Commentary

The thing itself: Essential basketball

Updated: March 21, 2011, 2:08 PM ET
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

If Rucker Park is Mecca, West 4th Street is Medina.

Basketball this week, but sideways and stripped of spectacle. Not the big-T tournament, but a kind of spring madness all the same, street ball downtown, and the quick Sunday pilgrimage. A sketchbook.

No announcers, no experts, no analysis, no artifice.

[+] EnlargeCage
Chuck Solomon/NBAE/Getty ImagesJumpshots are not favored amongst the veterans at The Cage.

Climb up from the F train, up and out of that teeming ground, into the light and rushing life and the blue of that sky, blinking, up and out of the subway dungeon at West 4th Street in Greenwich Village that first half-warm weekend, a kind of resurrection, and there it is, 20 feet high, The Cage.

Chain-link home of the most famous pickup game in the world south of 155th Street.

This is around the corner from Washington Square Park. And on the first pagan day of spring that famous place is overwhelmed with daffodils and film students, with mendicants and acrobats and lunatics, with melancholy cellists and trust fund bongo artists, with druids and chess sharks and yoga zealots, with evangelical nuts and junkies on the nod, with Mom and Pop and the Slovak guidebook, with the family fanny pack and the baby sling and the drooling, beaming jablko of their eye. There are nine kinds of music in the breeze, of pomp and flourish and dirty low down, and two dozen smells, the best of which walks straight up MacDougal from that new pizza place. Cherry blossoms over here and the ghosts of Pollock and Ginsberg over there, and the whole ringing thing as Beat and ecstatic as Kerouac's hatband.

But in The Cage, life is still all muscle and jump.

The NCAA tournament and the brackets and the broadcasts seem to me sometimes businesslike, a bottom-line reckoning of gray middle management. A good reason to get out of the house. Conference. RPI. The cult of the coach and the three-button suit. Institutional. Educational. Even the upsets aren't very upsetting. A uniformed land-grant game played straight on the downbeat and in the key of C.

Here the game is all game, play, a syncopated argument in favor of chaos; an ode to id and disorder and beauty; an infinite improvisation on the body in the rising childhood key of "Oh no you just dittint!"

The Cage is half scale, a shortened court the color of stomach acid lined cartoon yellow, the uprights padded and wrapped with black duct tape. You know the place is double serious because the city park backboards are clouded plexiglass, not rusting steel.

Ten young heads today running north and south missing their jump shots, jawboning, the game played all on the iron, like they've been asleep all winter and are slow to warm. Their shorts billow like spinnakers above their giant shoes.

Two passes and pull up to shoot. Clank. Rebound. Two passes and pull up to shoot. Clank. "Damn!" Rebound. Clank. Rebound. "Damn!" Clankclankclank, it's like career day at the blacksmith.

[+] EnlargeAllan Houston & Cal Ramsey
Getty ImagesEven The Cage isn't immune to the trappings of the modern world. Former Knicks players Allan Houston, left, and Cal Ramsey (with Blake Griffin lurking in the background) stopped by for a fashion show in 2009.

A couple of tall kids, slow and wide and dour, one in street clothes who just set down his pile of books, spin useless circles down low while smaller kids, lithe and fast, come and go like half-formed thoughts.

"Make him shoot make him shoot make him shoot!"

Clank. Rebound. Shoot.

The ball arcs up, clanks, arcs the exact parabola back into the hands of the shooter. This happens twice. Like the replay is on a loop. It's an equinox comedy of self-regard and bad targeting. He is a lean kid, and handsome, well-made and vain. He shoots like he can see himself in a mirror. One Sunday maybe he'll go 45-for-45 and make himself The Ninja Legend of 6th Avenue, but today nothing drops but his hopes.

There is no inside game at all, except on the putback. Nobody drives, nobody works down low or inside. Sometimes the airball falls straight from the sky, is caught, is lifted back or is lofted downrange. But it is a shooter's game without shooters.

This is strange, because the game at West 4th is historically tough, all elbows and grunt and hard feelings. The miniature court rewards ruthlessness and body mass, not speed. Games here in August, played by older, angrier men, unfold like long-form fistfights in the heat. Not today.

The Cage is filled instead with city peacocks. Black and white and brown. Dazzling and radiant and useless.

For decades writers about race and class and pain and failed expectation came to The Cage and made metaphor of the place and the game and the men who played it. Here it all was: inside, outside, us, them, type and archetype, rage and violence and color and class and the imprisoning politics of prejudice and fear. It was a cage, after all, and if someone needed a shorthand for urban American original sin, here it was.

But today it's just bad basketball. The peacocks preen and shoot and talk weak trash while the parade goes by on the sidewalk, that avalanche of faces, black and white and brown, the rent boys and the ballerinas, the fry cooks and the bums and the holy rollers, the cherubim and the seraphim and the Technicolor tattooed ladies in their leopardskin pillbox hats.

All passing, all rising on our way to meet the season.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.

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