest. Proud and intelligent, he once refused a soul handshake I had awkwardly extended, saying some things must be reserved for brothers.
“What?’’ I say.
“A coach,’’ answers Martin.
“A coach?’’ I ask.
Martin looks to Doodie as though perhaps none of this is coming through.
“A coach,’’ he says again.
Martin shakes his head. “Whew, and I thought colored people were dumb. Rick, take a guess.’’
“You want me to be the coach of a basketball team?’’
They both shake their heads. Doodie’s mouth clicks shut on the downward swing.
“What basketball team?’’ I ask.
Doodie takes a small step forward and points at his bony chest. “Ours,’’ he says.
Back at Foster Park, late in the evening, the players are cooling off, resting on the hoods and trunks of several cars. Mario has gone home, having gotten sick from playing all day in the heat.
When Rodney comes out for an evening stroll, Calvin Franks, so desperate for a future, approaches him, grabbing his T-shirt, touching him, imploring him with pathetic seriousness to get him into school. “One more time, Rod. One more chance to get on my feet.’’
The Subway Stars are having their problems. Organized with great expectations, they have so far reaped nothing but frustration.
On Sunday they waited eagerly for the arrival of the Flatbush Flyers. I kept them busy shooting lay-ups and chattering for nearly an hour and a half. But the team didn’t arrive. Drawing Pontiac Carr to one side, I asked my manager what he thought the problem was.
“I don’t know, Coach. Want me to find out?’’
I told him I did. He hopped on a bike and pedaled furiously out of the park. Thirty minutes later he returned , sweating and bedraggled.
“I saw one of the guys. He said two of their players had to go to New Jersey and another of `em’s sick. They ain’t coming.’’
The Subway Stars began moping, then acting surly and ridiculing one another. I tried to tell them to relax, that it wasn’t that important. But as usual my half-hearted advice went unheeded. The boys became sullen and wandered off in various directions.
“Scoring is the thing with Fly,’’ says Jocko Jackson, who grew up in Brownsville with him. “Making points. He gets upset, real upset when he doesn’t score. ‘’
Knowing this, Jackson frequently bends his own game to soothe his friend. “I do things to keep him happy. I’ll tell him over and over that he could take his man if he wanted to, even if he isn’t. He likes that.’’
As Fly’s Moorish American League team begins to warm up for its game in this Washington gym against a Maryland team that includes young high school graduate Moses Malone and Indiana Pacer rookie Len Elmore, a change comes over Fly. Through his arrogance has seeped a cold earnestness. He is serious, preparing for something more than a game. Unsmilingly he sinks one jump shot after another, displaying over the unmistakable playground gyrations a classic form, hands high, eyes riveted on the rim.
Coaches who feel that Fly is indifferent to the game itself misunderstood his actions. “I love basketball,’’ Fly has said again and again. “It’s my life.’’
The Subway Stars, unable to figure out the swirling air currents or the bounce of the unfamiliar Manhattan rims, quickly fell behind before crumbling completely and being swept away. From the park crowd came a din of humiliating catcalls. “Subway assholes!’’ they chanted. “Go play on the D train!’’
Attempting to regroup, the team stood in a cluster, yelling at each other. Lloyd Hill, who had come along as assistant coach, tried to calm them down while I went over to the other team and asked hesitantly if they’d like to play another game.
“Hell, yes,’’ said a tall red-haired kid. “We’ll send you back to Brooklyn in baggies if you want.’’
“Listen,’’ says Rodney on the phone. “I need junior colleges or something for three players. Can you help?’’
“Are they good kids?’’ asks the man, an acquaintance on the periphery of college hoops who once did promotional work for a high school all-star game. “Not on drugs and all that?’’
“Don’t worry about them.’’
“I’ll see what I can locate. What are their names?
“Eddie Campbell, Calvin Franks, and Lloyd Hill. Oh, yeah, the last guy doesn’t have his diploma.’’
“Hell, a 12-year old can pass the equivalency. I’ll check around.’’
Yesterday Mario and Derrick Melvin became the first of the Foster Park players to leave for college. Their departure is a solid indication that summer is ending, and, to the many hopefuls in Foster Park, that it is getting desperately late.
Today Lloyd Hill played in his first game at the park in nearly two weeks. He seems to have little of his usual pep, depression obviously riding him like a stone. Most of the college players have gone, and Lloyd’s dream of following in their footsteps is returning to its old place in the dust and the tattered fabric in the back of his mind. He has not passed his equivalency exam. Indeed, he has not taken it.
“What’s Rodney doing?’’ he asked a group of boys during a break. Nobody knew.
The park is virtually deserted. High school started yesterday, and even the slick dudes and the dropouts have vanished, having relocated to pool halls and street corners where the action will continue regardless of class schedules.
The first tints of yellow have come to the big maple tree above the main bench. In the bright sun the change is almost imperceptible, but the leaves make a drier clattering sound in the breeze, and someone who could remember the moist ripple of June would notice.
It’s dark and the music plays softly from my box. One by one the Subway Stars come over to me to shake my hand; we do the shake, clasp, squeeze soul grip that they taught me. Some of the boys are too bashful to say much. Doodie shakes my hand with great formality. Pontiac Carr spins and slaps five.
Martin and I shake like two businessmen, and I tell him I hope the Subway Stars will keep going, even though I won’t be around.
“We’re together,’’ he says. “Count on it.’’
In his apartment that looks out over the park like a watchtower over a parade ground Rodney has decided to bring out his old shoe shine box and polish his pal Winston’s shoes.
“I was good this summer, wasn’t I, Winnie?’’ he says as he throws the brush from hand to hand with the same razzle-dazzle that earned him many a tip as a youth in East New York.
“Naw, you didn’t do nothing.’’
Rodney isn’t listening, and after he snaps the final sparkle on Winston’s toe, he stands up and puts away his antique box.
“I mean, there’s so much basketball,’’ he says coming back and gazing at the TV. “So many kids. It’s like there’s no end. You know what I mean? Like it’s all beginning, just one big beginning.’’