Surviving the Cage: A Newbie Steps Onto the West 4th Street Courts
Bedford + Bowery, September 2018. Find the original article here.
Photo: Courtesy of Mathew Silver
The West 4th Street Courts are some of the most fearsome in New York City; their reputation for physical play and cutthroat competition is the stuff of documentaries. They’re known as “The Cage,” which helps describe the four towering walls of chain-link fence that surround them, along with the openly hostile territory inside. It’s said that none other than NBA legend Julius Erving used to play here in his heyday. I, on the other hand, was cut from my high school basketball team (in Canada, no less). So, I rolled up to The Cage with a freshly bought basketball, and more courage than actual talent.
I spent most of my summer playing on the outdoor courts in Toronto, so I figured (somewhat foolishly) that the blacktop in New York would be the next logical progression in my amateur hoops career. I’m white and just a shade above 6’0”; dressed like the archetype of a phony ballplayer, complete with a backwards white hat and goofy mid-length socks; and would have rated my post-vacation, pre-graduate fitness level as six Budweisers out of ten. As such, I had only one rule as I slipped off my backpack and sat against the steely barrier alongside the court: sit down and shut up until you get your opportunity.
While I watched my first game of the day, there was one particular character that stood out because of his physical presence and incessant smack talk. He was about 6’4” and sculpted like Adonis, with blue and purple shoes that evoked the glow and darkness of the cosmos, ¾ dark Dickies jeans that he wore over his basketball shorts, and a mile-wide smile that often peeked out from underneath his dense, grizzly beard. Let’s just call him “The Magic Man,” for his ability to simultaneously delight and disarm with his own version of a street performance.
“Who’s covering the Chinese guy?” the Magic Man, who was black, shouted loudly in reference to a player that obviously wasn’t of Asian descent. The audience chuckled.
“What’s with all the dancing? I don’t hear no damn music!” he remarked to a player on the opposite team that was doing some fancy but ineffective dribbling.
And to a young boy, who was responsible for grabbing water for everyone from the local 7-Eleven: “Boy, shut your mouth. We live on the same street. Don’t make me come over there and shut your cable off.” It was all in good fun and to the amusement of the fans, who could be overheard repeating his quips on the other side of the fence.
It wasn’t long before a shaggy-haired skater punk, who later earned the name “Brandon Lee” because of his resemblance to Bruce Lee’s late son, asked me if I wanted to join his team. Time would reveal that Mr. Lee was an altogether terrible player, launching up long, ill-advised three pointers that sometimes cleared the top of the backboard. He seemed blithely unaware of his own abilities. His nickname (people kept yelling out “It’s The Crow!” when he touched the ball) was an insult, and I was about to earn my own moniker too.
As I walked onto the court my legs were leaden, so I performed a couple of those one-footed thigh stretches where you grab your ankle and pull your heel up to your backside. This is a pro-level amateur move that can give you the appearance of a real athlete if performed with a certain level of nonchalance. Remember that the performance starts long before the ball is in play.
I crouched into a convincing defensive position and avoided getting embarrassed for a couple possessions. These guys drive aggressively to the rack and taunt, “That’s mine, bitch” after the play. I’m timid, but eventually I received a pass along the left side of the court, approximately 12 feet from the hoop. I launched an unconvincing shot that sailed well over the far side of the rim without bothering to hit the backboard. Air ball.
As I retreated on defense, I heard some murmuring from the sideline. There’s a shady patch along the side of the court, where a group of cranky older gentlemen sit with newspapers and offer their unsolicited commentary throughout the day. These men form their own little peanut gallery, shouting snarky one-liners that delight onlookers at the expense of those brave enough to take the court. They are, for better or worse, the gatekeepers of the good and bad, critics that separate the bona fide from the boneheaded, and as such, these grouchy men in sales rack t-shirts and oversized adult shorts are essential to the integrity of the court. They immediately had my number.
It wasn’t until I missed a wide-open layup that the crowd fully turned on me. The aforementioned water boy, undoubtedly inspired by the brashness of the court elders, openly mocked me with a “Ha ha!” like Nelson’s catchphrase from The Simpsons. Overcome by deep-seated shame, I didn’t bother to look over and see if he was also pointing at me. He probably was.
One more bad shot and my reputation was unsalvageable; I wouldn’t be able to use a public restroom within three blocks of this place, let alone join in for a game of basketball. On the bright side, it couldn’t get any worse, which is one of the few unexpected and redeeming qualities of truly hitting rock bottom. I decided to shoot the next time I got the ball – no matter what.
In the meantime, I was overjoyed with everything happening around me. The talent. The trash talk. The unnecessary maneuvers that would have clean-cut college coaches hoarse with anger and bursting out of their neckties. Backwards, between-the-legs passes. Selfish pull up jumpers from just inside half court. Bigtime players with even bigger egos.
The Magic Man hit me with a pass and I drained a shaky little jumper from the left. The critics, who were undoubtedly hoping I would miss, quieted. Then I turned a lucky rebound into a soft layup from the right. My defender didn’t bother to box me out. I followed that up with another splash from the offside. Still no defender, he didn’t respect me – yet.
“That’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout, Baywatch. Nice shot,” said The Magic Man. Now I was his go-to guy and had even earned a nickname… but “Baywatch”??? I could only hope they were referring to the TV series that ran through the ’90s, and not the bloated and lifeless piece of Hollywood schlock that washed up in 2017. Either way, I would take it.
I caught another pass. This time the defender bit. Pump fake. Dribble right. Pull up. Money.
Everybody went nuts. BAYWATCH!!!!!! YA BAAAAAABY!!!! they screamed with a mix of excitement and disbelief.
A dude shouted from across the court, “Hey, that’s the guy from White Men Can’t Jump. Woody, right?” He was referring to, of course, Woody Harrelson in the 1992 Spike Lee basketball classic. This was a tremendous compliment, mostly because I hold Woody in high esteem among actors that have stayed relevant long past reasonable expectations.
“Baywatch only plays focused,” said another man clinging to the fence. This is a wildly inaccurate description of my usual on-court demeanor, but that day it might have been true. I wasn’t Mathew Silver, last ditched from Western Canada High School’s senior team (take that, Mr. Wiebe!). On this sole-melting, skin-blistering day in early September, I was a gutsy, unflappable, trigger-happy stranger with deadly on-court marksmanship. I was Baywatch.
No longer a nameless imposter running the length of the court among giants, I had transcended mediocrity and entered into pop culture. I had a nickname and thus – dare I say it? – street cred. I understand that using this term immediately precludes me from possessing it, but that’s the entire point!!! But if there was some schmaltzy, overarching lesson to be learned from this anecdote, it might just be that people ACTUALLY still remember Brandon Lee and The Crow??? New Yorkers remember some random stuff.