Jan 15, 2009 Walt Shepperd Uncategorized
Downtown is quiet on Sundays. When several inches of snow drifting to a couple of feet, and temperatures barely into the teens are added, a trek to the Southside brings on a pastoral silence. Turning onto South Avenue from West Onondaga, the tree is gone, but the plaque noting that under it Horace Greeley and two friends founded the Republican Party stands out in the cold.
A blue street sign under the traditional greens announces that this stretch of thoroughfare is now Rosa Parks Way, and more than 80 houses rehabbed by Jubilee Homes stand testimony that deterioration can be reversed. The once thriving business district two blocks further has not caught the spirit nor the funding, but, just before crossing Daisy, the JA Jams sound system is pulsing through the gym wall at the Southwest Community Center.
It’s just past noon, and the gym, fresh from a six-figure rehabilitation by the Parks Department, is already half full. Players who have arrived early for their scheduled games later in the day begin talking stuff, just loud enough to be heard by those peeling off their warm-up suits for the first of a four contest line-up.
“Game time,” one player calls back to the crowd with an edge in his voice. “Time to get serious.”
And serious it gets, as players search through coat pockets to chip in to cover fees for the referees, scorer’s table staff and sound. But the handshakes before the first whistle, the smiles and competitive good wishes are distinctly genuine. These folks have mostly grown up with each other, checked each other countless times on city playgrounds, and, in many instances, waged legendary battles on local high school courts.
Now they are all over 40 (the oldest, John “Daddy Wags” Wagner is 62), the requisite to qualify for the eleventh season of the Baby Boomers Basketball League. The first game pits Battle Florist against the Syracuse OGees (an affectionate use of the Old Gangsta reference). The pace is quick: an opening hard fought follow underneath, then alternate interceptions before three clean swishes answering each other from respective downtowns.
Ed Mitchell sits at the scorer’s table, programming the gym’s new electronic scoreboard. He coordinates the league along with James “Puddin'” Jackson and coaches B&B Lounge, which finished second last year to Ballard Construction. B&B has only lost one game this season, but Mitchell is already talking about next year, for which he has recruited Derrick “DJ Showcase” Dorsey and Jimmy Hunter, both of whom played for Mitchell when he coached Pioneer Homes to championships in the Metro League and the Donny Fielder Tournament, before both of them joined high school teams.
The OGees are up by 15 at halftime, and the talk in team huddles turns emotional. “Too emotional for an over 40 league,” Mitchell reflects. “Some people are reliving their dreams.” Through it all the refs are unruffled. When Battle Florist calls timeout with the OGees ahead by 19, Joe Parks blasts “Nevah Gon Giddit” through his courtside speakers. From the scorer’s table, Mitchell admonishes both players and spectators to keep the trash-talk within bounds. On the court, OGees’ Tony Ford, All-State at Nottingham and a stalwart at OCC, brings a steadying influence to the often playground style pace of the game.
In the second game, Next Level handles The Cuse Boyz, despite the multi-talents displayed by Karl Newton, running point, posting up, working a rarely seen give and go, in a losing cause. With Ford, Newton played for Central Village against Mitchell’s Pioneers, before toiling for Henninger and in college at Norfolk State in Virginia.
There is no shot clock in the BBBL, but no one holds the ball too long. Each game consists of 20 minute running halves, with the clock running through foul shooting, but stopped during the last minute of the first half and the last two minutes of the second. Some players don’t join the strategy huddle during timeouts. “I’m tired of that same old,” one tells Mitchell during a break in the action with his team behind by 12. “Let them figure it out.”
Ballard, last year’s champs, brings a constellation of former local stars onto the court for the third game. The roster includes Nottingham and SUNY star Pony Bullock; Bobby Chestnut, a standout at Le Moyne; and Gary Sparks, whose exploits are recalled from Nottingham, Canton and Potsdam, and four years playing pro in Europe. “And they’re still recruiting,” an opponent reflects. Many in the now filled stands have come to see the latest recruit, former Corcoran and SU standout Howard Triche.
Triche, looking like he’s in shape, playing smart, and playing lots of defense [not always a BBBL priority], made it plain he was having lots of fun. As Ballard, leading 32 to 7 with two minutes left in the first half, put on a full-court press, Mitchell sighs, “They ought to call this one. The league doesn’t have a mercy rule (to end a game when one team gets ridiculously far ahead) but we need one.” Ballard lights up the new scoreboard with a final of 70 to 20.
Mitchell shifts over to the B&B bench for the day’s final game a 61 to 47 triumph over International, a clothing and barber shop on North Salina Street. “We only lost to Ballard by four,” he reflects after the game. “We’ll see them again before the playoffs,” he says, but admits that game had been played before Triche made his BBBL debut.
“See this community,” Jackson says, spreading his arms to encompass the crowd as it files out. “We get this every week.”