I crushed two 14-year-olds in a game of 33 this summer. After I sank that 33rd point they just kind of stared at me, the white boy their classmates called a white mofo one day outside the Petworth Library. Well this white mofo’s got a Larry Bird hook shot in his arsenal, a move my man Skinny called impossible to defend. And on defense, according to Skinny, I’m stiff as a board, a deceivingly stout player in the paint, standing at 6-foot-2, hailing from Rockville, Maryland.
I was fortunate enough as a kid to have grown up a block away from a professional basketball player, a neighborhood legend who won a gold medal playing for Team USA at the 1976 Olympics. The following year, while playing his senior year at Duke, he broke his wrist in the opening minutes of a game against Virginia on the road. Though the injury would end his season, he finished the game that night scoring 31 of his 33 points with a broken wrist. Legendary stuff.
Decades later he would occasionally step onto the court with his four sons and some of the neighborhood kids, myself included. I couldn’t really compete with any of them in those days, me being an undersized kid, but I subconsciously internalized a few lessons from their game. On defense, “Watch the player’s hips, not the ball. His hips will tell you where the ball is going.” A bunch of little things like that.
After moving to D.C. I began eying that green blacktop outside Teddy Roosevelt High School, and started thinking again about basketball. After graduating from pwning 14-year-olds, I found there was a regular game at 13th and Allison, a game of 20-somethings all looking to unwind and get active after work. I spent a few weeks sharpening my game on that court before we welcomed a new addition to our Petworth rowhouse. A 6-foot-4 athlete from Vermont who lettered in three high school sports. He and his quarterback broke a whole bunch of state passing and receiving records his senior year (averaging 2-4 touchdowns a game). He also spent a lot of time in college playing pickup basketball.
“Are there any good games around here?” he asked that night in the kitchen, the first day he moved in. I knew then that we would get along just fine.
From the greentop court at Petworth we moved over to a bigger, faster, more consistent game at 17th and P. It’s a few blocks from DuPont Circle, where the old men sit around playing chess, ignoring the population of rats that has infested their green space. This court, also not far from the 14th Street Corridor, is fenced in tight on a city block, the quintessential urban track with glass backboards and a solid game always running. No 14-year-olds here. A 19-year-old, yes, but this 19-year-old is a 6-foot-8 mammoth with AK-47s tattooed to his knees. He also has a scar across his neck that makes me think about knives.
These were nervous times for me, reminiscent of those days battling that Olympian and his four athletic sons. My sandbagging in Petworth had done nothing to prepare me for this game, a real game, where I panicked every time I had the ball in my hands, occasionally offering up a turnover. The first few games I mostly just ran up and down the court watching our team dump it off to our big man with the AK-47 tattoos, who I thought was going to rip the rim off the hoop. At that point my only contributions to the team were my hustle and defense, though I still managed to get lit up a few times on the way to the rim.
Meanwhile my roommate threw down his first basket with a two-hand slam on a fast break following a broke play on our end. It wasn’t until a breakaway of our own, with our big man in tow, me tossing it off the glass, that I finally started to feel like I belonged on the court. We’ve since discovered an endless network of pickup players around D.C. — in Petworth, near Columbia Heights but mostly near DuPont. Players from all different backgrounds. If soccer is the beautiful game, basketball is a universal language.