One summer evening at the neighborhood playground, we got something more exciting than guns on the court.
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I was 16 years old at the time, and had arrived to the basketball courts a little after 5PM — still early for summer pickup games, as the sun wasn’t completely down yet and the men who played every night were probably still leaving work for the day.
I always got there early; out of necessity at first.
The tradition at Finley was that the first pickup game of the evening was played to 16 points and all subsequent games went to 12. I wasn’t very good at age 15-16, and wanted to ensure that I played in at least one game before I got exposed.
As I got better and more confident, though, I still showed up early — I wanted to get that longer, to-16 game in and not have to wait for a chance to play behind anyone who might’ve got there before me. Finley’s court would get thick in the summers.
Among the handful of players seated on the park benches, Jason Lawson looked around with a look of boredom mixed with worry.
Jason Lawson was a 6’10” center who had played at Villanova University in the mid nineties and been a second round draft pick of the Orlando Magic (one pick ahead of one Stephen Jackson). This was the summer after Jason’s rookie year in Orlando; he played the rest of his career abroad.
“More guys coming out here?” Jason asked me.
I told him that there surely would be, that it was still early in the evening. I also knew that, once word got around that a 6’10” guy who had not only played in the NBA, but was Philly-famous from his Nova days, was at the playground, more people than usual would come around.
Little did I know that Jason had some friends on their way.
The initial game began with Jason sitting out; he was waiting on a couple of guys that he’d planned on playing with. He and his friends would have the next game.
Alvin Williams, along with many of the neighborhood regulars, showed up shortly thereafter.
Alvin was a 6’5” point guard who’d also played at Villanova as Jason’s teammate (their most famous Villanova teammate Kerry Kittles had been the 8th pick in the 1996 draft by the New Jersey Nets; the Nets had come down to the wire in deciding between Kerry and a skinny high schooler from Philly named Kobe).
Alvin had been drafted by the Portland Trailblazers six spots after Jason in 1997 and would join the Toronto Raptors that summer; he played ten years in the League and was a solid rotation player for the duration of Vince Carter mania in Toronto.
Alvin had Cuttino Mobley with him.
Cuttino had just been drafted 41st in 1998 by the Houston Rockets; he would form a dynamic backcourt with one of all-time favorite players Steve Francis when Steve was drafted a year later.
You know how the Golden State Warriors have the “Splash Brothers” of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, two guards who are great shooters? Houston’s backcourt would have been the “Iso Brothers” — two guards who loved to clear out a side of the court and take their defender one-on-one (or isolation).
Think having two James Hardens of today, minus much of the passing. Cuttino played in the Big 3 3-on-3 retired players league this past summer and won the championship.
All three guys were Philly natives, and from our area of the city. By the time these three took to the court, every face I knew from playing ball was standing along the sidelines.
Yes, word still traveled quickly then, even without smartphones.
I ended up in a game with the pros; Cuttino on my team and Alvin and Jason on the other.
Before I get to that, though, there were a lot of things about seeing those guys play that jumped out at 16-year-old me.
- How big they were. At 6’4” Cuttino was the shortest of the three, and they were all long-limbed and physically built. It was funny how small they made the everyday men — who we teens saw as “big” — look small. They made the court itself look small.
- Everything looked easy. Long jumpshots, dribbling moves, rebounding, blocking shots, dunks — none of them ever appeared to be straining while dominating.
- The whole night of games was like an event — back in the days when if you weren’t there, you’d just completely missed it.
So, that game I was in with them…
I don’t remember everything about it, probably because I blacked it out of my mind as childhood trauma.
I was tentative and nervous about messing up — which would not only be to the dismay of these pros, but opening me to the ridicule of the largest crowd I’d ever played in front of to that point of my life. I did my best to stay out of the way.
Late in what turned out to be a close game, Cuttino found me open in my favorite spot: spotted up in the corner.
I rose to shoot; Alvin Williams rose to contest my shot. He got a piece of my shot — not a full block, but enough to keep the ball from making it to the rim — and he took the ball in the other direction and scored.
The last memory I had of this first exposure to professional basketball players was Cuttino giving me a disgusted look over his shoulder as he exited the park.
Read about the professional player I later became and the performances that followed in my new book Work On Your Game: Using The Pro Athlete Mindset To Dominate In Sports, Business and Life coming February 22. Preorder it and send your receipt to us here to get all the preorder bonuses.