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.”
Rodney Parker
Fly Williams was the real deal – a New York legend akin to Earl “The Goat” Manigault or Lew Alcindor – and Parker wanted to get close to Williams the moment he saw him. At 18 years old Fly was 6’5” and all limbs and absolutely torched opponents. But as Telander writes, “At times Fly seemed a near-parody of the ghetto man. Defensive, wild, unpredictable, his psyche seemed so entrapped by environment that it was nearly impossible to discern where personality left off and act began.” The book follows Fly from Foster Park to Austin Peay University to, well, you’ll have to read it find out where else. His story is a fascinating one not only for the personal flaws that ultimately derail his career, but for the mythic descriptions of his on-court exploits – they called him Fly for a reason. As he once told his friend and fellow Foster Park regular, Country James, "I want standing room only to see the Fly."
Fly lets his gangly arms hang loose in the front row, left, while Rodney Parker stands on the right side of the picture. 
That’s what makes this book so compelling as a sociological study as well as a sports book: Telander’s ability to portray the on-court action and the street life that surrounded it. The vernacular is a bit dated, but game descriptions littered with “stuff shots” and “finger rollers” by “shifty backcourtsmen” are more endearing than distracting. Telander makes sure to establish himself as a fairly capable baller as well, providing some degree of authority in analyzing the youngsters' games. In fact, Telander spent a good deal of his time coaching a group of 8th graders that hung around the park and wanted to take on squads from Brooklyn to Manhattan and Queens. The team came to be known as the Subway Stars, and in between trips around New York, mostly to get demolished by bigger, stronger and more organized teams, the boys got bits of wisdom from Rodney about school, street life ("I don't like you guys smoking dope. You ain't supermen. It hurts your games."), and the right way to ball ("Basketball isn't like diving where you get ten points for a perfect dive or nothing for a belly flop. It's always two. Watch Danny or even Lionel, it's the basics that make them solid.")

The Subway Stars standing proudly in front of one of two tags bearing their name in Brooklyn
Heaven is a Playground is full of lessons, if you want it to be. Even as a 25-year-old who spent two summers with his subjects, Telander does a terrific job of reserving any judgments about the people, places and events that he covered. Even the most polarizing characters, Fly and Rodney, get a fair shake, and by the end of the book, the story feels like little more than a kaleidoscopic snapshot of one moment in that game's and the city's history. It's also Telander's basketball love song, an ode to everything that drew him and those young ballplayers to the game. The book was named one of Sports Illustrated's top 100 sports books of all-time, and should be a staple of any sports fan's personal library.

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.


John Hendrie said...

RFH definitely used to say "shifty backcourtsmen". Respect.

Robyn McLean said...
This comment has been removed by the author.