This is a story of ball in South Florida. From my first experiences with it to today, where I have stumbled into some of the most competitive and diverse talent any area of the country has seen.
I began my basketball life playing in New Jersey on the streets, in summer leagues, for my high-school team and anywhere else I could get a game in my ball life infancy. While I bypassed college ball opportunities to lend my support to my sick father (see last post for that story) in a different state, coming to Florida showed another type of basketball culture, much different from the NY/NJ area I was from. It has evolved since the 90's and now Florida is also known as a "basketball" state as opposed to just the "football" state it was known as for so long. Thanks to the Heat and the Gators, Florida now has a championship pedigree that can't be overlooked and the state's ball players on the high-school level are finally moving into national notoriety.
Street basketball in Florida is SO different than NY/NJ ball. When I came here and began trying to find decent runs, I was amazed at how few good players there were in my area. I would travel the entire county (Palm Beach County is pretty large , for the out of towner's) looking for decent games and really found nowhere that held promise of good, intense competition. It took me a while but I finally came to realize that most of the good players didn't play outdoors here. The 90+ degree days just seemed to much for these guys, which I found amusing. All we did back in my old neighborhoods in NJ was run games from after school to 11:00p on school nights and weather was never an issue. Rain, snow, whatever. We balled. Here, cats would run at the first sign of rain. And if you did get an outdoor game, these dudes looked like they would be dead on another fast break take off.
So, after about 5 years of searching and running into some decent games now and again, my best friend, Rich, told me that he had found a court in Boca Raton that ran games Saturday and Sunday mornings every week and there were a group of guys that played there each week. Rich has been my basketball prodigy/project. He's a few years younger than me. He's left-handed like me. But unlike me, he always lacked self-confidence and the fire to be a "killer". It's taken about 15 years, but he's finally just about there. But the old dog doesn't give him all his tricks. He still bows down to the man when I have to set him straight if he get's a little too happy.
So anyway, I was curious. But initially, I wasn't too thrilled with two of the things that he said. One was, it was an "older" crowd and they only ran half-court games. Just what I didn't need. A bunch of old guys who didn't want to run. This couldn't be good. Or so I thought.
So the following weekend (in 1994) Rich and I made our way to this park in Boca Raton one Saturday morning. Boca is a rich man's paradise, for anyone who doesn't know it's "rich" history. It has it's own culture, and you are an outcast if you are not a part of it. Strange people, weird thought processes but a nicer kept area of the Palm Beach County you will not find. Just have money or be a professional of some kind to feel comfortable there. So we got to the park, 7:30a, and to my complete surprise there were about 20 guys, in all age ranges and sizes, playing 4 on 4 half-court ball on 3 different courts. My eyes were barely open at this point, and these dudes were in heated competition at the crack of dawn. I was shocked. And being 24, and knowing I had a strong game, I was eager to show these dudes what I could do. Once Rich and I got on one of the courts and picked up two other guys to run with us, I was surprised at how "different" these dudes played. It wasn't like the normal street ball game. There was cutting, pick and rolls, backdoor plays, box-outs and all the things I had learned in my growing-up basketball life, that is rarely seen in streetball. It was like an epiphany. How did this out of the way park, surrounded by huge trees and beautiful grounds, stay hidden away for all this time? Over time I learned that the guys that played here, created the "hidden" culture almost 15 years before and that some of these "breakfast club" ballers had been playing together since their late teens. The average street ball player didn't want to be awake and ballin' at sunrise, so keeping the games in-between this "brotherhood" was more out of "love" than as a chore.
So time passed, the weekend games became a ritual and with the exception of the stray "rain" day, Saturday and Sunday mornings became reserved for ball. I still played weeknights up in my area of the county and ran league games too, but the weekend morning games became more and more entertaining to me. Getting to know the guys, playing against better competition and the promise of early morning work-outs were all good to me. For the first year or so, we were looked upon as the "new guys". We weren't the youngest guys there, but we were easily the two best players under 30. We started to bring some of our playing partners from our area with us now and again, and eventually some of them became "regulars". At one point (probably 2000 or 2001)the older guys had lost their hold on the courts they once dominated and the "new guys" were now the lions that ran the pride.
There are 4 groups of players at this park. "The Originals" who today, consist of guys in their early to late 40's and a stray 50 something here and there and play a very ground-based, high-execution, physical type of game. There are a lot of "nice" players in that group, regardless of the ages. There is another group, " the Boca Boys", who consist of the young players at the park (18-25) who probably are the best athletes but are not quite there yet on the experience and mental tip. They also have the most "pretty" games where any type of contact is either a foul or a cause for argument. They're also the easiest group of guys to put an ass-whipping on. Young and dumb. I like those guys the most. Then there is the "ancient" group. The guys are in their 50's & 60's and there is even a 70+ year old man who is there every week. It's funny to watch them, but the old guys know the game and you can gleam a ton of knowledge from them. Sweet old guys, some with potent set-shots and some who get REALLY intense in their games. Finally, there is the group of guys I play in. There's no nickname for the group. We just play. The pro's that come through. They run with us. Jason Taylor rides up on a Sunday morning in April, he's coming to us. Tim Hardaway shows up with 2 cats from his Pit Bull ABA team, they ran against us. There are some rough players in this group. Do not be gunshy or unsure of your game. You will get embarrassed. Between those 4 groups there is probably 50 to 60 players that come through EVERY week.
One of the things I realized about the guys that played there pretty quickly was that their playing backgrounds were as diversified as the styles of game present. Among the lawyers, doctors, pilots, former athletes, real estate moguls and everyday schmoes stood a collection of basketball greatness that wasn't put out to a newcomer until they accepted you into the fold. There were European league players, 2 former members of the French National Team, a former Kentucky Wildcat pf, 3 former Miami Dolphin players, Wally Sexybacks father (I know, but dude has a game), 2 Florida Panthers players. And these guys were the "regulars". Several players that came during the off-season from current NFL, NBA and NCAA ball teams that have contact with the various "professionals" come through, aren't bothered, play some games and left with little fanfare. The guys respect them for their profession's and that's why they return each year.
Among the NBA guys that have passed through each off-season, retired and active, Jamal Mashburn, Udonis Haslem, Jason Williams (Eboy), Anthony Carter, Caron & Rasual Butler (on the same weekend), Anthony Mason, Jon Sundvold, Glen Rice, Wally Sexyback (shot lights out for a month straight with his father doing the same) Paul Pierce and probably 10 to 15 other guys I can't remember or wasn't at the courts on those other days. Some of the NBA guys just showed up as a "favor" to their lawyer or their doctor or real estate agent and barely tried, while others showed up to meet a former running buddy and actually played at a high-level. I've never known what to expect. I've played against these guys, met some of them off-the court socially and have been privileged enough to call some of these guys acquaintances. I've been blessed from a basketball fans point of view. And even more so from a players point of view as well.
My game evolved over these last 12 years. I went from a driving/slashing two guard, to now, where most of my time is either spent in the post playing more of a power forward role (2 guard footwork helps tremendously when playing guys 4 or 5 inches bigger than me) or stepping out on the perimeter with a deadly mid-range game. Playing against the NBA cats's is a continued master class each off-season and the continued addition of "new blood" to the morning crew has kept my game, even at 37, at an extremely high level. I've brought friends, co-workers, family from out of town, all of whom thought they could play and once we left the park, the response is usually the same. "Damn, that shit is rough". At the end of the day, the guys are like a big family. We know each other's wive's and kids, help each other in the business world, if someone gets an ailment guys are quick to offer a hand if need be. It's a beautiful connection of race, religion, etc. White players, black players, Spanish players, Europeans, whatever, for those 4 hours each weekend day, outside lives are put aside, ball takes center stage and fun and the spirit of competition takes over. I can still go back to that first day, pulling up to the courts and not knowing what to expect, and then moving to the present and seeing how, as time has passed the players have aged some, the knee braces become more prevalent and the group has expanded but the game, in it's purest form, stays the same.