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Sometimes you can catch a pass and raise your arms and flick your wrist and release the ball from your fingertips, lofting it on a perfect arc toward the front of the rim, in one fluid motion. Sometimes your eyes and legs and arms are so in sync that any shot you throw at the basket finds its way through the net.
And sometimes the basket has a lid on it. On this particular Friday afternoon at Chevy Chase Playground, I can’t hit anything. The shots look on-target when they leave my hands, but they fall short or clang long off the back of the rim. My teammates know I can shoot. They keep feeding me the ball and urging me to launch it, but the familiar rhythm just isn’t there.
Luckily, Alvin’s hustling his ass off, and as I miss yet another corner jumper he grabs the loose ball, lowers his shoulder, and ties the score with a nifty spin move. Alvin doesn’t live in the neighborhood, but he has been coming here to play since high school. He graduated from D.C. public schools, and he’ll be a senior at Howard this fall.
“We’ve got people from all over D.C. who come up here to run,” Alvin told me as we hung out before the game, “guys who don’t want to deal with all that bullshit downtown. All that fighting.”
Our middle-age Asian teammate is helping Alvin keep us in the game. He and Alvin didn’t, or couldn’t, talk before the game began—the Asian man doesn’t seem to speak English. But the two are communicating on the court. The Asian guy knows that Alvin likes picks on his right side when he’s dribbling the ball at the top of the key. Alvin knows that the Asian man has a deadly jump shot within 15 feet, especially from the left corner.
Unfortunately, our other two teammates, who prepped at Phillips Andover and Roosevelt, respectively, don’t know that you’ve got to hustle if you want to win in the run-and-gun games at the park. Our lazy defense results in a 16-14 defeat.
We’re sitting. At the playground, the reward for victory is playing again. If you lose, you watch. Worse, I’m dying of thirst. The water fountain has been broken for weeks, and again I’ve forgotten to bring water. Some guys on the other side of the court are drinking Schlitz malt liquor, but I don’t envy them. Drinking booze isn’t such a good idea when it’s 90 degrees and you’re playing ball. As I contemplate a quick trip to 7-Eleven, I notice two teen-agers hanging out underneath the far basket, challenging anybody who will listen to a game of two-on-two for $50.
The game that follows our loss is ugly but close, and it takes forever. The crowd on the sidelines groans with every missed layup, especially when the score crawls closer to the magic 16. I pass the time by listening to an argument between two men on the sidelines over who rejects whose shot more often.
When the game finally ends and the remaining members of my team walk onto the court to try again, one of the two teen-agers, a kid wearing shiny new sweat pants and running shoes, comes over from the far basket and demands a spot on our team. No one would play for $50, so now he wants to run full-court. We’ve only got four players, so he’s on.
As I’m jacking up a few shots before the game begins, I watch him at midcourt: He takes a huge wad of bills out of his pocket and gives it to his friend, who is going to skip the game and head to 7-Eleven instead. He also hands over a beeper.
I hit a jumper from the top of the key on our first possession and the familiar feeling is back. On the defensive end, the hustler in the new sweats grabs a rebound and we’re running. He streaks down the middle of the court as I keep pace on his right side. At the foul line, he flips the ball to me and I knock down another jumper. The sideline sages erupt.
“Danny Ainge! He’s got the range!”
“Naw, man, that’s Paxson right there!”
The three middle-age men who are providing the commentary are playground regulars. They have as much fun on the sidelines as we do on the court, sitting in the sun, drinking, and dispensing basketball wisdom—not a bad way to spend a Friday afternoon.
All I did was hit two jump shots, but my defender has been marked for persecution. A white guy who can play always gets jocked at the playground.
“That white boy’s busting jumpers in your face!”
“Damn! Somebody better guard that boy.”
The basic racial stereotypes are familiar to anyone who plays basketball. White players, it is said, excel at the outside game—shooting jump shots—while black players are more adept at taking the ball to the hoop. The theory: White players are used to playing indoors where there isn’t any wind to blow a shot off-course, or on courts with straight rims and nets, so it’s easier for them to develop a long-range shooting touch. Black players, because they play on outdoor courts with bent rims, no nets, and wind, are forced to learn to take the ball inside.
I don’t know where the hustler in the sweats learned to play, but the rims must have been straight. He’s got a smooth jump shot. He’s also a good ballhandler who throws slick no-look passes on the fast break. We’re playing well together and the game is tied. At 5-5, he makes a steal underneath the basket, takes a few dribbles, and lobs the ball down-court to our sprinting teammate, who hits a layup to make it 6-5.
But the player from whom the ball was stolen claims he was fouled. The other players must aquiesce: On the playground, you can argue a call, but ultimately you have to respect it. There are no refs. The called foul stands, so our basket doesn’t count. I walk slowly back down the court to play defense.
The hustler isn’t walking slowly. He rushes right up to the player who called the foul, a tall, wiry black guy with red track shorts, and feigns a punch to his groin. Then he gets in his face and calls him a “punk.” The wiry guy responds by putting up his hands to defend himself, and in a few moments they are circling the court like a couple of middleweights.
The rest of us back off. I can’t believe that such a minor incident has caused all this, and I join the others in cries of “it’s just a game, man” and “let’s just play basketball.” Finally two guys step in to break them up: a tall guy in khaki shorts and a multicolored Deadhead belt and Roscoe, a playground regular. No punches have been thrown, but the hustler walks away with a warning: “When my boy gets back, we’re gonna pop you.”
I’ve never heard “we’re gonna pop you” at Chevy Chase Playground before. But I know it’s not the standard trash-talking, and that it means a little more than “in your face!” In D.C., “pop” usually means “shoot”—with a gun—and everybody on the court seems to have gotten the message. We play the remainder of the game in an uneasy silence. I find myself giving the hustler the ball every time I touch it.
When the game finally ends, the hustler strolls outside the gates of the playground to talk to his friend, who has returned from 7-Eleven and is eating doughnuts. His buddy doesn’t seem to be interested in the story, and just continues to eat.
Meanwhile, the wiry guy in the red track shorts glances over at the gate and sees the two kids talking. He’s already packed his gym bag, and before the two can begin to run after him he grabs it and sprints—his arms pumping rhythmically in perfect track form—toward Western Avenue. I don’t blame him. This is D.C., it’s 1993, and you don’t take chances.