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After my game against Jason Helms everything changed. Mike and I started playing at the Jungle and the buzz about us in the neighborhood grew. People all over New York City were talking about the Hope brothers. In fact, the New York Times ran an article about two fourteen-year-old twins from Harlem who had a shot at the NBA. While Mike took these comments in stride, I let the praise go straight to my head. Mike was used to people telling him that he was great. I wasn’t. So by the time I entered the gym for the first day of high school tryouts, my arrogant attitude had me believing that I deserved special treatment.
“On your wing, T. Ball, ball, ball,” Mike was running alongside me on the fast break with one man guarding the basket. Instead of throwing a routine bounce pass, I forced my shoulder into the chest of the scrawny defender at the top of the key. Once I had him reeling backward, I picked up my dribble and tossed Mike what I thought was a perfect alley-oop pass. Normally, he would catch the feed and bash home a monstrous dunk. Only this time, the ball rose above his outstretched arms and ricocheted off the backboard. I’d blown an easy fast break.
The bruised defender picked up the ball and sprinted down the court untouched. Coach Walter Harris glared at me. I returned the stare.
While Mike hustled full speed down the court in an effort to prevent an easy basket, I casually jogged down the floor. I knew I’d made a mistake, but I also knew that I had a spot on the varsity team no matter what happened during these tryouts.
After our opponents scored another easy lay-up, I took the in bounds pass and dribbled up the floor with a kick to my step. We were down by one point in a game to eleven. I knew we needed a score. This was my chance to impress Coach. I dribbled the ball over the half court stripe, ignoring an open man on my right.
The defender guarding me was a step slow. I could have breezed by him at any time. Sure, a lay-up would have tied the game, but I wanted to show off my jump shot. Coach needed to see all my skills. I dribbled around the swinging arms of the frenzied defender until my body was parallel to Coach’s, four feet beyond the arc. I shot a glance toward the sideline. “Watch this Coach.” He rolled his eyes.
With a convincing head fake forward I was able to gain a step between myself and my opponent. Mike saw the desire in my eyes, and as usual, he was there to assist me. He set a brutal pick, which meant that Mike used his body to block my defender. This left me with an open look at a long jump shot. I squared my body toward the basket and made certain my form was flawless, elbow tucked, knees bent, high extension and release. I was sure this shot would be the perfect redemption for my previous miscues.
I held my exaggerated follow through. “That’s money,” I said, waiting for the ball to swish through the net. My confident smile soured as I watched the ball run out of gas on the way to the rim. The shot dropped two feet short of the hoop, an embarrassing air ball. I shook my head in disbelief and trudged down the court to play defense.
“Hey Hope! Do you always hold your follow through on air balls?” Coach Harris was furious. “Stop the game for a second.” Squeaking sneakers and the rhythmic thumping of the bouncing ball ceased. All that was left was the thunder of Coach’s voice in the old gymnasium. “All I see is playground in you, Hope. The alley-oops, the fast breaks, the lack of hustle and the crazy shots from half court. Play the game the way it was meant to be played, with your teammates, not against them!” This was not what I expected on the first day of tryouts. “It’s not just you and Michael out there, look to pass to someone else.” He blew his whistle, “Get
some water guys.”
I couldn’t believe that Coach had cut the game short. Everyone gathered by the bleachers, drinking water and sharing strange looks. But I stayed on the court with Coach. The game wasn’t over yet. Mike looked at me as if he could see smoke blowing from my ears. He motioned with his hands, pushing his palms toward the floor, a signal to calm me down. He knew I was about to explode. I could hear Mike’s voice, “Stay cool, T.”
I ignored this voice. A heated dialogue was circling inside my head. I’m a great player. Last week Mike and I had our pictures in the New York Times! Coach Harris never had his picture in the Times. What was he doing by embarrassing me in front of my new teammates? Who did this man think he was? I continued my inner monologue, I’m fourteen-years-old and half the Division I college basketball programs in the country are already drooling over me. The only person I know who can still hang with me is Mike, and when we’re on the same team, that game’s over before it starts. Coach Harris knows this! So why is he disrespecting me?
I stood deep in thought at center court. Coach stared at me, waiting for my next move. “Are you gonna join your teammates or do you have something else you’d like to say?”
I became even more enraged. “This is the first time you’ve ever seen me play, Coach. How can you tell that I’m all play-ground?” I raised my voice, “And besides, whether I’m playground or not, I have skills. If you were a real coach, you’d understand that much.”
Coach Harris moved closer to me. My fourteen-year-old frame stood tall to face him. I wouldn’t back down an inch. “Are you telling me how to do my job, Hope?” He moved to my right side, his face about three inches from my ear. “I’ve been coaching kids like you for thirty years. You know how long that is?”
I spoke loudly, “If you can’t handle us anymore, maybe you should retire.”
His voice crashed down like a bolt of lightning, “When you’re in this gym, you are in my house!” I flinched backward. Coach, a mountain of a man, at six-feet-four inches tall and at least two hundred and fifty pounds, was screaming, “And nobody, nobody, is gonna disrespect me in my house! Do you understand me?” His chest was heaving.
I didn’t answer.
“I said do you understand me?”
I deliberately paused. “Yeah, whatever,” I said nonchalantly.
Mike walked onto the court, “Coach, can I say something?”
Coach answered promptly, “Go back with your teammates, Michael. You’re brother owes me an apology.” He stared at me again. “Well?”
I remember thinking that I had to establish myself early in this relationship. Coach needed me for the next four years and he was going to respect my game whether he liked it or not. There would be no apology. I looked up at him in a defining moment. “Coach, I think the only person who needs to be apologizing is you, for disrespecting me in front of my teammates.”
Coach shrugged his shoulders. “Okay. If that’s how you want to do it, you’re out of here. I’m the guy blowing the whistle, not you.” He pointed an enormous finger at me, “You have no respect for your elders, and until you learn that, you’re not welcome anywhere near this gym. So collect your stuff and get out of here.”
I stepped back in disbelief. Had I just gotten thrown off the team? My hands shook as I grabbed my book bag from a hook on the back wall. I approached the exit to the gym and turned around before leaving. “You’ve got no idea who you’re sending home.” Everyone was dead silent, staring. I couldn’t look at my brother. I didn’t want to see the disappointment on his face. I put my backpack on my shoulder and left. When I closed the door to the gym
that day, it locked behind me.
It was close to nine o’clock. Memories of my childhood faded as Mike, Devon, and Nick continued past the Park. When they reached an empty parking lot they stopped and pulled their backpacks off, looking around cautiously. I followed from about twenty yards away, covered from view by a crooked fence that wrapped around the lot. A yellow light above the rusted sign, PARKING, shone softly on my brother and his friends. I stood in the shadows, seeing and hearing them clearly through the, old, splintered wood.
Mike spoke, “Guys, I’m not too sure about going to this party.” He sounded concerned. Devon responded, “What’s the matter college boy, you scared of having some fun?” Nick’s obnoxious hyena laugh echoed into the night. He slapped five with Devon. “Yeah college-boy, still got time to run home to Mama.” His stupid laugh continued.
Mike forced a smile. This image of indifference didn’t fool me. He was nervous. I had to find out why.
One by one the guys unzipped their packs. I leaned in closer to the fence, trying to get a clear view. Devon reached deep into his backpack and pulled out a paper bag. The three of them gathered in close. I squinted to get a peek, but my line of sight was blocked by their tight circle. My concentration was broken by the sounds of an approaching car. “Get down!” Devon pointed to his left, diving behind a nearby dumpster in a panic. Mike and Nick followed like they were playing a game of Simon Says.
An instant later, a New York City police car rolled up to the empty lot. The street became library quiet. A flashlight shined on the front of the oversized trash bin and the officer peered out of her window suspiciously. Mike crouched as low as he could, holding on to the side of the filthy dumpster for balance. His arms were shaking and his legs were buried in the overflow of garbage. I turned and sat motionless with my back to the action. I couldn’t bear to look anymore. Soon the flash of light disappeared and all that was left were sighs and laughter. The police car was gone.
My brother, less than a day away from a college scholarship, was ducking behind trash to avoid the law. What was he doing? He knew we had to get to the NBA, show Mom a better life. I pictured her, sweating in our tiny apartment with no fans or air conditioning, fighting with rats and cockroaches, sipping tap water from a leaky faucet. Had Mike forgotten Mom?
The guys scraped trash from their clothes and arrived at the corner of 151st Street and 1st Avenue completely out of breath. They’d reached a crossroad. I automatically assumed they would be going west, toward civilization. I was wrong. They went east, toward the river. There were only two things east of 1st Avenue and 151st Street: our old high school and trouble. Since I knew that Mike wasn’t going back to catch up on his studies at ten o’clock at night in the middle of August, I was sure he was looking for trouble. He was going to a place in Harlem where drugs and violence ran the streets.
The stakes had been raised. I followed closer. A few minutes later I stopped at the front steps of our high school. Mike was fifty feet ahead as he passed by the back door to our
The concrete steps leading to the main entrance seemed more cracked than they were just a few months ago. Every window was barricaded with metal bars and stained with rust. The painted front door was two shades of ugly brown and the sign reading ‘Public School 44’ was hanging upside down, the handiwork of some hooligan. When principals and security guards went home for the summer, this was what PS-44 became.
I imagined my new life at UNY, fourteen hours and counting. Tomorrow the stairs would be perfect, the windows clean. Students would line the streets and fresh coats of royal blue and orange paint would adorn brand new signs for the University of New York.
I moved forward quietly, the darkness disguising me. I could still hear my brother’s voice up the street. Fifty feet later I was standing alone in front of our old gym. I tugged on a chain that barricaded the entrance. I remembered the first time I was locked out of that gym…
Kids I knew, and people passing by, were now perched on a bench, or leaning against the fence, watching it all unfold. The court began to clear as Jason took off his shirt and revealed an upper body that was twice the size of my own. I took my shirt off in response. It was not a pretty sight. My ribs stuck out, my arms were puny, and I don’t think I could have intimidated a beanstalk. I stood there shirtless anyway.
Jason walked toward me and threw the ball hard at my chest. “Check it up, punk!”
I caught the ball. “One thing first. If I win, you get me an invite to the Jungle.”
Jason smiled, “Shorty, if you win I’ll take you to the Amazon Jungle.”
I bent down and tightened my shoelaces, cradling the ball under my left arm. Mom always told us to be confident and never feel intimidated. So when I rose up with my face three inches from Jason’s chest, there was no fear in my eyes. “I’m not scared of you.” I checked the ball.
Just as the game was about to start, Mike showed up. He stepped through one of the holes in the fence and slapped hands with a few of the neighborhood kids. As he made his way onto the court Jason had some words for him, “Your brother’s got a bigger mouth than you, Mike. I’m about to shut it for him.”
Mike ignored him and came directly over to me. He grabbed the ball from my hands sharply. “How’d this happen?” He pointed to my swollen lip.
“I asked for it.” I didn’t want Mike involved.
He yelled over at Jason anyway. “You like picking on guys half your size?”
Jason laughed. “Shorty needs another couple of inches before he’s half my size.”
“Then why don’t you play me, tough guy?” Mike began walking toward Jason.
I stepped in his path. “Let me handle this, Mike.”
“You can handle this guy?” Mike looked over at Jason, then back at me.
I tried to grab the ball from him, but he wouldn’t give it up.
“Just let me play him. This is my problem.”
Reluctantly, Mike dropped the ball back into my hands. “Well, now you’ve got another problem. This guy’s a baller, T.” This was a term used to describe a really talented basketball player. “You can beat him, though. Don’t back down. This is what we’ve been practicing for.” He gave me a knuckle bump, staring at Jason as he walked toward the sideline. While many kids stood leaned against the fences, a seat on the bench was saved just for Mike. He was becoming a legend on these courts.
Jason stood in front of me in a weak defensive stance. He wasn’t taking me and my twelve-year-old body seriously. On the first play I blew past him left, making an easy lay-up. Jason obviously wasn’t too rattled, because on my next possession his long arm swatted my shot routinely. He regained control of the loose ball and stood at the top of the key, talking trash, “Here it comes, Hope. Get ready.”
I crouched down, getting set defensively. I would have the most impact stopping the dribble, rather than trying to block shots. Many defenders like to watch the path of the ball, others like to look into their opponent’s eyes. I stared at the hips. I learned that an offensive player wasn’t going anywhere unless his hips shifted first. If Jason decided to move, I would know exactly where he was going before his feet did.
As Helms began to yo-yo the ball up and down with his right hand, he noticed my unorthodox defensive style and thought he had the perfect opportunity to open his mouth again. “Any of you guys have a spatula? I think Shorty’s stuck to the-” Just as he was about to complete his insult, I sprouted out of my stance, knocking the ball away. I made another uncontested lay up, showboating this time with a pretty finger roll.
All of Jason’s friends started jeering at him as I dribbled back to the top of the key. He’d been embarrassed on the court he used to own. Suddenly he looked like a middle linebacker about to drill a running back. His nostrils were flaring and beads of sweat dripped down his face. He charged, and began hand checking me with the force of a grizzly bear. I turned my back to him and was pelted by slaps on my wrists and forearms. A voice rang out from the crowd, “Hey, he’s foulin’ the kid! Play like a man, Helms!”
Despite the harassment, Jason wouldn’t let up. He was smacking and pushing with all his force. I could only get knocked around for so long before I lost control of the ball. I had to do
After a few more bumps, I tried a play that I’d practiced numerous times against my brother. I noticed Jason’s legs were spread wide while he smacked and hacked at the backs of my arms. Normally I didn’t set out to embarrass someone on the basketball court, but this was different. Not only had Jason disrespected my ability, he’d punched me in the mouth as well. I turned around and bounced the ball directly between his open legs. Then I darted past as he lunged for the rock. “Too late!” I exclaimed, grabbing the ball after two bounces and rolling in another lay-up.
Jason’s crew began to razz him even more, “Shorty’s making you look stupid, Jay.”
“Three-nothing, Hope!” Mike shouted from the sideline, a huge smile plastered to his face. Usually he was the victim of my between the legs fake out move.
A few of Jason’s friends started cheering for me as well. “You’re the man, Shorty! Show him what’s up!” I started to sense that despite their friendships with my opponent, his crew couldn’t help but pull for the upset.
Jason wisely changed his game plan after my early advantage. I was giving away five inches and at least fifty pounds to the sixteen-year-old giant, so utilizing his intimidating size rather than his mediocre ball handling skills was an obvious choice. He started backing the ball into the post, a tactic which offered me less of a chance to swipe the pill from him and a greater chance at a black eye. Bumping me backward about two or three feet gave him easy looks at short post shots. He began to score at will. Still, I continued jumping, swiping, shooting, sweating, and bleeding my way back into the game.
The score went back and forth for the next ten minutes. This was turning into a battle: my quickness against his size, his experience versus my youth, and his pride versus my will.
We were tied at ten in a game to eleven. Jason held the ball at the top of the key. Through heavy breaths he muttered, “Next hoop wins.” I tried to keep my defensive intensity high, but my tired legs wouldn’t cooperate. Jason turned his back to the basket and powered me deep into the post. I leaned my forearm into the middle of his back, desperately trying to hold my ground. I couldn’t afford to let him move in any closer. But my last gasp was useless. Jason had progressed to the basket with relative ease. By the time he turned to face up, all that was left was a three-foot bank shot that he’d probably made a million times in his life. Make that a million
He pumped his fist in the air victoriously and pulled on his shorts in exhaustion. I knew that when this game started he would never have imagined getting that fired up after beating a twelve-year old kid by a single point. I put my hands on my hips, wondering if I should have tried for the steal on the last play of the game. Wondering when I would get another chance at an invite to the Jungle.
Jason came over to me and shook my hand with a smile on his face. “Nice game, Tony.” I couldn’t believe it! He called me, Tony.
After that game I was always Tony. I had graduated; no one ever called me Shorty again. I had earned Jason’s respect. I could see it in his face when he approached me, and felt it in the firmness of his handshake. He spoke to me before exiting through a hole in the fence. “You’ve got a ton of game, Tony. If you ever need someone to run with, come up to the Jungle. I’ll play with you anytime.”
I nodded my head, exhausted and beaten, but respected.
It was a perfect spring day for a sixth grader, not a cloud in the sky and just warm enough to wear shorts. This meant the Park would be packed. I guessed the Jungle courts were crowded that day. Some of the guys who usually played up there, walked six blocks south to beat up on us kids. There was a definite pecking order in Harlem hoops, and when you were a skinny twelve years old like me, you were right at the end of the line.
I easily passed through a hole in the fence and made my way onto the blacktop at the Park. Mike and I would play together on the Jungle courts someday, but not until I proved myself here. The brand of basketball at the Park was typical Harlem hoops. Always tough, always fast paced, and always filled with trash talk. I tried not to talk too much. After all, Mike did enough jawing for the both of us.
While I was stretching, a figure approached from the corner
of my eye. He was tall and wore his hair in dreadlocks. “What’s
up, Hope.” He spoke confidently.
“What’s up?” I replied, not sure who he was. “Do I know you?”
“Oh, my bad. You’re not Mike Hope. You look like this kid I know.” Mike had just hit a growth spurt and was now a full four inches taller than me. Somehow, people still had a hard time telling us apart.
A smaller friend of “dreadlocks” reached up to tap him on the shoulder, “That’s Shorty. Mike Hope’s little brother.” I hated that nickname and I hated being thought of us Mike’s younger brother.
“Actually I’m Tony, Mike’s my twin.” A lot of guys knew Mike. He was recognized as one of the top young players in Harlem. I guess these guys had seen him play.
The taller guy shook my hand. “I’m Jason, Jason Helms. You better know that name, Shorty.” He rose his eyebrows in a cocky way. I did know that name. Jason used to play and dominate, here at the Park. He’d been playing up at the Jungle for the past two years, so we never got a chance to face off. “Tell your brother we need a fifth guy today.”
After he realized I wasn’t Mike, he lost interest in speaking with me and made his way toward his friends. I didn’t want to waste this opportunity. “Uh…Mike’s coming down later, but I can play until he gets here.”
“No way, Shorty.” He turned around with an annoyed look on his face. “When your brother comes down you let me know. I’m not trying to run training sessions for kids.” He drew laughter from his friends. “We can’t have some little midget running around on this court.” They laughed again. Jason dribbled in the opposite direction.
The laughter grew until it echoed throughout the court. My heart pounded like a war drum. I’d reached my breaking point. An instant later I was running full speed toward the most feared player on the court. I came up behind him and knocked the ball out of his hands, making an easy lay up.
I pointed at Jason. “This little midget just made you look
like a punk!”
Jason grabbed me by the shirt. The next thing I remember was his arm extending back and his fist smacking against my jaw. I fell to the floor with a thump.
He stood over me. “You better learn to respect your elders, punk!” He grabbed the ball back and walked away.
I wiped some blood from my lower lip and yelled, “Hey
He turned and faced me, “What? You want some more of that Shorty?” The answer was no. I definitely didn’t want any more of that, but a fire was burning inside me.
“You and me, one on one.” I spoke before I fully thought about this proposition. Playing one on one against a player five inches taller, and four years older than me probably wasn’t a good idea.
“What’d you just ask me?” Jason and his friends started laughing. Once again, I was the butt of their jokes. He casually sat down on a bench and sipped from his water bottle. “Go home, Shorty.” He wasn’t taking me seriously. No one was.
“Stand up and play me one on one to eleven, Jason.” I spit blood onto the ground. “Or are you just a punk?” Everyone who was at the Park that day moved in a little bit closer. I heard some mumbling from the crowd. I was sure that what I’d just said was either going to get me hit in the face again, or a one on one game with the best ballplayer on the court
Four blocks later I approached our east Harlem apartment, 335 159th Street. Climbing eight flights of stairs every day helped strengthen my calves. The only guy I knew who could jump higher than the Hope brothers was Terry Jackson. He lived with his grandma on the twelfth floor. When I reached our place I pulled my keys from a pocket in my backpack and chipped a few pieces of red paint from our beat up door. Mom always complained to the landlord about the splintered wood, but he never fixed anything.
Mike beat me home by a few minutes. He and Mom were sitting on the couch watching television when I walked in. I bent over to drop Mom a kiss on my way to the kitchen. She always had a smile on her face when her boys were in the house. I grabbed an apple from the fridge and took a huge bite. My cheeks were stuffed when my brother made a stupid face at me. I almost spit a pile of apple onto the floor, but swallowed through my laughter.
I stared out the kitchen window, thinking about college.
The streets had turned black. The night was moving in.
I was startled by a knock at the door.
Mike jumped up from the couch, expecting company. When he opened the door, Nick Cipro and Devon Jacox were standing there with backpacks on. Nick stood about six-footthree inches tall and was well built. He had dropped out of high school a year earlier to work at his cousin’s hardware store, but drinking and drugs had taken over his life. Devon was a scrawny guy who had a high pitched laugh like a hyena. He’d also dropped out of school. These were not the people I wanted hanging around my brother.
I half-heartedly slapped hands with Nick and Devon, biting my lip to stop myself from telling them to leave. I didn’t want these guys in my house, kissing my mother’s cheek and taking my brother off to some party. I knew that, while they had nothing to lose, Mike stood to lose everything.
The room seemed to stand still. Devon made a funny comment and Mom started laughing. He laughed along with her and his high-pitched cackle really started to get at me. My eyes locked onto Mike’s. I slowly shook my head from side to side. I spoke to him without saying a word. “Stay here tonight, Mike. We’ll talk about UNY, look through pictures and pack our stuff. Me and you tonight, Hope.”
It was just a few moments before the guys began heading out of the apartment. Nick and Devon wondered why I wasn’t coming out with them. I think I said that I wanted to get a good night sleep before my big day tomorrow. The truth was, I wanted no part of their plans. Mike followed his ‘friends’ out. I slapped my brother’s hand before he left.
I stared out the peephole, watching him disappear down the stairs. Mike even walked like a future all-star, chin up, smooth steps, never a change of pace. People claimed that when all was said and done, Mike would be the best to ever come out of Harlem. I always knew my brother was a better player than me. My job was easy. If he was open, I passed him the ball. If he was covered, I set a pick for him. If he took a bad shot, I battled for the rebound.
The telephone rang just as Mike disappeared down the stairs. I moved away from the door to answer.
The voice on the other end was panicked. “Tony, it’s Lloyd. Where’s Mike?”
Lloyd Bright was a friend of ours from school. “He just left with Nick and Devon. What’s up?”
“I talked to Perry and he said that party was going to be crazy tonight.”
“What do you mean, crazy?” I asked.
Lloyd was quick. “You know what I mean. The kind of party you go to if you’re looking for trouble.”
My heart jumped. “Well, what should I do?”
“I don’t know, man. But if I were you, I’d get Mike out
of there.” Lloyd sounded serious.
“Where’s the party?” I spoke while I changed into a
pair of jeans.
“That’s the problem, I’m not really sure. Perry says it’s somewhere over by the high school.” His clue was vague.
I hung up the phone and frantically laced up my sneakers. By leaving with Nick and Devon, Mike had taken a terrible shot. I had to get the rebound. “Mom, I’m going to meet Mike.”
Mom responded from her bedroom. “I thought you said you were getting a good night’s sleep.”
“I will.” I tried to hide any panic in my voice. “I gotta go, Mom.” If I kept talking, I’d lose track of Mike.
“All right, baby. Be home by eleven-thirty.”
I left the apartment, locking the door behind me. My last night in Harlem was going to be a lot different than I’d imagined. I wanted to be in my bed, dreaming of NBA super stardom. I wanted to be resting my head on my pillow, picturing myself with a University of New York jersey on my back, throwing alley-oop passes to my brother. Instead, I was racing out of our building as fast as I could.
When I reached the bottom of the staircase I noticed the guys walking east toward the river. I followed them stealthily from a block behind. I’d keep my eye out from a distance.
The three of them walked a few blocks until they reached Jenkins Park, better known in Harlem as the Park. This was where kids shot hoops before they earned an invite to the Jungle. I stopped for a second and remembered back when I played on these same beat up courts. The holes we’d cut out of the fence years ago to avoid the locked gates seemed to have shrunk in size. Or maybe I’d just gotten bigger. The rims still had no nets and on the far backboard, the letters ‘LW’ were written in bright blue. I knew those initials, Lamar Williams, Harlem’s greatest player. You couldn’t walk ten steps in Harlem without hearing about Lamar Williams and thev legend of his “Sweet Feet.”
Mike and I were once great players at the Park. But you’re not a legend like “Sweet Feet” until you beat the best. This was our journey. And it all began six years earlier, right here, through the holes in the Park fence…
Chapter 1: Part A #hoopcity
“I’m on your wing, T. On your wing if you need me.” I always knew where my brother Mike was on the basketball court. “Right here, Tony!” Mike shouted, giving another enthusiastic wave. I slowed my dribble as I reached a faded yellow threepoint arc, drawing the defense in closer.
Two defenders blocked my lane to the basket, futilely swiping for a steal. I dribbled as fast as I could in between and around them like a racecar weaving through traffic. A voice from beyond the court shouted at me, “Pass the ball, showboat!”
As he finished those words I picked up my dribble, watching Mike streak toward the basket unguarded. I lofted an alleyoop pass toward the side of the rim. The guys surrounding the court were silenced as Mike left his feet and glided toward the hoop. He grabbed the pass in mid-air, and in one effortless motion, tomahawked the basketball home. Amidst a sea of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ I heard another voice from beyond the fence, “Get off that rim. You ain’t Jordan yet!”
The rim rattled as Mike let go and landed firmly on his feet with the backboard shaking behind him. If I were that tired backboard I would have slept easy that night, knowing that Mike and I were leaving in the morning to attend the University of New York. In fact, everyone who ever played against us at the Jungle would sleep well that night. Every day, Harlem’s future stars lined up for a chance to play here. And every day, they went home disappointed. Mike and I owned these courts. But with our senior season in the rear view mirror and the two of us heading off to college in the morning, tomorrow will be a different day. Tomorrow, someone else will actually have a chance to win.
They call these courts the Jungle because out here, you’ve got to fight to survive. This is where the best players in New York City develop, right here in Harlem, a place where life isn’t always
The usual crowd stood around the fence surrounding the Jungle during our last game before college. They shook the metal links when we dunked, when we made a shot or a great play. Their love for basketball was unfazed by time and circumstance. These one-time great players squandered college scholarships and NBA dreams for lives of drugs and crime. They were lost, sipping from bottles of beer, wondering where their dreams had gone.
Mike and I watched each other carefully, refusing to get trapped on the wrong side of the fence. We’re fraternal twin brothers, born two minutes apart at Hoffman Medical Center, just across the river from Yankee Stadium. We’ve been partners since before we could dribble straight.
My name is Tony Hope, but people around here call me “T.” People say my brother and I are gonna play in the NBA someday. Tomorrow morning we leave for college, for the University of New York. Leaving this place is gonna be the greatest and saddest thing that’s ever happened to me. I love Harlem. I just hate what it does to people.
After Mike’s dunk, we shuffled back and got set defensively. I could hear the buzz from the sidelines. “Last game for the Hope boys, huh?” I bent my knees and pulled on my shorts, palms out, feet moving, ready for oncoming traffic.
Mike slapped his hands onto the concrete and yelled, “One-nothing! Play some D now!”
I was guarding Bo Johnson, the skinny point guard whose jump shot never seemed to miss. He was dribbling casually down the court, using his body to separate me from the ball. Bo’s biggest problem was that he couldn’t dribble to his left. I slid over in anticipation of his only move.
Just as I thought, Bo faked to his left and tried to beat me to the hoop right. I was ready and waiting. I stepped into his dribbling lane and knocked the ball clean from his hands. Bo started to complain that he’d been fouled, but his whining was aimed at the back of my head. I was already off and running. Nothing stood between me and the basket.
Mike was trailing me on the fast break and there was no one else in sight. “Right behind you, T! Showtime!”
I knew exactly what to do. I pretended to go in for the lay up, but instead of scoring, I bounced the ball high off the tattered backboard and waited for Mike to snatch it from the air. He soared to the hoop, this time grabbing the basketball with his right hand and slamming the orange pill ferociously.
The crowd began shaking at the fence again, “Did you see that? He was three feet above the rim!”
Mike and I bumped chests as the ball bounced helplessly below us. We dared Bo Johnson to pick it up and try his luck again. “Perfect pass, T!” Mike grabbed me by the shirt, “Now how’s anyone gonna stop us, bro?” I smiled from ear to ear, envisioning our future as clearly as I had a thousand times before in my head.
We went on to win that game, 11 – 3. After we scored the final point, Bo Johnson threw the ball at my chest. He was always a sore loser, “That’s bull, man. Didn’t we make a rule that you and your brother couldn’t play together?”
Mike walked up to Bo confidently. He palmed Bo’s tiny head as he spoke, “I don’t remember that rule. Do you T?” “Nope, I don’t remember that rule either.” I threw the ball back to Bo, “Whose got next over here? The Hope brothers are all finished.”
Mike and I stepped off the court together for the last time. We moved toward the wood bench outside of Vinny’s Pizza. Xavier White walked toward us. “Been a great ride fellas. Make us proud.” He shook our hands and walked away as quickly as he came. I looked up and noticed a small line forming in front of us. Old friends approached one by one to wish us luck, reminding us of our responsibility to them and to Harlem. These were the same guys we’d played with since we were kids, back when they used to call me “Shorty” and the only passing lanes I would see were in between the legs of my opponents.
We started to watch the next game, quietly realizing that while our world was changing, life in Harlem would remain the same. A gust of wind flung trash through the holes in the metal links that enclosed the courts. Thirty or forty players had short conversations while they leaned against the fence or sat on a nearby bench. Younger players bounced up and down, stretching their legs, each ready to prove that he was the next great one. Tomorrow, these same guys would still be watching and waiting. Music would blast the same way as it had since we were little. Only tomorrow, Mike and I wouldn’t be there to hear it.
“You know, it’s crazy saying goodbye. I’ve got to be honest, I don’t want to leave this place.” Mike stared off into space as a few more guys from the neighborhood passed by. “I wish they had a college in Harlem with a good hoops team, I’d play here in a second.” Mike was nervous about leaving home. In eighteen years of life, we’d only left New York twice. Once to meet my great aunt Debra (who didn’t remember us anyway), and the other time was when Mom saved up enough money to send us to basketball camp in Boston. Life had been simple up until now.
With college fifteen hours away, things were about to get much more complicated. For me, leaving home was something I looked forward to. Advancing closer to my NBA dream was all I ever thought about. For Mike though, things were more complex. Don’t get me wrong, he loved basketball too. He was the captain of our team, and arguably the best player in the state. He’d also been crowned prom king, earned varsity letters in three sports, teachers loved him, and he was the most popular kid in school. Every girl I knew would blush when Mike glanced her way. I guess it’s his easy smile, or the confident way he carries himself. People in Harlem followed my brother the way they would a movie star. So when Mike told me he didn’t want to leave, I understood.
I stared into the crowded street, watching a homeless man search for scraps of food in an overstuffed garbage can. I tried to ease Mike’s worries, “We need this move. You think life is good now, just wait until we’re wearing NBA uniforms.” I smiled. “Don’t worry. We’ll come back someday.”
Steam rose up from the concrete streets. The August heat had taken over like a virus. Mike walked over to a hot dog vendor who sat in a lawn chair holding a broken umbrella. He was wiping sweat from the top of his head with an old handkerchief. Mike paid the man a dollar, slapped him five, and ate the undercooked dog in two bites. He walked back toward me, mustard running off his bottom lip, “All I’m saying T, is don’t forget where you came from. This is home. We’ve got one last night in a place we’ve spent our entire lives. Let’s make it a night we’ll remember.” Mike spoke with a determined look in his eyes.
“What do you mean?” I’d seen that expression on my brother’s face before. Like when we were eleven, and he convinced me to sneak out one night and shoot hoops in the middle of winter. He called it “an experiment of will power.” As it turned out, our will was strong, but our bodies weren’t. We both got so sick that we missed two weeks of school. And Mom punished us for two more weeks after that.
Or the time Tommy Hillson called me “stupid,” and Mike promptly broke his nose with a left hook. The next day Tommy’s dad called Mom, and we had to go over and apologize. That mistake grounded us for another two weeks. My brother had been getting me punished my whole life. Yeah, I’d seen that look before. It meant trouble.
Mike stared off into space and I repeated myself. “What do you mean? What are you gonna do?” Mike grinned mischievously. “Relax, T, I’m just going to this party tonight. You should come.”
I was never much for parties, “I don’t know. I’ve gotta
“Pack? Come on!” He pleaded with me. “Let loose a little,
who knows, maybe you’ll have some fun.”
I had a hard time saying no to my brother, “Who’s going?”
He paused. “Nick and Devon are picking me up – ”
I cut him off. “I’m not going anywhere with those guys. You
“All right Mr. Perfect, forget I said anything. I’m doing what I’m doing, you can come if you want.” Mike bumped knuckles with me and walked away. Fifty yards later, he stopped. He wagged his finger at me, speaking sarcastically, “And make sure you’re in bed by ten, Mister.” Mike and I shared a laugh as he turned the corner for home.
I stayed to watch the last game of the day at the Jungle. I couldn’t understand why he was going to a party with those two morons. Well, I wasn’t going with him. That much was for sure.
It was five o’clock already and the sun was beginning tom hide behind some of the taller buildings. I desperately wanted it to be morning. In just fifteen hours Mike and I would be sitting in our dorm room at UNY. I couldn’t wait. I bounced up from my seat, ready to begin the next chapter of my life.
During the close of school last year, a representative came out to our school promoting Go Readers. Instantly, I was excited about the whole concept… I wrote and received the grant… received my Go Readers. From the first day I introduced them to my class, they were immediately “hooked”… I have students actually begging to read. (more…)
La Jolla, CA – MVP Books, the On the Hardwood series is a winner for summer achievement. The acclaimed series, featuring 30 team bios, is being used in a variety of ways to inspire young adults to read for enjoyment. Educators have shared their positive experiences and professional acclaim. “This series gives young readers perspective [...]