Minor Leagues is Slate’s pop-up blog about kids’ sports.
There was something compulsory about it. We balled constantly—had to. Every day after school, every spare weekend second. We stole away from our families and balled on major holidays, snuck off to the courts before our Bar Mitzvahs and after funerals. When it was snowing outside, we dribbled through the slush with throbbing, blue hands. In the summers, we’d play for six hours straight, even in hundred-degree heat. Dangerously dehydrated, our tear ducts burning from the sunblock-laced sweat, we couldn’t stop.
I’m still not sure what was driving us. Was it as straightforward and silly as the dream of making the NBA? Or were we grasping, half-consciously, at something that seemed even more elusive: getting laid someday? Did we hope to transform, through exhaustive athletic output, from boys to what we believed men must be, champions capable of stamina and sacrifice?
Maybe we were just having plain old fun. But still—how were we never bored? Why didn’t we ever do anything else?
I suspect it was the lawlessness that made streetball so appealing. We were good kids, nerds who met curfew. When adults—even irrational ones—told us to do things, we meekly complied, and resented it. But the courts were an authority-free zone, a space where we achieved self-rule without rebellion. There were no coaches to needle us about setting screens, no refs to scream three seconds! We could play the most selfish brand of basketball imaginable, hoisting three after ill-advised three. We could dribble into corners, out of corners, back into corners for appallingly low-percentage perimeter hook shots. Aside from inbounding, we never passed. We barely played defense. And we talked endless shit. We said terrible things like, “If I make this shot, I’mma fuck your mama tonight” to our dorky hearts’ delights.
Once in a while, a group of nonregulars showed up and challenged us to 3-on-3. This was more complicated. You couldn’t just tell a complete stranger that you planned to have sex with his mother. And because some degree of dignity was on the line, you had to play defense. Playing actual defense meant two things: 1) You risked getting dicked on—that is, your guy making a jumper over your extended arm; 2) You risked hacking someone.
Hacking, or fouling someone, was dangerous. Not just because you might actually hurt a stranger, which might cause him, or his boys, to hurt you in retaliation, but because, if you hacked too often, you risked becoming known as a hacker. Hackers were the biggest threat to the delicate democracy of streetball. They took advantage of the fact that no one called every foul. It was considered dishonorable to call ticky-tack shit, like an elbow-graze on an idiotic shot you never should have taken in the first place, or anything away from the ball. (Remember, the whole point of streetball was to get away from rulehounds.) Hackers were generally lazy players with no game, who tried to save face by fouling on your every shot attempt, lest they get dicked on. Rarely anything hard—just a slap to the hand, or enough of a nudge to throw your shot off. When you didn’t have the ball, hackers whittled away at your patience with sweaty slaps and pokes in the ribs and pelvic thrusts into your ass. God, we hated those vile worms. They found a way to corrupt our one liberated space. They actually made us pine for a ref.
The only species as disreputable as a hacker was the boy who cried hack. He’d shout “And one!” as an insurance policy every time he put up a shot. He was usually an awful shooter, and almost always missed—but since he’d called a foul, he’d get the ball back, and could continue to shoot, call a foul, miss, and get the ball back, ad infinitum. Then, on the rare occasion that he actually made a shot, he’d crow, “And one, baby! And one!” in your face.
No one despised these spoilers more than my friend Rob. He was more passionate about streetball—and took its unspoken edicts more seriously—than any of us. He saw how, in the absence of a code, a game could go from largely joyless to utterly pointless, in minutes. As it turns out, Rob is now a moral philosopher.
One afternoon, maybe my freshman year of high school, Rob and I were balling with the usual guys when a group of red-haired brothers, ranging from around 8 to 12, showed up and asked if they could play with us. We felt a little ridiculous balling against kids so young, but the oldest of them was a swaggering punk, clearly in need of a lesson. Besides, it was streetball. Sometimes you played with 8-year-olds, sometimes you played with 70-year-olds. No one got turned away.
I’d seen these kids before, on the sidelines of my youth soccer matches. Their oldest brother, Matt, was on my team one year. He was a sour and easily riled dude, not exactly a bully, but someone who started a lot of shit. It probably had something to do with the fact that he and his brothers were the only white kids in the public housing project in our neighborhood. Kids in the projects teased him for being white; kids outside of the projects teased him for living in the projects. He also got clowned for his red hair.
The eldest of Matt’s little brothers, I’ll call him Billy, turned out to be a hacker and a boy who cried hack. After a little while, Rob got tired of it.
“Just play the game,” Rob told Billy, after he’d bricked a barely contested layup and called foul.
A couple plays later, Billy took a ridiculous, off-balance turnaround near the 3-point line, and, an instant before the shot smacked off the backboard, called, “And one!”
“Oh, give me a break,” said Rob as the ball bounced back toward the top of the key.
“Fuck you just say?” Billy said.
“I said you’ve got to be kidding me,” Rob replied. “That’s not even close to a foul.”
Billy then took the ball, dropkicked it over the fence surrounding the courts, and raised his arms above his head in the What!? gesture.
“Go get it,” Rob said.
“I ain’t getting shit,” Billy replied.
They went back and forth for a few rounds, when Billy suddenly stormed out of the court. He ran right past the ball, into the entrance of the projects at the other end of the block. A couple minutes later, he returned with his big brother, Matt.
Matt, who had at least a foot on Rob, got right in his face and said, “You trying to step to my brother?”
I was already halfway out of the court, cowering. Rob, an A student with zero rep when it came to anything resembling beef, stood his ground.
“He was calling all kinds of bullshit,” Rob said.
Matt then grabbed Rob by his T-shirt collar, lifted him in the air, rammed him into the fence, and threatened to strangle him if he didn’t immediately repent, grovel to Billy, and go get his own damned ball. Rob didn’t back down. Instead, he began to laugh, which is something he did when he was anxious.
Billy started egging Matt on—“He’s laughing! Choke his ass!”—while the youngest brother watched quietly and looked terrified.
Matt slammed Rob against the fence again, and again, Rob laughed. I was still hovering near the exit, thinking, Relent, you fool! when a huge, older guy ran over from the adjacent court and chased Matt off.
On our way home, Rob lit into me for not getting his back. I responded defensively, like the wounded teen I was, and mocked the way he flapped like a rag doll up on that fence. I don’t think he ever fully forgave me.
I never told him, until now, how proud I was to witness his resistance. Rob was, briefly, willing to die, so that the streetball code might live on.
We returned to the courts the next day. Matt and his brothers never came back.