On the toughest courts in Baltimore, it's basketball at its most basic, brutal and beautiful.

THE STREET GAME

On Baltimore's top three courts, it's basketball at its most basic: bruising, beautiful and played with passion.

August 09, 1998|By Stacey Patton | Stacey Patton,SUN STAFF

It's just after dawn on a sticky-warm Baltimore Saturday, so for a few more moments, Druid Hill Park can continue its slumber. It's 78 degrees already, headed to 94, the weatherman says. The huge park is all but silent. No one splashes in the swimming pools; the jogging and bike paths are empty. Only the whisper of a breeze off the lake stirs the near-breathless air.

Then, just like that, the stillness is gone. Car doors slam, and the chatter and laughter of five tall, robust black men begin echoing in the air. One man with light ash-brown hair hugs a leather basketball under his arm. It is just after dawn in Druid Hill Park, which means it's time to play ball.

Herb, a k a "Herbie Hancock," unpacks his homemade water bottle. Each night before he comes to the park he freezes water in a large plastic bottle that lost its label long ago. When all the ice has melted, Herb knows it's time for him to head home. By then he'll have played four, maybe five games of full-tilt, full-court basketball on one of the toughest courts in the city.

Players continue to arrive. Some went to bed dressed in their game gear, so all that's left to do is lace up their shoes and get on the court. Most will stay and play and not think of home until sundown.

As players begin warming up, Herb swirls a sip of water in his mouth and swallows. He coughs and hacks, then spits

before stepping onto the blacktop. Someone notices a glob of cocoa butter covering a cut above his sleepy right eye.

"Yo, Herb, what happened to you, man?"

"Some fool hacked me yesterday when I was going up for a rebound," he replies, shaking his head.

In just 20 minutes, the handful of players has grown to a crowd of 40, and the court has come to life. One player unfolds a lawn chair and parks it on the sidelines. Towels, sunglasses, beepers, keys, jewelry and shirts fill holes in the fence.

On the court, balls bang against backboards, and banter fills the air. One player admits to lying to his wife about where he was going this morning. Other conversations cover women, sex, philosophy, tragedies and, of course, basketball.

"Man, Nick Van Exel is a bum!" one player shouts, running down the former Los Angeles Lakers guard. "That's why L.A. is gon' get rid of his sorry [game] ... They gon' be callin' him Nick Van Exile!"

Laughter fills the air.

"OK, fellas, let's shoot 'em up," someone yells.

One by one, the players step up to the free-throw line. This is how the day begins. Make the shot, you play. Miss and you could be sitting on the sideline for hours.

Ten players make the shot. The ball is inbounded. Another day of street ball begins.

From outside the chain-link fences that surround a city's outdoor courts, it is easy to write off street basketball as undisciplined and unorganized - a bunch of guys whose talk is bigger than their game, wannabes and never-weres playing out their unfulfilled hopes and dreams in an atmosphere of trash-talking, drinking and dope-smoking.

But step inside the fence at one of Baltimore's trinity of top outdoor courts - Druid Hill Park, Cloverdale Park, the Dome - and a different picture comes into view: players of all varieties who turn out faithfully, not for fame or money or shoe contracts, but for pride and passion for the game.

In their recent book "Pickup Artists: Streetball in America," Lars Anderson and Chad Millman describe it this way:

"It is one of the grandest theaters in American culture, a place possessed by tragedy, heroism and fate. The stories of the playground and the basketball players who have made their legends there have gone untold. The melodramas of these athletes' lives play out only before the select few who frequent the blacktops."

For most players, though, their relationship with the game is much simpler: They're street-ball addicts.

Among the addicts is Ron Shelley, 41, of East Baltimore. A humanities teacher at the Stadium School, a father of five and a devoted member of the Holy Temple Holiness Church of Deliverance, Shelley is also a former high school and college star whose love for the game is undiminished.

"Comin' out here every week, it's narcotic," Shelley says as he laces up his sneakers at Druid Hill. His anticipation about a day of basketball, he says, begins with the sunrise.

"I wake up and look out the window," says Shelley. "If I can feel the warmth of the sun, that gets my adrenalin running. Out here, you need adrenalin, because you know you're gonna play against the best in Baltimore."

For Daryl Kobi Kemor, a 49-year-old Baltimore writer whose distinctive black and silver dreadlocks swing when he plays, street ball is a release and a joy.

"I love coming out here all the time," he says. "Some guys come out here to get away from the pressures of life, their wives, or just to have fun. What you'll find out here is just a bunch of brothers getting together to hang out and enjoy some real competition and camaraderie."

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