B-balling


“How did you feel in God’s house?!” a familiar face asked me this evening, as I bounded into the Rec, basketball under my arm.United House

“Good, man! Like always,” I said, as we clasped hands and pounded. He pointed out a tall man behind us, who had also been in attendance at the Easter Sunday service at which he’d happened to sit next to me. At first, he had asked me if I work for the government. When I realized he was referring to bumping into me at the Rec, it became apparent he was just working out who I was.

But after stepping through the main hall and on to the court, I realized this was going to be a different evening from the quiet post-winter warm-ups I’d engaged in since Spring had returned, and intrinsically, my desire to ball. Tonight, the court was packed with ballers on one side, and busy with an organized dance club of young women on the other.

I had to wait for ‘Next after Next’ before I got into a game, and the competition was tough. This was classic indoor streetball, played at a deceptively quick pace and filled with miniature bouts of comedy, brilliance, and masculine intensity. The first real pick-up for me this season, my shot was off and my defense a step slow. But worst of all, (or perhaps for the better), I got clocked in the face twice. Not intentionally mind you, but both times by the ball, on the receiving end of deflected or mis-thrown passes. The blood against my upper lip made it hard to concentrate, but as the game has taught me to do, I pressed the red bile against my shirt and played on.

Most impressive of all the young men on the court, not for his flash but his control, was E. A familiar face from last summer, he is a powerfully built man several inches shorter than myself, but dramatically stronger and quicker. His jump shot is butter soft, his handle rock solid. But the one skill that lifts him beyond the level of his talented but erratic peers is his decision-making: for every funky ‘And 1 mixtape’ move the others make, E rarely dribbles the ball any more than necessary. And when the turnovers flare and the fast breaking turns sloppy, E will put a stop to it, with the percentage pass or the open jumper. If only most CEOs could run their organizations with such cool-headed mastery, the corporate world would be turned upside down.

After the game, I cooled down out by the ping pong tables. As the game I was watching wound down, in stepped E–now wearing jeans over his mesh shorts. His blonde-tipped dreads and calm persona offered no hint of the exertion with which my sweat-drenched face betrayed. Perhaps that’s because he hadn’t had to try. In all the games, I’ve seen him play, as with some of the other more skilled ballers, he never seems to break a sweat: shorts, jeans, parka–regardless. And now, here he was, serving up beautifully weighed backhand serves and punishing smashes before effortlessly dispatching with the previous round’s winner.

“You play table tennis too?” I’d asked him, earlier.

“I play pretty much everything, man,” he’d replied, with neither over-arrogance nor false humility.

And I don’t doubt him. The city–these troubled streets of Shaw–with its problems and pain and jubilation, is filled with supremely talented young people, boys and girls alike. I sincerely hope, but am sadly skeptical, that E has the opportunity to translate such skill and intelligence from this recreational facility into the economic architecture of his polarized city.

Shaw men
Jati Lindsay. From Shaw and Tell, a photo essay published in the Washington City Paper, April 2007.

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In past weeks, the ever-tempestuous world of international cricket has been mired in great controversy. In a recent match between Pakistan and England, Darrell Hair, an Australian umpire whose decision-making throughout his career has won him few fans on the pitch, penalized the Pakistani team for illegally tampering with the ball. The Pakistani team returned to the field late, and as official cricketing rules do call for, Hair awarded the match to England, a dramatic move that created so much furor in the South Asian and cricketing world so as to lead Hair to write a letter to the International Cricketing Commission asking for a half million dollars for his early retirement.

There is no evidence of ball tampering, and yet there is little logic to accusing Hair of rabid anti-Asian racism. What has been discussed only slightly is the concept of “izzat,” loosely translated as “honor” in Urdu. When Hair accused the Pakistani team of tampering with the ball, he did far more than chastise a handful of men on a cricket field for scratching the ball (a practice done to alter the ball’s weight and movement). In izzat terms, Hair was doing no less than attacking the country of Pakistan. Certainly, Inzaman Ul-Haq, the soft-spoken, well-fed and deeply religious captain of the Islamic nation’s national team, was deeply offended by Hair’s actions.

Occasionally, I play a game of 33 at the Rec with some of the regulars. As I take part in my standard drubbing by the far stronger, more consistent ballers, I have begun to notice the overlap between what constitutes South Asian izzat and what constitutes African-American/hip-hop/urban izzat, often closely linked to norms around masculinity. Like its historical and cultural great uncle, the izzat of streetball involves its own sophisticated set of accepted behaviors and a highly developed, largely non-verbal language, all of which is closely tied to the psychology of the communities in which it originated.

I recently spoke with several contestants at the Washington stop in a national 3 on 3 streetball tournament sponsored by Burger King about the izzat involved in streetball. DJ Slick from the Russ Parr Morning Show–a popular talk radio program–span popular Top 40 hip hop and live entertainment played as contestants and crowd mingled about, collecting sponsor goodies.

Rodney Rodgers, who is 29, managed to utilize the streetball skills he acquired growing up in New Jersey to play professionally in Madrid and Turin, where he lived for several years after being cut by the Dallas Mavericks in 2001.

He views the izzat of streetball, more commonly referred to as “respect,” as being only one half of the equation. The other, which was oft-repeated amongst other contestants I spoke to, is “getting your name out there.”

Young men “mostly see the only way out [to a better life] is to participate in sports,” Rodgers said. “Otherwise you’re just stuck in the mud.”

“They turn to two things: they turn to sports, or they turn to the streets.”

During one of his team’s match-ups, Rogers’ side became involved in controversy with their opponent, arguing (“beefing” animatedly despite the referee’s attempts to settle the dispute quickly. Both Rogers and William Smith, his direct opponent, later downplayed the hostilities, citing natural competitiveness and the fact that a lot was at stake—two thousand dollars and a free trip to Las Vegas.

But was part of the beef about disrespect?

“Yeah, you could say I was disrespected,” Smith told me.

“We would honor their foul calls, but the other team kept fussing on calls. Then we stopped playing as a team, and started going one-on-one,” he lamented after his side’s narrow loss.

Smith, a large, fresh-faced 23 year-old from East Baltimore, also spoke of his hopes to play overseas. The recent growth in an international market for American players unable to crack the NBA has propelled dreams of making a living through basketball even further.

One demographic who was starkly non-represented was women. There was not a single female player on any of the teams I saw, and Jessica Taylor, a freshmen playing for Trinity College in Virginia, was less than pleased about the situation.

“If they had a separate division for women, I’m sure there’d be more of us actually playing,” she told me, adding that she “likes the contact” involved in streetball before making the claim that women are even rougher in the paint than men.

Some of the older female observers had more macro-oriented perspectives somewhat befitting of their age.

“It keeps ’em off the street,” maintained one resident of Southeast, who was seated at the emergency care table.

“But there’s not enough courts. Everywhere in DC, there’s not enough courts.”

And therein may lie the heart of streetball. At its most primal level, streetball is a rejection of organized basketball, with its reliance on oft-unavailable sporting facilities, rules and focus on teamwork and exercise. Streetball is at once the art of the oppressed and the means of salvation. Without the educational and economic opportunities which allow for the opportunity at upward mobility that defines the young American worldview, African-American youth turned to the courts to define their selves, to maintain natural levels of hierarchy and ego, to exercise their creativity and exorcise their rage at the oppressive forces they feel are weighing down upon them. The best of the streets—those with the most game—occasionally make it to the professional leagues, before acquiring the highest pinnacle of respect through fame and stardom.

Today, streetball continues to play that cathartic role for many young poor, largely African-American men. But its global popularity has expanded exponentially through the profusion of And 1 mix-tapes and hip hop culture due largely to increasingly-accessible media. I recently met two Ugandan streetball legends using their fame and rhyming skills to build a youth HIV prevention rap movement.

In a way, streetball is the liberator of the poor just as soccer has been for so long, a unique opportunity to be simultaneously artistic, manly, and playful. In a world of deeply defined separations across religious and ethnic lines, streetball speaks a universal language that exculpates us from the Tower of Babel yet in a manner much less Eurocentric than Esperanto.

33

    Thirty-three is at face level an extremely simple game. One player shoots an uncontested shot, which is rewarded with another identical uncontested shot if he makes the basket. If he does not, then the rest of the players contest for possession of the ball, before then endeavoring to make the basket. Repeat this process until one player has 33 points, and you’ve got the basic gist of the game.

    But thirty-three with izzat? To the uninitiated, it would be akin to a Tahitian watching Woody Allen, like a Polish grandmother attempting to dance to reggaeton.

    The izzat of streetball is all about maintaining one’s dignity and credibility. One gains respect through several key measures. In traditional basketball, scoring points is most valuable (indeed, it wins you the game). In streetball, however, scoring is the mere cherry topping to establishing one’s cred. Real cred comes through embarrassing your opponent.

    So what is the ultimate dis? I posed the question to several streetballers, and the answer was practically unanimous.

    While there are numerous ways to dis an opponent—at one point trash talk (the fabled ‘Yo mama’ joke era) was in, not long ago it was being dunked on or swatted—and the cycle of what constitutes the ultimate dis continues to change, the most recent revolution came as a clear-cut line between Michael and his generation of followers.

    The moment is etched into recent basketball history, joining the freeze frame moments of past NBA hardwood heroes. Allen Iverson, then an upstart young prodigy, embarrassed the world’s greatest living athlete, Michael Jordan, with one of the greatest moves in basketball history, what became known as the ‘killer crossover.’ Faking a drive to his left side, Iverson fooled Jordan into moving several feet to his right, before unleashing a devastatingly quick crossover dribble to his right side. Jordan was completely wrong-footed, known in streetball parlance as “getting your ankles broken.” Being Jordan, however, he couldn’t let his pride go so easily, and attempted to resurrect his defensive assignment. Iverson proceeded to shoot a smooth-as-silk jump shot over Jordan’s outstretched fingertips, hitting nothing but net. It was the closest thing to an official changing of the guard the sport has seen, and firmly established the broken ankle as the dis of the post-Jordan era.

    Perhaps largely because of this, izzat is a game of controlled limits. Defenders stand back far enough from a skilled dribbler in order to limit any chance of limb disfiguration, thus preferring to let her opponent shoot unchecked jump shots. In this way, one’s izzat is maintained at a comfortable level. It may not provide the most comprehensive workout, but relationships are maintained in harmony, with those who are already of great izzat remaining at the top, and those at the bottom humble in their tribute to the bigger man. In many ways, it reminds me of the dynamics of Confucian societies, and in a useful sense, ties contemporary izzat to something much older and larger than streetball itself.

    Earlier in the evening, I was trying on clothes at Pentagon City Mall. A wife sat outside as her husband tried on jeans.

    “I married a metrosexual man,” she lamented to the sales assistant.

    “I am not metrosexual!” came the immediate denial: adamant, gruff, and decidedly manly.

“Wanna play one-on-one?”

Her name is Janine, but the first time I saw her, I might have guessed it would be something closer to “John.” Constructed of all wiry muscle, in a loose white t, dark mesh shorts and a closely shaven head, it was only the pitch of her voice which gave her gender away.

“Alright,” I reply, quickly realizing that this is the suss-out game. As I do with everyone else I’ve played at Kennedy Rec individually, I start with the same line:

“So where you from?”
“Around here…you?”
“I’m from Australia.”

Immediately distancing myself from any frame of reference, I set the sheet as clean as I can. ‘Tabula rasa’, ‘take it from the top’…whatever euphemism you want to use, I shove my background as far outwards as I possibly can in order to let my game speak for me as wholly as it can. This is the way I played when I was nine in a friday night school league at the leisure centre in Australia; when I was 16, trading baskets after school with the juniors in Maryland; and now, at 22 and a suit (but still rockin’ the Jordans), I’m still trading the shakes and step-back Js, only with a different crew.

Janine moves fluidly, smoothly, displaying a solid handle and great first step. Like some of the other Black girls I’ve balled with, it’s her pure athleticism which stands out most clearly. The White girls at College Park had solid fundamentals, but physically, they had trouble keeping up or playing strong with the guys. Now Janine may not be able to wrestle on the boards, but she’s lightning to the basket, and I found her draining floaters on me every time I gave her the right. But even beyond the speed, her game has a flash and style that speaks playground-ball all over those seasoned shakes. Alas, she’s too in love with her fall-back jumper – shot with a gorgeous (if oft-inaccurate) behind-the-back release—but being a sucker for style I’m too busy admiring her moves to really notice. She’s friendly, and cracks a wide smile during our playful trash talk exchanges, letting her guard down much more quickly than many of the others I’ve run with on this court.

After about 20 minutes of waiting, my ‘next’ is up and I form my team, selecting Janine. It’s the first time that I’ve seen a girl run with the guys, and she holds her own. What impresses me most is the way the men don’t even hesitate to defend her as they would anyone else; likewise, Janine expects nothing less than the regular, full-bodied treatment. Our team is under-sized on the whole, but I feel rewarded for putting my faith in her, as she bumps and struggles in the paint alongside these powerful young men, some of whom must be over three times her weight.

This is pick-up ball, raw and furious, where squabbling over calls is never far away and something far bigger than simply a ‘good workout’ is on the line. I’ve still got a ways to go before I fully adjust to the style they play here, compared to the tighter rules and pace of rec ball in college. But I’m willing to make the adjustments, and am buoyed with optimism that the more times I show up on these sweaty, humid summer nights, the more sparks such as Janine I’ll discover.