A father shouldn’t have to outlive his own son. It’s not right.
My pops died when I was too little to remember. And without the pictures my mom kept, I wouldn’t even know what he looked like.
Stove was like my second pops, and did things with me I never got a chance to do with my real flesh and blood. His son, J.R., was my best friend since fifth grade, and lived in the same apartment building as me. It didn’t matter that I’m black and they’re Puerto Rican. We got to be almost family. But I don’t deserve any more best friends. Not after the way I played J.R., and ran off when he needed me the most.
I’d heard the sirens screaming up Frederick Douglas Boulevard, so I figured it was safe to get my chicken-ass back to the park. I watched from across the street, and wouldn’t get any closer. J.R. was lying on the basketball court under a green sheet, and his blood was on the ground all around him. Everything I’d done was weighing down on me, till moving my feet was like lifting two solid blocks of cement.
People were looking at me because they knew how tight we were. I didn’t want to see inside anymore, and tried to keep my eyes on the high fence around Rucker Park. Then I saw Stove coming up the block in his mailman’s suit, pushing a cart full of letters.
“That’s the boy’s father,” somebody whispered, and the blood pumping inside me turned ice cold.
I heard a voice beg Stove not to look. I shut my eyes tight, but couldn’t stop from opening them again.
An old lady came out of the crowd and threw her arms around Stove. He was down on one knee, crying in the street.
My best friend had just got stabbed to death right in front of me, and I didn’t lift a finger to help him. I was too scared, and knew that I still had to worry about my own skin.
I saw my reflection in a car window, and wanted to spit on it.
I remembered Stove telling J.R. about the day he was born. How he put his hand on J.R.’s chest to feel his heart beating. Only now my ears were stuck on the sound of kids bouncing basketballs. They were pounding the sidewalk, over and over, like heartbeats gone wild.
J.R. and me grew up the same-- dreaming about winning the big basketball tournament at Rucker Park. We wanted it so bad that it got to be in our blood. We played on that court all the time, except those nights in August, when we’d just watch with our mouths hanging open. That’s when the best pickup teams in the city would throw down in the middle of Harlem, right around the block from where we lived.
We could see it perfect from J.R.’s window. But we always wanted to be inside the park so we could feel it, too. Rucker Park is where some of the greatest pro ballers ever, like Dr. J and Wilt Chamberlain, squared off against street legends-- guys with tags like Goat and Helicopter. Stove reffed lots of those famous games, before either J.R. or me was born. He’s the head ref at the tournament now, and always works the championship game.
J.R.’s pops had reffed our games since we were eleven years old, playing youth league. He never cut us a single break. Any call that was close went against us. I guess Stove wanted to teach J.R. and me to stand on our own, and show people he blew an honest whistle.
J.R. used to complain to his mother about it all the time, before she died from cancer a few years back.
“I thought blood was supposed to be thicker than water,” he’d say to her, knowing his pops was listening in.
Then Stove would rip back, “There’s only sweat on a basketball court, Mami. And it’s salty, just like a baby’s tears.”
I was at J.R.’s crib the night Stove called from the hospital to say she’d passed away. We looked at pictures from her last birthday party, and J.R. couldn’t stop crying. I left when Stove got home. But the second I walked out the door, I broke down, too. I sat on the stairs between floors in our building, bawling my eyes out.
That's when J.R. and his pops started to get even closer. And maybe I was a little jealous, because I couldn't stand even being in the same house with my mom's new husband and his big mouth.
The tournament here last summer was our first as players. We were going into our junior year then, and were already starters on the squad at George Washington High School. But we mostly rode the bench behind older dudes with bigger bodies on a tournament team at Rucker Park.
Since then, J.R. shot up two more inches, to six-three. I was almost as tall, and we both hit the weights hard. We took George Washington deep into the playoffs this year, losing the semi-final game at Madison Square Garden. We were star-struck just to be standing on that court, looking up at all those seats. And we left the locker room there feeling like pros already.
J.R. got named All-City in the Daily News, and I got Honorable Mention. That’s when the colleges started sending us letters, and ringing our phones off the hook. Stove sat us down with an SAT prep book every night, and that gave me a good excuse to keep out of my house.
But Stove watched out for who came around, too.
“Street agents are fishin’ for a piece of every kid with a future on the court. Snakes with cars and money will want to be your best friend. They front for management companies that can’t contact a kid till he’s done playin’ in college, and ready to turn pro,” Stove warned us all the time. “They get their hooks into as many kids as they can. It’s like buying up a hundred lottery tickets, and hopin’ one hits big. I’ve seen them turn a poor kid’s head with a new pair of sneakers.”
That’s why J.R.’s pops wouldn’t let us play for Fat Anthony. He coaches Non-Fiction—a street team that’s won the Rucker Park Tournament four times. Stove grew up with Anthony and knows his bag of tricks inside out. Everybody at the park knows Fat Anthony delivers kids to certain agents. That he bets on the games, and sometimes his players get a taste of that money.
“If college coaches hear you’re mixed up in gambling, they’ll give that scholarship to somebody else,” said Stove. “It’s not a game to Anthony. And Son, I don’t want you or Mackey mixed up in any of his dirty business.”
I’d heard a new team called the Greenbacks was going after the best high school talent around. J-Greene, a big time rapper, started it up for the publicity, and named the squad after his new CD, In it for the Greenbacks.
Greene showed up at Rucker Park with a fly shorty on each arm, and Tommy Mitchell, who used to play pro ball for the New York Knicks. Mitchell was coaching the Greenbacks. He already knew about J.R. and me, and wanted us both on the squad.
I didn’t even have to think about it, but J.R. did.
“I definitely want to be down,” J.R. told them. “But I gotta run it by my pops first.”
Greene shot us a look like we were little kids. Then he turned to Mitchell and said, “I thought we was recruitin’ men to wear my name.”
“Trust me on this, G,” said Mitchell. “These two got man-style game.”
“Bless them!” barked Greene, snapping his fingers.
That’s when his shorties gave us each a jersey the color of money, and a long kiss on the cheek.
“I get what I want,” said Greene. “And when the honeys see you in those, and we win Rucker Park, you’ll be gettin’ plenty, too.”
J.R. spent that whole night trying to convince his pops to let him join. I played him one of Greene’s raps, but Stove hated it. He said it made Harlem sound like a war zone. After that, we kept hitting on how much we could learn from Tommy Mitchell, till J.R.’s pops finally caved and said it was all right.
We had a squad full of high school all-stars, and a couple of ex-college players with muscle to back us up. And after our first practice together, J.R. and me knew the Greenbacks were going to be the bomb.
In our first tournament game, we were winning by almost forty points. The other team had a crew of older cats, who couldn’t keep up. But then we started rubbing it in, acting like real hot dogs. Mitchell got pissed over that and benched some of our guys.
Stove reffed that one, and didn’t stop the clock once inside the last five minutes. He was trying to get that spanking over with fast, before that other team figured they had to fight us to keep from looking like assholes.
Acorn announces the games at Rucker Park. He owns the barber shop down the block, and everybody knows him. He’s big and thick, with a voice like Barry White from my mom’s old records.
During the games, Acorn sits by the side of the court with a microphone in his hand. He’s always got something quick to say. If you make a bonehead play, Acorn will dis you good in front of everybody. But when you do something right, he’ll give you props for it, too.
If you’re really special, Acorn gives you a nickname. And if the crowd hoots and hollers enough at that tag, it’ll stick. It was Acorn who blessed some of the greatest street ballers with the tags that everybody knows them by.
The last few minutes of that first game was like a personal highlight tape of my best plays ever. It started with a pass I made through some dude’s legs right to J.R. for an easy basket. The next time down court, I fired the ball off the backboard, and it looked like I was passing it to myself. Three guys from the other team came charging at me. But instead of catching the ball, I slapped it to J.R. for an open layup, and everybody watching roared.
“Hold the mustard on that hot dog!” Acorn echoed through Rucker Park.
Every time I touched the ball after that, Acorn called me “Hold the Mustard.”
The crowd was loving it, too, till Mitchell yanked me from the game for showboating. But when I got to the sideline, Greene threw both arms around me, and Mitchell backed off. When the game ended, Greene brought the whole squad with him out to center court, and rapped his big hit, Up Yours.
That night, I went home with J.R. and his pops. There was leftover stew for supper, and a whole loaf of bread we finished off with the brown gravy. The walls held onto every bit of heat from that day, so Stove opened the windows wide, hoping for a breeze.
All J.R. and me could talk about was winning the championship, and how maybe Non-Fiction was the only crew that could keep us from it.
“You want something so bad, for so long. Then it’s right in front of you,” said J.R. over the TV and noise from the street. “You gotta check yourself to make sure it’s really happenin’. And you gotta watch out, so you don’t screw up and give it away, especially to that bastard Fat Anthony.”
“But it’s sweet!” I told him.
“Sweeter for you with that new tag,” said J.R., dribbling a pretend ball between his legs, till we both cracked up laughing.
Then J.R. went to his bedroom window to find the star his mother taught him to wish on. She said it was the same star from the Puerto Rican flag, and would always watch over him. But I didn’t believe in that kind of stuff, and stayed in the kitchen with Stove.
“You need 'confianza'-- faith in things, Mackey,” said Stove. “Or else you better believe in yourself more than anything.”
Those were just words to me then, with nothing behind them. But over the last few weeks they've been roaring in my head.
Now the championship game’s in front of me. Rucker Park’s packed tonight to see the Greenbacks finally take on Non-Fiction. But I’m not sure how much I believe in myself anymore, or what’s really inside of me.
Stove’s got the game ball under his arm, and a whistle hanging from his neck. Only J.R.’s not here-- because I fucked up so bad. And his killer’s standing right there, cool as anything, like he doesn’t have to think twice about me giving him up.