I grew up in the small town of Janesville, Minnesota, graduated from St. John’s, and worked in Worthington and Fargo. But now I live in New York, in a neighborhood called Inwood, at the northern tip of Manhattan.
About seven blocks away from my one-bedroom apartment is Dyckman Park, an outdoor basketball court that’s a mecca for streetball.
Each summer for the past two decades the park has hosted the Dyckman Tournament, a highly competitive event that runs through August. They play the games at night under the lights and the 1 Train, which invariably barrels past at the same time unstoppable point guards are rumbling through the lane.
Several years ago I took my parents to a game. My small-town folks in the big city for only the second time. We sat near the top of the small metal bleachers, part of a packed house on a warm July night. They both loved it – the experience and the action. One friendly fan seated next to us even offered my mom a joint, which she politely declined in a classic Minnesota Nice way, although, for all I know, she might have wanted to do nothing more than accept the gift from the unkempt youngster but was too embarrassed to do it in front of her husband and son.
Three weeks ago I went to the Wednesday night games. There were two games that night in the pro division, with the first one set to start at 7:15. It still hadn’t tipped off a half-hour later but the stands were full. Finally, one of the squads – Ooh-Way Records – emerged from the crowd and onto the court. The players strutted out as the crowd buzzed. We all stood. A very familiar face walked out with Ooh-Way – Ron Artest, an LA resident but a famous New York native. Artest – who was once known only for his defense and was then infamous because of a brawl and is now famous for, among other things, starring in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals, conducting perhaps the most bizarre and entertaining post-game press conference outside of Allen Iverson’s “practice” work of art, ridiculous haircuts, making rap albums, advocating for mental health, clanking 3-pointers, and changing his name to Metta World Peace – is a frequent participant on the New York summer league circuit.
As a hoops fan this was fantastic. As a Lakers fanatic, it was thrilling. Artest’s team dominated from the start. He drained a 3-pointer on his first shot, but only finished with seven points on the night. On his second shot, the burly forward broke free for an uncontested layup, but was blocked – by the backboard. It was a comical event, although not as funny as it could have been because it was a play I saw about 21 times this past Lakers season – Artest in the open, only to be done in by his legs, the rim, backboard, net, gravity or god. The crowd howled after this below-the-rim embarrassment. Artest didn’t react, probably because he expected the reaction. The layup would have earned taunts on the playgrounds of Janesville; it was tailor-made for the hecklers of New York.
Like all the players, Artest wasn’t known by his name on this night. Joe Pope, the brilliant, energetic, entertaining, sarcastic play-by-play man, only uses nicknames – The Punisher, Homicide, Africa. Artest’s? Apocalypto. Seemed fitting.
Artest’s team is loaded. If you didn’t know who Artest was and had to pick out the NBA player, you might not have chosen him, even though his intense defense and easy motions on the court were so smooth that I eventually took them for granted. His team boasts dominant guards and a forward who plays a little like Shawn Marion, with a jumper that’s probably 75 percent prettier but 50 percent less effective.
A brief word on the coaches. Each team’s coach complained constantly. They wanted defensive fouls, charges, three-seconds and traveling. They wanted the refs to get guys for going over the back on the inside and for hand-checking on the outside. If you took the DNA of 1985-Danny Ainge, combined it with the genetic code found in a sample of Pau Gasol’s hair, and mixed it with seed from Doc Rivers and Mike D’Antoni, and somehow created a baby in a lab at the Mayo Clinic, and then groomed that child to be a basketball coach when he reached 25 years of age, even that coach would not whine as much as these guys.
Artest – World Peace, Apocalypto – guarded the Big Bully. The perennial member of the NBA’s all-defense team frustrated the Bully for most of the night. He bodied the Bully and poked him, and one time he pulled the rug out from under him on a charge to the hoop. Ooh-Way led by as many as 16 points before the other team battled back, slicing it to 10, then eight.
Incredibly, the Big Bully began living up to his nickname, battering Artest down low for easy layups, which gave me nasty flashbacks to Paul Pierce dominating Luke Walton in the 2008 Finals, the series that, in a way, played a role in the Lakers eventually signing Artest for the 2010 season. And here was Artest playing the role of Walton. Ooh-Way coughed up all of the lead before going ahead on two free throws. They won when the opponent’s 3-pointer rimmed out at the buzzer.
The second game featured Team Nike, an all-star collection of guys who used to be rivals but came together this summer thanks to the shoe empire. They’re sort of considered the Miami Heat of the league, without most of the hate. Nike cameras follow them everywhere, documenting every move from a variety of angles, as if they’re filming Big Brother: Dyckman Park. The night I was there Nike cruised to a victory, toying with their foe with incredible guard play mixed in with the occasional jaw-dropping alley-oop.
Watch some of the action from that night, and get a feel for the atmosphere, here:
At halftime of the Nike game, the crowd was treated to a performance by a pair of rappers, both of whom eventually got booed, although only one deserved it. TJ Fredette – shooting star Jimmer’s brother – is an aspiring rapper, with the key word being the adjective. As Jimmer is to hard-nosed man-to-man defense, so TJ is to rapping. Go ahead, boo at home. Throw something soft at the screen. He can’t hear you, but even if he could, he’s used to it.
That night I stood for four straight hours, as everyone in my section remained on their feet throughout both games. I was in the second row, close to the court. Numerous pot smokers – perhaps even the personable man that offered to help out Ma – surrounded me. Cheech and Chong’s traveling van in the 1970s didn’t have this much pot smoke in it. It engulfed me and oozed into my pores. If my job had required me to take a drug test in the days following the game, I would have either failed it, called in sick in a panic or paid off someone to fill in for me. And if Artest somehow is cited for failing a test and he claims it must have been second-hand smoke and everyone in America mocks his excuse and says, “See, we told you he was no good after the Palace,” well, give him the benefit of the doubt.
For a hoops junkie it was an incredible night. It might not be basketball at its finest or its purest but it’s as enjoyable a night of hoops as you’ll ever find, indoors or out. Former high school stars join forces with pros, Division I players and streetball legends. The heat, crowd, train and concrete all add to the setting.
And tonight, at 8:15 p.m., is a game I’d pay to see – and might end up doing just that. Ooh-Way faces Team Nike. People at the park have been talking about the game for weeks. Both teams are unbeaten. Both teams are loaded. Both teams are cocky. It’s being called, in these parts at least, the Game of the Decade. And if you’re looking for someone to hype a game, is there any better company to have at your service than Nike? Here’s a preview:
But I probably won’t be there. The games are free. On packed nights they lock the gates when the stands are overflowing. For tonight’s game, though, because of the expected turnout, organizers are handing out tickets. I heard they’d be offered up starting at 6 p.m. Monday. By the time I arrived there with a friend, they were all sold out. Today they sold some more and again the line snaked down the block as people stood in line in the crushing heat and humidity hours before the night’s action. I’ve emailed one of the organizers, wondering if they’ll be handing out any before the game. I’m prepared to channel a Cameron Crazy and camp out at the park starting at, say, 10 a.m. I’ll bring a tent if need be and a sign praising Dick Vitale and Bobby Knight, or at least Phil Knight. I’m prepared to wander the streets around the court before tipoff searching for scalpers, who would be selling tickets they received for free.
I’m prepared to do a lot to see this game. I didn’t know what to expect the first time I went to the Dyckman court with my parents. But now that I know what’s there, it’s impossible to stay away.
I did get a ticket. I did pay for it. Ooh-Way Records – without Artest – defeated Team Nike 66-61 in an epic battle on an unreal night. I’ll post some videos once Team Nike’s video mavens put them together or they show up on YouTube.