Heaven on Earth

by September 24, 2008

Hopefully people have either bought or received in the mail our latest issue, which is mainly about how nice those three rookies are going to be, but also boasts one of the coolest Old-School pieces we’ve ever had. It’s an excerpt—plus a sweet new intro by the author, Rick Telander—of the great book Heaven is a Playground, which, while hardly lacking for love from basketball heads, is not that well known amongst younger fans, many of whom read our magazine and website.

To give some perspective to things, help promote the book even more, and to live up to what I promised in my editor’s letter, I wanted to run an interview I did with Rick a couple weeks ago. Obviously this site focuses on players, but as Myles proved with his interview of Britt Robson last spring, writers can be great subjects as well.

Rick is an Illinois guy (grew up in Peoria, played college football at Northwestern, lives in Lake Forest) who came to be friends with SLAM through Chicago-based Scoop Jackson, our former Editor-at-Large, and Rick always gave us love when many of his brethren only liked to sneer at us in NBA locker rooms. He and I worked together to expose the NBA’s air-brushing of Allen Iverson photos in the late-90’s, and then Rick did me a huge solid when he “blurbed” the back cover of my book about the Brooklyn Cyclones minor-league baseball team, in which I certainly borrowed from Rick’s approach to Heaven, which tells the story of a summer on Brooklyn’s playgrounds and the fascinating characters who inhabit them.

That’s enough background for now. Check out what Rick had to say below, and then be sure to visit his website, Ricktelander.com, to learn even more about the man and buy a copy of Heaven, a must-have for any basketball fan.

SLAM: Tell me, first, about your current regular gig with the Chicago Sun-Times.

RT: I’m a senior sports columnist. I’ve been there for more than 13 years. I write four days a week, sometimes more depending on if a team is in the playoffs or if there’s some big event. I also write for Men’s Journal and I still do things for Sports Illustrated; I just had a piece a couple weeks ago.

SLAM: On what?

RT: It’s kind of a sad one. My son was all set to be a star wide receiver his senior year of high school football and then he tore his meniscus in half the week of the first game. They spent a year raising money to get lights for the first time in school history and then he has surgery the day before, and he’s out for the season. So, I wrote about that. I think he could have made all-state. He’s just a terrific athlete. He actually has accepted a lacrosse scholarship to play at Vermont, but football was his main love. And now he’s missing it all. So I wrote about the emotions you go through when those things are taken away from you. And, particularly, a dad who was anticipating just as much.

SLAM: Sorry about that.

RT: Yeah. You know, life goes on. He told me the other day he is going to go out for the swim team when he gets out of this a couple months from now.

SLAM: Sun-Times wise, you can pretty much choose what you’re going to write about?

RT: I mean, in Chicago, there are two baseball teams, the Bulls, the Blackhawks, and then Northwestern, DePaul, Notre Dame, and the Bears. It’s just a never-ending amount of things to write about. There’s never a shortage.

SLAM: Obviously we’re going to shift our focus to Heaven in a second, but as far as “current events”—and for our Chicago readers in particular—can you give me a comment on Jay Marriotti’s long-overdue dismissal from the paper.

RT: It’s made things a lot more pleasant in that you feel like he’s not battling secretly to do all these things. But in the real world sense, it means we’re down a columnist and there might be a little more pressure on me. It’s like a team. The other columnists step up. You all move up a chair. For me, writing isn’t about beating somebody else. It’s not about secretly sneaking in something from somewhere else. It’s about writing the best you possibly can on something in a truthful and meaningful way. And that’s not gonna change for me if we had 2000 columnists or one. So that part of it I haven’t noticed. They told me today from home that the whole back page is my photo. I guess they’re promoting me, which is somewhat ironic because, for years, I was talking about the unethical aspects of this guy and they did nothing about it. But, whatever, that’s promotion.

SLAM: You’ve been a pretty public supporter of us for a long time, which put you sort of in a minority among journalists, especially in the past—I think we’re a little more accepted now—but you were open to us through Scoop and cause you liked what we were doing, which we appreciated. But give your version of how Heaven is a Playground ended up in the pages of SLAM and SLAMOnline (I’ll post a longer, unedited excerpt in the next couple weeks) and why we were a good venue for you to put your book, which came out in the ’70s, back in front of basketball fans.

RT: SLAM is the most fitting venue, by far. SLAM and Heaven are almost interlocked. If you were going to have a spin-off magazine from my experience in Brooklyn and New York and traveling around the east and the roots of basketball, SLAM would have been that magazine. It’s just plain as hell. Look at some of the photos you ran in the magazine. That’s about all that was missing back then because not many people had cameras. I loved SLAM from the moment I saw it because it was all the stuff I was interested in and all the stuff that had been lacking. As attitude and culture became such a large part of sports and, particularly, city sports and urban sports—you see it now with skateboarding and other sports—where its not juts a sport, it’s a way of life. It might be an ethnic thing, it might be a style thing, it might have to do with youth, it might have to do with the political climate at the moment. It has to do tremendously with economics. All those things were what attracted me to street basketball in the first place. And not just street basketball, but the people who played it and why they played it. Not just the scores of games. That’s the least relevant thing to me. And that’s what you see in SLAM. When you read Heaven, you see not only the photos of these guys the clothes they wear but you see descriptions of them. The teenage kids, why were they playing this game? This is sociology, this is history. This is America. And I have a blinding love of sports and I always wanted to understand us as Americans better. And I love basketball—everything about it. From the fact that you can play by yourself to the fact that I once played a game of 21 in Florida where there must have been 45 guys and one ball. It was more than just playing basketball, it was like a social event. So from 1 to 45 you can figure out a way to play this game. The simplicity of it is there in SLAM. You know, it’s about the ball. There isn’t much else you need to talk about. Well, and the shoes.

SLAM: For those who haven’t picked up the issue yet, you turned the entire book (which is around 80,000 words, I think) into about a 3400-word excerpt that I had to trim a bit more. What did you focus on in picking those words

RT: I wanted you to get a sense of being there that hot summer of 1974, which was my second straight summer I went out there. I wanted you to be introduced to the main characters and I wanted you too see the basic conflicts and the beauty and the drama that was building based around this game. I wanted you to get an opened ended view so you’d read this and say, “I really want to know what happened to these people. I want the whole version.” So it’s snippets from just about the whole book.

SLAM: In our case, you took a book and trimmed it down for our readership, which is a great treat for them and hopefully gets them to go buy it, which is kind of full circle because the way you started it was that you wrote a feature story which I believe came out in the summer of ’73, and that’s what was expanded and turned into the book. How did that happen?

RT: Blind luck, I guess. But it was also having one of your dreams answered. I had just started as a writer. I was a young guy. I thought, God, I’d love nothing more than to write a book and to immerse myself in a topic of something I love. And, probably as much as anything, I wanted adventure. I wanted the Wild West. I would have been a guy in a wagon years ago; I would have been an explorer. This is as close as I could come to it. It was a guy, I don’t remember his name, from M. Evans press—I don’t think they even exist anymore—and he wrote me a letter after seeing my article that was exactly what I wanted to do. And he saw a thread of a specific narrative with Rodney Parker as the guide. I had seen that, too. Rodney was my guide; he was the guy in the jungle with the machete leading the way. I immediately wrote back and said yes. He sent a contract, I don’t even think I read it, and sent it back in the mail so fast before anybody could say no. I didn’t care what I was getting paid, none of that mattered. It didn’t matter one iota. This was going to document me as a writer, my life suddenly had meaning and it was Heaven. This was what I wanted to do. This was me. It went from M. Evans to another press and then they shipped it out to, I don’t even remember right now, but it was the third publisher that finally put it out.

SLAM: Was there, in that time period, questions of if it would ever come out?

RT: Oh, yeah, absolutely. When the first company went under, I think I had just finished that summer. There was complete doubt. There was doubt until the book actually appeared that it would ever be printed at all and that that summer would have been a waste. It was really, really close. I was pretty much resigned to the fact it would never appear. Another little tidbit: I wrote the first edition with no first-person narrator, if you could imagine. I didn’t feel I was privileged enough or enough of a name or arrogant enough or important enough to even mention myself in the book. And whoever the editor was said, “Rick, this is lacking you.” And I wish I had done it that way in the first place, but I went back and rewrote the whole thing and put myself in. All my observations, cause I had them all in notebooks. People can identify with me. I’m every man. I’m every young male—black, white, green, whatever—who’s just watching something that they love. Plus, I played so much ball that summer. There were probably days where I didn’t write a thing cause I was just playing. I was exhausted. I ruined my knees on that asphalt all summer. But towards the end, I started staying out of games so I could observe them more. Then I finished it in the spring of ‘75. I locked myself down, went up to my parents’ place in Wisconsin, just me and my dog, and I wrote it.

SLAM: And now it’s on its fourth or fifth printing, which is pretty cool, and maybe the attention from SLAM will get you to another one. Going back, is that first article you did for SI online anywhere? I can’t seem to find it.

RT: I haven’t really surfed the SI vault too much. They have cover stories I’ve done but they’re missing some as well. I do think they have every issue online somewhere though.

SLAM: You mentioned how Rodney stood out to the first person that was interested in buying it, and obviously he stood out to you, and as someone who has read it, he is a very compelling character. I don’t know how you do this briefly, but give a little description of this guy and what makes him and interesting person. I should note, it’s the late Rodney Parker, as he died last winter.

RT: First and foremost, he was a product of the City. Also, he was mixed blood—one of his relatives was white, I believe. And, at that time, things were very cut and dry: you are black or you are white. But Rodney, he floated. He was incredibly astute. I don’t think you’ll find anybody that wouldn’t say he was very smart in his ability to size up a situation. He had some analyses of sociological aspects of basketball that professors might be spouting nowadays. Things he noticed about absent fathers, about the meaning of manhood, about what was lacking in people’s lives and what basketball could fulfill for them. He constantly was saying those things in very intelligent ways, but also in a street way. He was a man of the streets. He had to be moving down the sidewalk; he couldn’t sit still. And, he was a hustler, so he had these two elements. He was very perceptive and brilliant and loved basketball and he was a street agent, one of the original street agents. But he was a street agent who never made any real money at it cause that wasn’t his real motivation. It’s funny, the ultimate irony is money was a motivation Rodney could point to when in fact it wasn’t his motivation. The opposite is what everybody does now, where people say that they want to help kids when all they’re there to do is make money. Rodney was the opposite. He might say I’m gonna make money off Fly Williams, but he didn’t really want that. Money was always falling out of his pockets. In his apartment it would fall off of shelves. He didn’t care.

SLAM: How much did you stay in touch with Rodney in the years after the book?

RT: I’d run in to him all over, at big sporting events. He was a scalper, you know? So I’d see him outside of games. He’d always have that big Rodney smile, and he’s always have a next kid for me to see play who was going to be the best.

SLAM: I met Rodney for the first time when I was doing a little story for SLAM on Smush Parker when he was leaving Fordham. If I’m not mistaken, Smush had no blood relation to him but took his name because of what he had done for him?

RT: Smush was one of those kids Rodney said I “had” to see play! Though he did actually make it, so Rodney deserves credit on him. I think he called him a nephew of his, though I don’t know if that was true.

SLAM: One player in the excerpt for us is Albert King. People know about Bernard King, but Albert—they didn’t really do high school rankings back then, but this was a 15 or 16 year old that probably would have been considered one of the best in the country, correct?

RT: Definitely. He did turn out pretty good, especially in college. He was on a classic SI cover that you probably don’t remember. Him, Ralph Sampson and Mark Aguirre.

SLAM: Just found it! That SI archive is not bad at all. By the way, just surfing as we talk, I still haven’t found the ’73 story, but I did find the piece you did in ’97 about playground basketball in New York, which was a cover story that focused on the amazing Booger Smith (who I saw live a number of times and had the sickest handle I’ve ever witnessed) and sort of served as SI’s honoring of Heaven some 20+ years later. But back to Albert. So yeah, he was very good in college, and definitely solid in the pros. Was he a guy you noticed being great when you got to Brooklyn?

RT: Yeah, I noticed. And I saw the letter Lefty Dreisell wrote him when he was in the 8th grade. He was such a nice, shy kid, and you can actually see in the book how all the attention at such a young age changes him a bit. The thing was, he was that big, 6-6, at 14. And skilled. It’s like, I don’t know—

SLAM: LeBron? Maybe not as good but as far as having the physical gifts at a young age.

RT: Exactly. Great comparison.

SLAM: Another thing I wanted to talk about was the Heaven movie. How did that work? My impression is that you weren’t hugely involved with it?

RT: I wasn’t, in the end. The book was optioned a number of times, which is when someone pays you a little money for the right to make it into a movie in the next six months. Nothing came of it for years, but then I met director Randall Fried at a gym and he was determined to make it happen. It was going to have Michael Jordan—who I had covered with the Bulls and knew abit personally—in the starring role. But long after I was involved, Michael didn’t do it. They got Bo Kimble instead, and the movie didn’t pan out the way Randall had hoped. There was a lawsuit against Jordan and everything, but Randall lost and Jordan even won money in a countersuit.

SLAM: Yeah, honestly, the movie is not good. Did that hurt the book, or does even a bad movie help a book sell?

RT: I don’t think it had any effect either way. It had so little to do with the book. The characters were older, and they never even rode a subway! They didn’t film in New York, which I understand was for budget reasons, but still. The second Hollywood gets a hold of a non-fiction book and starts changing things, it loses it’s connection. I actually tell people my book still hasn’t been made into a movie. I wish it would happen the right way.

SLAM: Ever talk to Spike Lee about it?

RT: I did, but he was involved in that Michael movie he’s been working on, and nothing came of that.

SLAM: Got ya. Well, before we go, let’s get some plugs in for you and the book. Everyone, go Ricktelander.com for much more on Rick’s career. And if you’re lazy and don’t want to follow that site’s links to buy the book, this is where to get the latest edition of the book, which is the second printing by University of Nebraska Press, and this is where you can get an online version of the book.

RT: Thanks, Ben, and thank you SLAM. I hope you get some nice feedback from the piece.