Pops sees them come and go. Some streetball is just plain mediocre. Decent enough players run, and role players set the rhythm. An occasional bounce pass or drive through the lane can impress the casual passerby, but Pops knows when to pay attention; he knows when to grant prestige.
Like an old sportswriter, he points out the young phenoms before they ever get a scholarship or play ball somewhere more high profile and glamorous. Wherever they end up, whoever else may forget their name, Pops keeps tabs on the skills they show off on the court at West 4th Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan.
“Oh, you never saw Pearl? You never saw Booger? Man, I’ll tell you about Booger. Cat had a crossover . . .” he trails off while watching the action on the court, now occupied by today’s city stars.
He points out talent when he sees it, and just as quickly, he dismisses some players before they even get on the court. But he isn’t loud. In fact, he whispers to himself, or to a stranger who just happens to stop and check out the action for a few minutes. He does not watch games every day, but he’ll come out on Saturdays when the West 4th veterans play. He watches from behind the fence, under the trees on the shady end of the court.
The court at West 4th has long been a haven for tough, competitive streetball. The court is tiny — some fast breaks end after three or four dribbles, give or take a step. A cage surrounds the concrete, and everything in between is in play. The court becomes cozier when players awaiting the next game kneel against the cage or take jumpers when the play shifts to the opposite end.
“You play here because the competition is tough,” says Jay Rosado, an 18-year-old guard from the Bronx. He will play at St. Bonaventure next year. “You get mentally tough out here.”
“This place produces lots of young guards it seems,” says Shane Akira, 32. “I just come down for some exercise every once in a while. But high school-age guards dominate this place — they’re not the best players, but they’ll shoot a lot and run the court, and they usually got the confidence to go to the next level.”
Going to the next level, for some, is an opportunity to play on a traveling team. To others, it is a scholarship to Division 1 or fine-tuning skills at a Division 3 school. To West 4th veterans — although they may be the best at this level — there is no next level. If there were the next level, they would not be showing up every Saturday afternoon.
“This is it for me, I’m not playing anywhere else,” says Sherman, a 17-year veteran of the court. He has a job with Con Edison and lives in Harlem. When he arrives at West 4th, players young and old greet him. Sherman does not sign a list to get on the court. He gets on when he wants the next game. That’s when the list might as well be thrown in the trash.
Sherman, and most others who have been playing at West 4th for a while, say the competition has truly gone downhill. What attracts young guards with promising futures, like Rosado, is nothing compared to the play this court saw five and 10 years ago.
“I wouldn’t even get on the court when I was these kids’ age, and I wouldn’t even try,” he says. “Men used to dominate this court. These skinny guards wouldn’t ever get time.”
So why keep coming back?
“Look around here,” he says while putting on socks and sneakers for a game. “You got movies, clubs nearby and . . .”
“Girls!” interjects his friend Butter, himself a West 4th veteran. “It’s the Village. Lots of people walk by here, and there’s a lot to do after playing a few games on a Saturday.”
The court itself sits above the West 4th Street subway hub, making it accessible for players and passers-by alike. There are not many other parks where a kid from Coney Island can play alongside a kid from Harlem. Likewise, passers-by of all West Village personalities cannot help but stop and watch the action.
“If we play up in Harlem, it can end with a broken nose or worse,” Sherman continues. “Here, it is a little more relaxed, more fun; you help out some young players, and then you go out after the game.”
Pops stays behind the cage and grins as Sherman, Butter, and others knock the younger players off the court. They got next. Some kids stick around. Others take their shoes off and watch. Pops whispers, “Oh boy, now it’s time to pay attention.”