Heaven is a Playground

Back around Thanksgiving, I put together a list of the ten greatest basketball books of all time.

Someone using the name "Lovetron" posted the following comment.

Dude! How can you do a list like this and fail to include Rick Telander's "Heaven Is a Playground"? It's the progenitor of all works like The Last Shot and Hoop Dreams. I read it over and over when I was young -- great evocations of street life, playground culture, the legendary feats of the likes of Fly Williams and the brothers King (Bernard and Albert).

I told Lovetron I had never read Heaven is a Playground.

Now I have.

Smart dude, that Lovetron. I'm going to have to update that list as I keep reading more books, and this one will surely be added.

So, while realizing that I may be setting some kind of record with a book review coming out when the book is more than three decades old, let me tell you about this book.

Telander is a former draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs, has been a senior writer at Sports Illustrated and has written a bunch of great stuff. Now he's a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.

This book is the tale of the summer of 1974, which Telander spent on the playground in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, learning the scene from Rodney Parker, who is sort of a poor man's William Wesley.

It's fantastic. Just the hanging around by the court stuff is worth the price of admission. This should be required reading for everyone, merely as a race relations tool. There's dialogue in here you won't read many places, including this line that touches me not because it makes some deep point, but because it's hilarious and sweet that one of the players on Telander's playground team said it this way:

I asked Martin a few days ago why he thought the Subway Stars had such trouble playing together even though they were good friends. "I don't know,” he said. "But if the ghetto didn't do something to black people, there wouldn't be much use for white people in basketball would there?”

We can all smile just a little at that, right?

But, well, get comfortable in your desk chairs, students, because I want to show you all about how this classic of sportswriting is rife with themes of sports that haunt us to this very day.

Those themes include:

  • Corruption in college basketball.

  • Street agents with unclear methods of getting compensated.

  • Players who achieve the dream of making it out of the inner city and onto a college campus, only to feel incredibly uncomfortable and bail entirely.

Corruption--An Anecdote
The book has lots of evidence of corruption in college basketball. One of the starker moments comes from a conversation between "a man was once an assistant coach at Southwest Louisiana University until that school was put on probation in 1973 for over fifty recruiting violations" and the legendary Fly Williams (who was a huge college star at Austin Peay) (1998 update on Fly Wiliams), who grew up playing, among other places, in Flatbush's Foster Park under the watchful eye of Rodney Parker.

"He says we got money at Peay!” screams Fly. "Tell him Danny, we got nothing. Going to coach for cash was like Jesus Christ to summon the devil out of hell!”

"Nobody plays fair and wins,” says the man, turning red as his shorts.

"Bulls---, we win. I wouldn't go near your campus.”

"Fly, you're stupid. Admit, they're using you and you're using them.”

"I ain't using nobody,” Fly shouts. On the benches a few of the players get up and move away.

"They're using you. They're using your ability,” yells the visitor.

"So what! I'm using the coach's ability. Man, where's your head at.”

"Think they care about you? F--- no! And you say you're going back to school-you should just take the money and run.”

Fly raises his hand and waves at the man in disgust.

The argument at an impasse, the ex-coach spouts to anyone who will listen.

"You have to cheat to win, to get to the Final Four. Give me a satchel of money and I'll get the best players in the country.”

People drift away and the man is left without an audience. Corruption, the players all know, is one thing; in the ghetto it's just another way of getting by. But yelling about it is something else.

Street Agents
Rodney Parker is fascinating. Anyone know if he's still around? Sounds like he's largely altruistic, as he seems to make most of his money in the summer of 1974, at least, by scalping tickets. His heavy involvement in the basketball scene appears to cost him a lot of money, while any income he may generate is unclear. Telander wonders openly:

Ever since I met Rodney, I have been trying to determine exactly what it is he gets from all his wheeling and dealing, why he works so hard finding downtrodden boys and sending them to schools, compiling massive phone and food bills in the process with no apparent recompense. Does he simply get money under the table for delivery? Is he looking for the one big apple to make him rich, or is it something more prestigious, that mythical "super-agent” job. Or is it simply goodwill?-Rodney the hyperthyroid samaritan in gym shoes.

I've begun to believe it's all of them, perhaps in fluctuating, unknowable degrees: Rodney the Mystery Man .”He could keep an analyst busy for years,” says Manhattan friend Bob Kalich, a part-time author. "He's an angel with unhealthy parts.”

The same topic recurs later in the book:

Personally, I was never convinced that Rodney was not actually selling his players in the fashion of the traditional flesh peddlers--dangling out talent to see which hungry scout, coach, or alumni group would pay the most. But a recent visit to agent Lew Schaffel's had shown me otherwise.

The talk around the playgrounds had been that when Fly blew the reputed $1 million no-cut Denver contract he lost Rodney at least $100,000.

"We-ell," said Lew. "Realistically, I think if Fly had done things right he could have gotten more like a no-cut $500,000, and if Rodney had signed a split-deal with an agent he could have gotten half of ten percent or about $25,000. But here we didn't offer him a thing. Nothing. Oh, we might have given him a little something as a thank you when it was all over, but he didn't even ask for money."

What was it then that Rodney wanted?

"He wanted to be Fly's friend."

A lot of what Rodney does sounds like what William Wesley is said to do. Only when we
last saw Rodney, he was still hustling tickets in the parking lot at Shea. Wesley's all black-tie and courtside.

From the Ghetto to the Campus
A trusted source with strong connections to several NBA players told me that an often overlooked factor in NCAA players bolting early for the NBA is that they hate college. They hate being in an environment where they feel out of place and stupid. They hate needing extra help from tutors just to get Cs and Ds. They are super-competitive, smart people, but in college they spend much of their day at an education game for which they are poorly prepared. They flee for the NBA not just for the money, but to get out of Economics, History, and Creative Writing.

Telander talks about the cultural gap between the ghetto and the campus, and the shocking number of players from Flatbush who achieve the dream of a college scholarship, but then return home for one reason or another without playing their four years.

Listening to the conversation, I have to wonder what college really is like for these Brooklyn youths. Away from neighborhood confines for the first extended periods of time, thrown into university environments dominated by whites with little comprehension of street behavior, the players must find themselves in strange land. Perhaps the whole personality changes to fit the surroundings; perhaps they return to smaller groups of similarly displaced blacks. At the larger, more cosmopolitan schools the change probably is not so dramatic. But at the Austin Peays and Murray States and St. Francises and Fairfields, where Rodney sends most of his players, the social climate occasionally must be so at odds with the experiences of ghetto life as to seem totally bizarre, if not incomprehensible.

A lot of players Rodney helps return home quickly, burned out. Some like Mark Harris, who went to the school in Michigan, are unable even to explain their disenchantment. Other's, like one 6'8" forward Rodney helped to a scholarship, find that the unnatural atmosphere only makes ghetto vices more tempting. That particular player became a junkie.

But the ones who remain even for a year are changed. They are stronger and more mature, with outlooks tempered by perspective. Even Fly Williams mellowed during his career, though his staus as a superstar seperated his experience from the others. And the magic of the college experience, with its dreams and possibilities of advancement, is passed on quietly to the younger boys by those who have returned. Indeed all the pep talks in the world mean nothing compared to the subtle and powerful vibrations emanating from one player who has made it.