Wednesday, May 25, 2011
RFH Book Review: Heaven is a Playground
It’s generally assumed that the process of getting young ballers from the projects to college and possibly the pros is a dirty business wrought with sleazy agents and predatory middle-men looking to make a buck off unsuspecting kids. Movies such as He Got Game and Through the Fire show what the superstars – both fictional and real – of Lincoln High in Coney Island went through as they navigated the process: dodging agents, accepting offers and hearing promises of fame and fortune in the NBA. Stories of the mythical Worldwide Wes floated around the internet for years until he finally surfaced with CAA last summer, as his influence on John Calipari-bred stars such as DaJuan Wagner, Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans and John Wall wreaked of shady dealing. Needless to say, it’s a tricky world that has yet to produced a real consensus about whose interests are being met. But before all that, before Worldwide Wes, before Spike Lee and before Sonny Vaccarro, there was Rodney Parker in Foster Park, Brooklyn. And during the summers of 1973 and 74, 24-year-old Rick Telander hung with Rodney as he scouted the courts for kids with enough game to get a prep school or college to take them in. It was a different world, and Heaven is a Playground details it beautifully.
Rodney Parker was a mid-thirty-year-old ticket scalper that, when he wasn’t pacing the Shea Stadium parking lot, spent his time at the park on Foster and Nostrand. This was years before the gentrification of Brooklyn and just at the outset of a drug epidemic that took hold of much of the Flatbush population, and Parker was dedicated to finding a way out for some of the fantastically talented kids – Fly Williams, Calvin Franks, Mario Donawa, Danny Odums, Albert King and many more. Each of them showed flashes of serious talent and Parker had contacts at schools from New England to the Tennessee Valley. He knew that keeping them tied to the game would help them avoid the inevitable fate of joining a gang, and Parker did all he could to give the kids a way out of Brooklyn. One of his earliest mentees, former All-American and LA Laker Jim McMillian, remembered that, while Parker appeared to be rolling in cash – he didn’t hesitate to spot young ballplayers cash for food, sneakers or subway fares – money was not a factor in their relationship. “It’s hard to explain,” McMillian recalls in the book, “but Rodney is like a little kid. When he gets somebody into school, he feels like he’s just put a puzzle together. He gets all excited. It’s an identity thing. I have a hunch that what he’d really like instead of money is a title, you know, a telephone and a desk – his own little office.”
|Fly lets his gangly arms hang loose in the front row, left, while Rodney Parker stands on the right side of the picture.|
|The Subway Stars standing proudly in front of one of two tags bearing their name in Brooklyn|
One other note: I haven't seen it, but from the preview, "Heaven is a Playground" the movie bears absolutely no resemblance to this book. So only consider watching it if you want to catch the movie premier of former Los Angeles Clipper superstar Bo Kimbel.