CHICAGO -- He seems creaky at times, the speed and stamina that once were his signatures giving way to the hard truth of age and reflex. But every now and then the angular face of Darron Brittman gets that special look, the one that says, "It's still my court."
The eyes widen, then harden, the ball switching back and forth between the hands barely an inch off the ground. He goes toward the hoop in a flash, then pulls up to hit a 15-footer with a touch so soft there isn't even a swish.
There are no cheers, because there is no crowd. Instead a few of the regulars respond with what passes for a standing ovation on a playground court:
He grew up on this patch of asphalt at 95th and State streets in Abbott Park, where the sound of the ball is often drowned out by the scream of a truck grinding into gear on the Dan Ryan. The air is thick and pungent, part exhaust fume, part fast food. This is where he first started learning the game when he was 10 from men who were wizards with the ball and now hang day after day on nearby street corners. This is where he still comes back to play 18 years later when the urge hits him.
It isn't the Michigan game, when the electric play of Brittman and his Chicago State teammate Paul Beene earned an ovation from the Ann Arbor crowd of 13,000. It isn't the Milwaukee Bucks camp when he hung in there for longer than anyone ever thought he would after signing on as a free agent. And it certainly isn't an NBA championship, where the Michael and Magic show had the world on hold.
It's just the playground now, a place to let go of dreams as much as it is a place to have them.
If there is any room left for further adoration and emulation of the Bulls' Michael Jordan, it will surely occur. There's no one like him. He's the best. But as University of Utah coach and former Bucks assistant Rick Majerus put it, "There's a thousand Darron Brittmans," so close to the promised land but not close enough, left behind at the playground while a lucky handful soar.
When basketball was good to Brittman, the world seemed perfect. "I didn't want to wake up," he said. "It was beautiful. It was beautiful. It was like a dream."
But when he got cut by the Bucks without making the team, when a brief sojourn in the Continental Basketball Association turned into a disaster, when he came back to the playground amid constant cries of "What happened, Britt?," the world changed, as it so often does for those who think the road to life through basketball is paved only with gold.
"I had everything going for me. I didn't have to worry about anything. Then when I got in the real world, I didn't know how to handle it. It set me back. I didn't know how to adjust to it."
During Sunday's pre-game show on NBC, millions watched a group of neighborhood boys imitating Jordan at the corner of Monroe Street and Damen Avenue with a miniature basketball and a broken milk crate on a pole. The kids practiced Jordan's dunks, including the instantly famous Tomahawk move he put on in Game 2 against the Lakers.
Darron Brittman understands the haunting power and beauty of that image. But he also winces at it.
"You know deep in your heart what the real deal is. You watch them dress up like Michael. You hear them say, 'I'm going to make it like Michael Jordan.' You see so many kids imitating the way he plays. I think it's just about every kid's dream.
"I would tell these kids to enjoy it while they can and not take it for granted. One day they're gonna look back and it's not gonna be there."
Brittman runs up and down the court at Abbott Park, but it could anywhere. It could be over at the Waterworks in Maywood, where the three asphalt courts are teeming with teen-age kids who go by the names of The Playground Legend and The Six-Foot Nightmare and the Real Jordan. It could be the little corner court at California Avenue and Flournoy Street that takes an edge off the city grit. It could be the gym at Kennedy-King College on Wednesday nights where the well-organized pick-up games are filled with a mix of young could-bes and too old could-haves.
All over the city and the suburbs, night after night, players young and old flock to these places with their tilted rims and grimy backboards and spongy fences to boast, to sweat, to search for their own sweet moment just one more time.
It's where you'll find 16-year-old Dwayne Jenkins, nicknamed So-So by his sister for reasons he doesn't even know, commanding the center court of the Waterworks with the spraying frenzy of an errant Fourth of July firecracker, fouling, scowling and howling, the word "BULLS" etched into the back of his head in honor of their championship run.
"My rebound! My rebound!"
L "Where you at, little boy!? You can't stick me, little boy!"
It's where you'll find 23-year-old Terry Watkins, playing at the Kennedy-King gym to keep the lifeline to the game strong and pure.