Nike party even had basketball
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

It's secret party night in L.A. and for once in your life you're in on it. It's elite game night and you're invited. It's the Nike Battlegrounds King of the Court Tournament, it's hoops in the Hollywood hills and you've got tickets to the show.

The man on the other end of the line tells you cars will start leaving from the W hotel in Westwood at 8 p.m. You're there at 8:15, wishing you'd thought to wear black, wondering if maybe the waterfall staircase at the W is done with mirrors, thinking, either way, this is the kind of goofy little decadent touch the rest of the world hates us for, and then thinking: to hell with them -- the staircase is cool.

Nike Battleground
There was some basketball at this tournament, not that anyone cared.
Twenty minutes later you're hurried into an Escalade and heading up into the hills. At this point, you try to be cool, act like you've been in an Escalade before, act like this ain't nothing but a thing. And you pull it off, more or less. There's a brief moment when you're rubbing your hands over the seat leather the way a pre-pubescent paws at a girl's bra, but you're pretty sure no one saw it.

There are twists and turns on dark streets lined with the kind of houses you only ever see in magazines, and valets -- literally dozens of them -- line the sidewalks for no other reason than to help put the P in Posh and the La in La-Dee-Da.

The car stops. You step out onto a red carpet laid out over a cobblestone driveway. You smile and wave, but you're taking no questions tonight (not least because nobody's asking). Just want to soak up the scene, bask in the light, and move toward the music.

It's the Bernini estate (the Bernini brothers sell high-end furniture, or some such thing, you think) and it doesn't take you long to figure out they're doing all right. Corinthian columns and arches, manicured lawns, pampered roses, fountains and chandeliers, a pool house built to house the Bradfords and the Bradies both, and a pool you'd expect to find at Caesar's, glowing with those little floating candles that say somebody's gonna get nekkid tonight.

Everywhere you look you see candidates -- swank, sexy, skinnyfattallshort beautiful people wearing leather, showing a little skin, flashing the pearlies and striking the poses. If the Matrix were a party picture, it would look like this, everyone all fierce, smooth and slow-motion graceful. Brothers and sisters, cats and dogs, supastahs and everyday people -- everyone's looking fine.

You make your way to one of four open bars, behind which a delightful young lady is finishing up a round of drink-slinging stretches. "It's gonna be that kind of party, eh?" you say. "Gotta stay loose," she says, and pours you a gin-and-tonic. Amen sister. Behind you, the antipasta is being laid out on long tables by the side of the pool. Next to you, a broad-shouldered man reaching across the bar for a JD leans your way and says, "I swear to God, Dog, there are so many fine women here, it's overwhelming. I'm lost. I don't know which way to turn." You pat him on the back and tell him, it's like Stevie says, "Don't you worry 'bout a thing," and then tell him, like the delightful young lady behind the bar says, you just "gotta stay loose."

Missy Elliott
If the Misdemeanor is in the house, then it has to be the place to be.
You try to take her advice, too, while you do the party thing: move through the crowd just slightly off-balance, enjoying the bumps and swerves, the it's-all-good intimacy of strangers on a happy train. The music coming off the turntables (EQ and Kid Capri are the DJs, you learn later) is a libation, and like everyone around you, you're bobbing and weaving with it, playing fast and loose with your reflexes and inhibitions.

But sweet as all this is, it ain't the thing tonight. The thing tonight is ball, hoops, cage-match one-on-one, right in the middle of this fancy soiree. It's Round 1 of the Nike Battleground mano-a-mano streetball tourney -- 32 players going single-elimination and going for each other's throats, with their eyes on a prize of up to $35K and a one-year Nike gear contract.

For Nike, it's a night to promote their hip-hop, playground-inflected Battleground brand (summer leagues, shoes, shirts, hats, etc.). For the players, most of whom have played some college ball somewhere along the way, it's maybe a chance to make their mark and definitely a chance, as Gary Payton tells you later that night, "to be the guy, to be the legend." For you, it's what the Beasties might call a BBall Bouillabaisse, a dizzying convergence of decked-out party scene and game-face throwdown, of high heels and high tops.

You're looking at the courts and you're thinking about the one-on-one you know. You're thinking how hours, days and weekends were happily lost to it when you were a backyard kid perfecting moves and staking claims. You remember little pebbles of dirt on your fingertips, and the way you played the odd angles where the garage met the house and the driveway met the garden's edge. You think about simple, stripped-down games that helped you figure out what you were capable of: What sorts of blows you could deliver; what sorts of blows you could absorb. How much did you want what you wanted, and what kind of body- and mind-twisting could you bring off to get it? You played at toughness and fearlessness in one-on-one. You built friendships, rivalries, and a sense of yourself in it. It was basic, elemental stuff.

On the face of it, this game tonight ain't that game. It's courts in paint-it-black cages, electronic scoreboards and refs, silver-and-black balls and flame-burst torches burning above the courts. It's mixed drinks, asparagus spears, calamari, and chocolate-dipped strawberries carried around on trays. It's a cigar bar. It's everybody on the work crew dressed out in Swoosh gear and everybody else just plain dressed out. It's GP and his boys making the scene with Devean George. It's newly-crowned world champ Bruce Bowen reuniting with old friends, and Sue Bird looking fierce and fine. It's Missy Elliott doing a no-interviews/no-access star turn off in the corner, and Justin Timberlake doing a no-show. It's John Salley on the mic like he's working a celebrity roast. It's watch the game from plush courtside couches. It's cell phones, walkie-talkies, scores of cameras and tape recorders. It's rump-shaking, flirting, and stargazing. And it's ball, not so much at the center, but in the midst of everything.

John Salley, Gary Payton, Bill Bellamy
Have no fear Salley, GP and Bill are here.
It jars you at first. Can the game be the game on this night and in this light, you wonder? Can it be true, wrapped up in all this glamour and party madness? (Can you really be here at this shindig anyway? Can those really be torches? And can John Salley really be that tall?)

Payton tells you not to sweat it. "That's how it gotta go tonight, is all," he says. And sure enough, as the night and the games go on, the question falls away for you. Part of it is you'd follow Payton into war, part of it is the gin and tonic, but most of it is the chest-thumping intensity the players bring to things.

John Salley tells you streetball and one-on-one are the most competitive brand of hoops "because when you step on the court, you've got nothing but yourself." You see it in Bruce Wheatley, who is 35 and working a big-shoulder-up-and-under game like he's 19. And Ty Merriweather, who tells you after he's advanced to the next round that he's "just not gonna lose," is earnest and pumped.

All the guys are. Their games are sometimes ragged, their wind sometimes short, but their hearts are straight and true. You watch them and you start to identify, start to recognize the game you know.

Now the music, the food and the ball are hitting you like an everlasting gobstopper, chock-full of funky flavor blends and hours of fun. You watch a man and woman dance to Kid Capri's mix and you see the music in the way offense meets defense in the cage. Two players bump on the block and you see in it the bold, give-no-quarter land grabbing that goes on when somebody is shaking their groove thing on the dance floor.

Nike Battleground
One more time in case you forgot -- this was a hoops tournament.
The games go by quickly. Eight players, including Wheatley and Merriweather, advance to the next round, to be held this coming Saturday at Venice Beach. When it's over, one of the cages fills up with people dancing -- and some let's-get-it-on dancing, too -- and the other has a ball lying in the corner, waiting on you.

You want to dance, you want to climb into the cage and shoot around. You want to move what little you got like you were trying to make space to get off a jumper, and you want to dribble in time with the tunes.

You want to fall onto the couch and take it all in, too. Sip on some cranberry juice, maybe. Toss back another popcorn shrimp or eight, perhaps. And feel the crazy, stream-crossing nuttiness of the night and be good with it.

And most of all, what you want to do is tell somebody about what you've seen: "There were fountains and streetballers, Berninis and Elliotts, I tell you. There were hors d'oeuvres and entrees, DJs and GPs," you want to say.

You want to say all of this and more, but you don't. You keep your mouth shut, because no one would believe you.

Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.



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