Philly. Mount Airy, to be exact.
Where I come from, there are two guarantees.
- Every male tries his hand at playing basketball. There isn’t much (clean or well-kept) grass, and the tennis courts don’t get used. For many us, when it comes to sports, it’s basketball or nothing. As i was coming up, before a young man settled on standing on corners and/or chasing females, it was pickup basketball at the park.
- Every basketball player takes himself seriously while on that court.
A certain percentage of males never migrate to the corners; they never advance to college or professional basketball either. These are the basketball-playing boys who grow to be basketball-playing men, fathers and husbands with full time 9-to-5 jobs who play basketball at the playgrounds and men’s leagues after work for the duration of their 20s and 30s.
While you, seeing college, NBA, G-League and overseas players as the “real” basketball players of the world, may think of these recreational-level everyday men as never-made-it scrubs, you’d be smart, at least where and when I was growing up, to keep that opinion to yourself.
The playground pickup basketball in the mid-90s in Philly was serious fuckin business.
Teenagers like myself had better be ready to play if an old head took a chance on you and chose you for their pickup game squad.
The playground was not a nurturing, each-one-teach-one, mentor-the-next-generation environment. These men did not give a fuck about you, your feelings or your development as a person or player.
All they cared about was staying on the court in the winners-stay-on, losers-get-off environment; you either aided that cause or were just in the way.
You couldn’t play scared, and you better not mess up — you risked not seeing the ball again all game, plus never being chosen for another game by your teammates from that day’s game.
These men played hard, fouled hard, and talked hard shit. Some legendary players in my neighborhood drank from their 40oz malt liquors and puffed smoke from their blunt roaches in-between pickup games.
There were fistfights, threats, and promises of future violence. These grown men, with wives and kids and careers, were prideful more than anything.
And people will do crazy things to protect their pride.
The games at my park were so good that word spread; people would come from other neighborhoods to play games at our park.
Those summer nights at the playground helped build my mental toughness (and shit talking acumen) for future competition.
Three older guys from the neighborhood liked to team up and play together all the time. They each had their role: the point guard, the wing scorer, and the big man bruiser. Whenever this hood “Big 3” played, they would hand-pick two younger players to run with them and hold down the court for entire afternoons.
Trying to beat this group was like a rite of passage for us teens. Anytime we ever got close to doing so, the Big 3 would start using their old-man tricks — holding, fouling egregiously, generally mucking up the game — to frustrate us.
And it always worked.
One particular Sunday afternoon, shit got real serious, real fast.
The hood Big 3 was on the court, holding it down as usual. They were in a tough game against another five of grown men — men who weren’t from our neighborhood. The game was intense; lots of fouls, tough looks and arguing.
Most of the time when there were pickup games at the park, the spectators and players-in-waiting on the sidelines chomped at the bit, waiting for their turn to get on the court and show their stuff, sure they could do better than whomever was playing at the moment.
This game though, was the kind of game where you could look up and down the sideline and read the looks on the faces of the spectators: not many of us would have even wanted to be on the court. This game was high pressure.
The Big 3 pulled out a close win amidst a healthy helping of shit talk coming from both sides. The Big 3’s yapping continued, louder and for longer, after they’d emerged victorious.
The losing team’s guys, not being from the neighborhood, packed up and left to their vehicles, maybe hoping to find better luck at a different playground in the area.
But one of their players, bubbling over with pride, felt he still needed to make a point.
Where I come from, when a player talks a lot of shit in a game and loses, he has a few options for what to do next — and shutting up and eating his loss was never seen as an option.
- Verbally insult the winner in some dick-swinging way — You’re a bitch, I have more money than you, get more females than you, have out-achieved you in life — that gets the audience on your side, despite your defeat. This was the most-used tactic.
- Talk some shit about how the winner was some form of “lucky” and how it will never happen again.
- Tell the winner how they were garbage in a game three days or three years ago.
- Make a non-basketball threat (a fistfight or some other form of violence) to the winner.
This proud not-from-around-here man from the losing team — bald headed and muscular, with a natural mean mug — re-approached the basketball court from outside of the gates with his duffel bag strapped across his chest. He stood at the gate for just long enough that he got everyone’s attention.
Then he pulled a big gun out of his gym bag.
I’m no gun aficionado, so I can’t tell you what it was, but this wasn’t a tuck-it-in-your-waist handgun. This was the kind of gun for which you need a duffel bag or a trench coat; the kind of gun you keep in your car trunk because that’s the only place where it fits comfortably.
Y’all still think I’m playing?
The mean mugger said this as he simultaneously lifted the gun out of his bag just enough that we could all see the weapon in its entirety, his eyes fixed on the trash-talking Big 3 winners from the recently-ended pickup game.
Then he slipped the gun back in his bag, walked to his car and drove off.
Nobody moved when we saw the gun. Actually, the whole park had gone completely silent. The mean mugger was near the park entrance; there was nowhere to run even if someone had wanted to. He had walked up on the gate so quickly that he could’ve easily shot up the whole park and made a clean getaway.
As soon as the mean mugger left, one of the Big 3 quickly and silently walked into the rec center building. He came back a few minutes later and sat back down on the bench, and a few minutes later the games continued as they had been.
While we played, a man dressed in peculiar street clothes — khaki pants and a jacket in the middle of a hot summer — came in the park gates and leaned against a light pole next to the courts.
This man didn’t speak to anyone, and no one spoke to him.
This unknown man with the jacket wasn’t suffering from a cold; the jacket was just concealment for what was under the jacket: the tools needed just in case mean mugger came back to make good on his threat.
He never showed up.
Someone tipped me off that this mysterious man was the brother of one of the Big 3 — the guy who’d walked inside, apparently to make a phone call.
The Big 3 guy who’d made the call was at the park all the time; he once gave me great life advice after a different pickup game on a different day.
“Dre, they only bully you if you let ‘em bully you.”
This story didn’t make the final cut, but many more stories — from my sport and business life — did make my new book Work On Your Game: Using The Pro Athlete Mindset To Dominate In Sports, Business and Life which is coming February 22. Preorder it now and get all these bonuses.