“No referees wanted to work here when I started because they were afraid of getting punched in the mouth if they made a bad call,” says Kenny Graham, the summer basketball league director at West Fourth Street Court in Greenwich Village. He sits on a director’s chair that bears his initials. The perch is between a gate and the scorer’s table; a game is going on as coaches goad guards to make quicker decisions in what is called a panic chamber. “It was so hostile that if you made a bad call, you may not make it out of the park back then. Somebody would get in your chest and say, ‘Make that call again, man, and I’ll knock you out.’ There were a lot of personal, verbal attacks. They were very personal. As time went on I tried to encourage the players that if you hit him, I cannot co-sign that. You can’t play here anymore.”
Winners stay on, as does Graham. At 65, the retired limousine driver from the Fort Greene Houses and Fort Hamilton High wears a Yankee hat and greets all comers. This is his 40th summer overseeing back-and-forth basketball on the fenced-in court, an 11-week carnival that attracts a rollicking crowd. He takes the measure of his lot, a patch of asphalt that stretches 57 by 35 feet at the corner of West Third Street and Sixth Avenue, where players execute Euro steps next to a truck peddling Russian dumplings. Car horns are heard; buses brake. Sirens whirl; referees blow whistles.
“People complain about the sound and the noise,” Graham says. “They don’t realize this is the Village, not some tranquil beach resort.”
A graybeard named Keith Nash dons shades and goes by “Worthy.” He holds a battery-powered bullhorn to announce plays above the din. In between shots, he hawks T-shirts with West Fourth Street logos emblazoned on the front. One goes for $20; two go for $30. Business is crisp; money moves. The hustle never halts as stockbrokers, petty thieves, handball players, foreign tourists and a Caribbean church lady lean against chain-link fences that stand 15 feet high. A blonde woman with a floral tattoo along her left arm and a lighter stored between her breasts looks on. Elmer Anderson, a former player from Bedford-Stuyvesant and Boys & Girls High, calls the eclectic collection “the pu-pu platter of city ball.” The woman takes a seat in one of the 20 folding chairs that are set up each day before tipoff at 4:30 p.m. That is for the high school boys. Men take the court at 6 p.m. Chivalry is not a choice.
“If a woman comes in the park, you gotta get up,” Graham says. “I set that 30 years ago. You have to understand that it is not a conversation when we ask, it is, ‘Get up.’ After all, you do want the women to come, to patronize. Give them a forum.”
Comfort is elusive for players. Ignore the white painted lines; the black fences are out of bounds on three sides in what is called “The Cage.” Seasonal violence is on display. Pads only came to the poles after several players endured concussions from collisions. Boldface names embraced the spartan space. Anthony Mason, the former Knick, backed his derriere into defenders by the blocks. Lloyd Daniels played with a bullet in his right shoulder and a fever of 102 degrees. Mario Elie negotiated the taut straits. Joe Hammond — “The Destroyer” — wrought havoc on the rims. Harlem USA, United Brooklyn, Brownsville, Marty’s Crew and Prime Time all chased after titles against the Village Mustangs, Vice Squad, Adams Family, X-Men and Nike One.
“We were giving out 19-inch televisions for M.V.P.,” Graham says. “Everybody was like freaking out. We would say on the mic, ‘He is working on 19 inches.’ The girls were like, ‘19 inches? I want to know him!’”
Guest appearances are part of the park’s intrigue. San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich popped in twice in recent years, and new Warriors guard Swaggy P (Nick Young) wandered in to watch a game in July. League coaches turn their heads whenever playoff time comes around. They never know if NBA players like point guard Sam Worthen might appear in layup lines when stakes are at the highest.
“They would say: ‘His name is in the book,’” says Arnie Segarra, a former aide to Mayor Dinkins and coach of Segarra’s Five, which went to five title games but never won. “So that means they can come in? I let it go. We still took them into overtime. Like I could bring in LeBron James. It was fixed. It was fixed. I let it go.”
Leo Jones remains plugged in. He is the league’s electrician and live wire. At 71, he sits in the alcove by handball courts on the far side of the court. He wears low-cut Chuck Taylors in a variety of colors and gets the scoreboard going each day with an adapter and cord that wraps around a tree branch. He can be cantankerous in his corner, known as “Leo’s Lounge,” where cans are kept in brown-paper bags and rolling office chairs serve as seats. Cards are dealt; regulars congregate. Jones pays Graham’s chair a visit when “Hammer,” a former player and current coach, gets ejected. Jones inquires about the dismissal and offers “Hammer” a new home.
“Over here, they put you out,” Jones says. “You gotta keep that to a minimum in the peanut gallery, but in the lounge, you can smoke you a joint, have you some liquor, let your hair down, have some fun.”
* * *
Storefronts across Sixth Avenue advertise “Pure Seduction,” “Sins & Needles” and “Fantasy Parties,” alongside IFC Center, a Village theatre, but madcap players compete for marquee status on the municipal blacktop each day. Raconteurs regale newcomers with uproarious history lessons on site; ringers seek to establish their reputations. Then there is Raheem Wiggins. He is referred to as “Rah” and coaches the Sean Bell All Stars — the reigning champions. He wears a tattoo inked into his forearm. It reads: Dats Dem Ni—z. He is incorrigible in his carping about foul calls, roaming from his sideline to the mid-court circle to the paint. His roster is replete with players who leave government names at the gate. “Happy Feet” is a 6-foot-7 forward with a XXXL jersey and nimble moves. Wiggins watches him edge ahead with elbows out. Graham recalls Wiggins’ early histrionics. Graham tossed him out of the tourney. The next day, Wiggins wore a new shirt: “I LOVE KENNY GRAHAM.”
“That’s when I realized: he’s not a thug, he’s a character,” Graham says. “I talk to him like a father figure. I don’t yell. He listens because he realizes: if I have to argue with you, let’s go to the bank, here’s your money and I am done. I’m not here to argue.”
Graham is the arbiter. Center court is labeled “N.B.A” for “No Babies Allowed.” He monitors the scene, cognizant of past skirmishes and sucker punches. One stands out to him. Elmer Anderson thrived among the diversity, blowing by an opponent with lime-green hair one day; on another occasion, he muscled past a counterpart who got a tattoo mid-game before re-entering with gauze over his flesh art. Anderson prided himself on being alert, and noticed something askew after scoring a layup one night years ago. It was a semifinal; the park was packed. A whistle was blown after Anderson was fouled. Anderson strode to the line. Before he got there, Anderson says he saw a shadow swing toward him. It was Earl Robinson’s hand and it struck him. A cap from Anderson’s tooth flew in the air. Both benches emptied. Graham and Anderson note that Robinson retreated to the McDonald’s across the street. Graham banned Robinson a summer for the cheap shot.
“If you’re a tough guy, you do something like that and stand there,” Anderson says. “It’s like, ‘Come and get your ass whipping, then keep it moving.’”
Robinson, now a referee, says, “I don’t know anything about that.”
Metal detectors and police are part of the scene at Gersh Park in East New York and the Entertainers Basketball Classic at Rucker Park in Harlem, where Carmelo Anthony is escorted to and from his black Corvette when watching his son. No such security exists at West Fourth. Graham maintains that the denizens self-police; problems are handled internally. Tourists gravitate to the action, lining up six deep at the fence or making their way inside. Last summer, Yariv Melamed, visiting from Israel, guided his son, Elad, 14, through a tour of the city’s street ball circuit. It was a bar mitzvah gift to his son. They planned the trip a year earlier. Melamed, an instructor at the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind, marveled at the style of play and how overseas pros returned to the proving ground. He recognized Sundiata Gaines, a former Utah Jazz player who suited up for Ironi Ness Ziona in their Israeli town, 20 kilometers south of Tel Aviv, the previous season. Melamed was so taken with the West Fourth experience that he brought the rest of his family back in July.
“I was surprised refs didn’t make more calls,” Melamed says. “It surprised me pro players waiting to sign contracts risked injury playing in such tournaments.”
Physicality is showcased in multiple forms. Even Worthy, the play-by-play announcer gets involved on a Friday evening. He sits in his director’s chair by the baseline. A canopy covers him; still, tempers rise. One of his comments irks Arnell Milton, coach of Team Mega. Milton, 35, is well muscled up top. He takes exception to Worthy’s words at the half, leaning his shoulder into him and shoving Worthy, who is in socks and sandals. The announcer dismisses Milton, known as Mega Man, as “a clown.” A calm comes; the second half commences and Team Mega wins, but there is an altercation on the sidewalk afterward. Milton rushes the announcer with a right. Worthy winces. Milton, wearing a gray T-shirt that reads “The Cage Never Stops,” is banned for the rest of the summer. Worthy is handed a cigarette, and his day is done. He draws from the burning tobacco. Smoke coils up in the air as twilight approaches. Milton strolls away past 3 Sheets Saloon and Fat Black Pussycat.
“Stay in the park, Worthy,” Graham says.
* * *
“Is this park private?” says Jared Arbuckle, a 16-year-old magician with a black hat turned backward on his head. He is standing at the gate. “Can I come in?”
“Welcome to West Fourth,” Graham says. “Where are you from?”
“Upstate,” Arbuckle says.
“What part?” Graham says.
“West 61st Street,” Arbuckle says.
“My man, you’re a long way from upstate if you’re from West 61 Street,” Graham says. “That’s uptown.”
“I’m actually here for a magic show at Players Theatre,” Arbuckle says in reference to a performance venue around the corner on MacDougal Street.
“So you do magic?” Graham says.
“Have you ever seen a bill swipe?” Arbuckle says.
“I have,” Graham says.
Arbuckle counts off five single dollar bills.
“Have you ever seen money doubled in front of you like that?” Arbuckle says before snapping his fingers. Five two-dollar bills appear in place of the singles. “Every time I double them, the government has to take half away in taxes.”
Graham smiles at the grind. Arbuckle shuffles his deck, telling Graham to pick a card, from the Jack of clubs to the seven of diamonds. Arbuckle pulls it out.
“I’m very impressed,” Graham says. “I can never figure out how people do magic to be honest with you. I guess that’s why they call it magic.”
Sleight of hand is a means of survival on court. Shot making is the surest way to impress. Body control and ball movement are tested. There is a learning curve for first timers and a sloping surface to decipher. Marksmen don’t always trust the rims; many bank in shots. Shooting on the south basket at sunset can be difficult, and some guards know that to drive toward the rim by the scorer’s table allows them easier dunks as the court is lopsided. To speed up the game, the 10-second rule for advancing the ball past half court is modified to eight seconds. Edward Smith goes by “Booger.” He knew each crack and crevice as the point guard for Kenny’s Kings.
“I was sneaking on the train, hanging off the back of the bus to get to games back then,” Smith says. “It was faster than my bike.”
The A, B, C, D, E, F and M train cars rumble below the street at the subway stop outside the gate. Routes to the rim are in shorter supply and require a greater degree of craftiness. Showmen like Smith smooth their way inside, turning their hips and dipping their shoulders. Smith, 5-foot-8, 148 pounds and quicker than a 10-day contract, was adept at distributing the ball, but he never put together the academics necessary for big-time ball. Shot twice by the time he turned 21, there was a pit stop at a junior college in Yuma and a starring role in “Soul in the Hole,” a documentary that came out 20 years ago this summer. His best performances featured deception.
“He’d put the ball behind your head and shoot it from behind your head in the game,” Westinghouse High coach Everett Kelley says. “We used to go up to the jails to play against inmates so that inmates could see some of the guys from the neighborhood. My uncle, the first time I ever met him, was at Sing Sing. We took Booger up to Sing Sing and he was more of a celebrity going into a jail where people who were locked up for years, who had only heard the stories of this kid.”
Booger bounces around the Fort Greene Houses to this day. On one recent Manhattan night he wears a Knicks hat with an orange brim and white tribute T-shirt for the late point guard Pearl Washington. The shirt reads: “Player for Life.”
“Booger was terrific but undersized,” Graham says. “Booger couldn’t guard anybody so when they played the good teams they just did post ups and clear outs.”
Tricksters continue to train their attention on the park. Arbuckle checks back in with Graham as the Usual Suspects pick up a victory on court.
“I’m just going to try and make some money by doing magic over here. Is that okay?” he says.
“Sure, man,” Graham says. “You’ve earned that.”
“I’ll be around,” Arbuckle says. “Only money I have is that trick. Been trying to go around to get money. I’m trying to hustle.”
* * *
The court is positively located on West Third Street, not West Fourth. That never changes. There are no lights, though Graham would welcome the addition of a few with a timer that goes off at 10 p.m. The denouement of each doubleheader comes at dusk, and Graham knows growth opportunities are limited. He squeezes as much as he can into available square footage. At the park’s north end, Golden Swan Garden — filled with dogwoods, a spruce, a redwood and a magnolia — offers shade. There is also a memorial to an Irish saloon, The Golden Swan, known as The Hell Hole. Prizefighter Thomas Wallace ran the dive bar with sawdust on the floor; playwright Eugene O’Neill drank 20-cent sherry on site during Prohibition. The tavern was demolished in 1928 for construction of the Sixth Avenue subway. It was turned into a playground at first before devolving into a bedraggled open patch of asphalt. In 1999, Mayor Giuliani gave the garden a green light. The court was left untouched.
“It would take an act of God to get that space to make the court longer,” Graham says. “So it is not a pressing issue for me.”
The Village is forever evolving around the park fences, from the clubs to the clientele. Graham was born on Valentine’s Day in 1952, and is nostalgic for a New York where parking meters were 10 cents and it only took 75 cents to see the Knicks at the Garden on 50th Street. He remembers his earliest rides into the compact park as a grocery delivery boy on a bicycle after school. He used to stop by and watch before working up the courage to compete in pickup games on court. His first sport was baseball: first base and catcher. He then played linebacker and tackle in football. He found fundamentals most pleasing in basketball. He boxed out, set picks and hoarded rebounds. He couldn’t shoot, but was always picked because of his height.
“I would stop a guy from doing what he does well,” he says.
Graham notes the “authentic fear” that players carried. Losing meant leaving the court without a certainty that they would return. Graham eventually served as a referee at multiple tourneys and took the reins of the West Fourth league with Mike Williams. It was called Graham Inc. The next year, Williams, then an assistant coach for Tom Penders at Fordham, ended up getting a coaching job at Colorado College. Graham took full responsibility for the league. Trading elbows in a pickup game with Wilt Cunningham, a sales rep for Converse, led to free T-shirts for teams. There was also a hookup at Converse outlets to get sneakers at a discount. As popularity grew, Graham’s league attracted Olde English as a sponsor for three summers. Nobody Beats the Wiz allowed Graham to award television sets for the champions and M.V.P.
“I didn’t need any more trophies,” says Mario Elie, a three-time NBA champion. “Just had to figure out how to get the TV set home then.”
Memories of troubles dribble in, as well. Graham points to an isolated incident in the early years. There were Irish and Italian Village residents upset with Graham and company running the court activities. One morning, Graham arrived at the court to find cooking grease spread over it, concentrated in the three-second area. Graham and his associates tracked down lye and bleach. They dumped it on the court and scrubbed it down to get the court ready for play.
“It only happened one time because the Italian guys that I knew, they addressed it,” Graham says. “They said, ‘Hey, whoever did it, don’t do it again.’
In those days, when those Italians said it, it didn’t happen again.”
Graham’s imprint on the park is indelible. When he first came to the Village, it was all hippies and bikers, artists sitting on the street doing portraits. They gravitated to the park at the end of the day, hung up their pieces of flair on the fence to make a flea market at night. He would come out at 1 p.m., stay until 11 p.m. He parked in a lot two blocks away before all the parking was taken away for building construction. Eighth Street was all shoe stores. There was a clothing store called The Stag, where Graham bought leather jackets, leather pants and big boots. There was a popular club called The Paradise Garage. Graham would go there on a Friday night.
“All the people that left the Garage would be sleeping on the benches here at 10 a.m. when I got here to to set up,” he says. “They would get up, help me unload. I’d buy them all breakfast.”
Progress is marked in multiple ways. On Oct. 20, 2015, Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver joined several Knicks, including Carmelo Anthony, at a ribbon cutting ceremony on the court. Improvements included a court resurfacing and painting, as well as a donation of new backboards, rims, nets and branded pole pads. Graham, once a parks department employee, eyes it all, pointing to a red-brick building that was once abandoned. Cats used to lay out in the sun on windowsills. The seven-story edifice now commands more than a million dollars on the market.
“You get attached to this park,” he says. “Most of the guys who come out here they don’t leave.”
* * *
“You see how hard they are breathing?” says Keni McRae, a retired referee who first threw up a ball at West Fourth in 1976. He sits at the scorer’s table as the Old Timers Day game plays out before him. He keeps his cane by his side, and old heads like Black Jack Ryan and Anthony Sherman, known as “Sherm” or “The Mayor,” miss shots, flail on defense and fail to run down outlet passes. “Somebody in the back said the whole black team is shaving points they’re missing so many shots.”
Some call it “The Legends Game.” Others call it “The Bricklayers Classic.” Two gold balloons are affixed to the fence by the entrance. They read: “40.” Ryan, a one-time whirl out of Windsor Terrace who almost wound up homeless in his 30s before spinning balls for the Harlem Wizards worldwide, wears a tattoo on his left leg. It is a leprechaun with the right fist ready to fight and a red, white and blue ball rotating on the index finger of the left hand. His right leg is inked with a “West 4th” logo and Graham’s name. Ryan is familiar with all of the court’s challenges, knowing from his younger days that it is easier to dunk when driving to the rim on the right side by the entrance because the court slopes down to the left. He re-traces his first trip to the court, across the Brooklyn Bridge on bicycle with his basketball tucked in beneath his seat. He parked the bike on the side of the court. When game action took players to one side of the court, Ryan raced to the other rim and threw down a dunk. He used to name his dunks. “The Jackie Ryan Funk Dunk” was one. Sherman took note.
“Uh oh, we got a white boy dunking!” Sherman shouted. “He’s only six feet!”
Ryan, 56, got on the next game.
“That was heaven,” he says.
Tributes are paid to Worthy, Doc and other regulars. There is a wooden bench that is dedicated to Segarra, as well. It is between the basketball and handball courts. He is a septuagenarian now, still coming daily. He grew up in the Johnson Houses of East Harlem and played basketball at Benjamin Franklin High. His last high school game was a loss to Boys High at the Garden. Graham calls him “our George Steinbrenner,” for his ability to deal with city permits and sound complaints to the sixth precinct. Segarra wears dark shades, blending in as a Village bon vivant.
“I had my first jump shot here in 1967,” Segarra says. “When NYU was ranked among the top 10.”
Vintage is always en vogue in the Village. Some arguments are ageless for the veterans. Les Pines, the long-time coach of the Village Mustangs, paces the sideline. His nickname is “The Beggar,” for his penchant to beg officials for calls. Sherman is heard, as well. He pounces on an opportunity to voice his displeasure at a referee.
“Clear your glasses!” Sherman shouts. “Clear your glasses!
Graham observes from his chair. His father, Amos, is a retired porter and 90 years old. He sits next to him in his own director’s chair. Graham, a grandfather of three, likes to get away when the summer is over. There used to be staff trips to the Bahamas. He speaks both Portuguese and Spanish, honing his language skills on frequent trips to Brazil and the Dominican Republic. The clock ticks away. There are tables and chairs to break down. There are also 18 televisions that measure 32 inches to be given out to the Brooklyn Stompers, the league champions. He looks out through the chain-link fences as the city swirls around him.
“I love New York. It will always be my home,” he says, “but I also love getting the hell out of here.”