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"What are we in? What are we in?" Coach Chaz Dudley yells at his players on a recent Sunday, reminding them to, for God's sake, play some defense. "'What are we in?' We's in a blowout," booms West 4th Street's announcer, a soft chuckle falling out of his bullhorn. As if the fans, who are from around the world, care who wins. Their fingers are locked into the chain-link fence that surrounds the venerable basketball court so they can get a front-row view of America's street game. They're not clinging to the fence to watch defense. If they hang on long enough, they might pick up a vibration from a rim-rattlin' dunk.
At the present time, they're looking at the Future. Malloy Nesmith, who goes by that moniker and achieved basketball stardom in the slick sneaker commercial of ball-handling prowess that airs during televised pro hoops, runs with Dudley's team, Chaz Hoop. The prime time for players like the Future is right now, during the West 4th Street Summer Pro-Classic League, now in its 23rd year.
Across Sixth Avenue from the Waverly Theatre, a bounce pass away from the Fat Black Pussycat Bar and right at the top of the steps of a subway stop, the Cage features some of the finest street ball in the country, squeezed onto a court that's barely half regulation size. More people have heard of Harlem's Rucker Park, but the West 4th court is in the heart of the Village, where entertainment is a two-way street. Pressed against the 20-foot-high fence that surrounds the Cage is the usual collection of foreign tourists who flock to the Village. The courtside chatter is just as likely to be in French or German or Chinese as in English.
"I swear to God," says the Future, who earned his nickname making moves at Rucker that people insist shouldn't have been invented for decades to come, "West 4th is the only court in New York City where a player can actually imagine what it feels like playing overseasit's fun to play in front of all those foreign voices."
Winning's not bad, either. Chaz Hoop wins going away, 102-75, as one of its stars, Rasuel "the Athlete" McKune, a 6-5 tweener who has been one of the top players in Ireland the past two seasons, pours in 36 points.
"We're stacked," says the Future. "We just might run the table."
That's no easy task considering the level of talent in the league, which has two 10-team divisions. (Each team pays a $550 entrance fee, which covers uniforms and trophies.)
If Chaz Hoop is the early favorite to win the West, then Kenny's Kings are expected by most to rise in the East behind the skills of players like Ed "Booger" Smith, a playground legend who leaped high enough to land on the cover of Sports Illustrated a few years back.
"The quality of play at West 4th is just as good, if not better, than anywhere in the city, or in the country," says former Harlem Globetrotter Arnold "A-Train" Bernard. "Rucker is more of a showtime atmosphere, but the guys at West 4ththey're there to win."
Not everyone agrees with the steam the A-Train is blowing.
"Rucker is much more competitive and has more of a history," says Tommy "Sixth Man" Horn, a 6-3 swingman who played at Canton College in upstate New York. "But West 4th has also made a name for itself. People from everywhere stop and watch, even if it's just a pickup game."
Horn adds, "Sometimes, it gets so packed out there that you get the feeling you're playing in the Carrier Dome or something."
While Rucker Park has been in the business of hoops since 1950, the West 4th Street League, founded by a limousine driver named Kenny Graham, has carved its own place in asphalt history. Among the notables who have filled the Cage are Dr. J, Walter Berry, and Jayson Williams. Anthony Mason's Prime Time squad won five titles in the early 1990s.
West 4th Street officials estimate that their league attracts more than 100,000 spectators each summer, numbers that Rucker Park rivaled only in its heyday during the late 1960s and early 1970s. West 4th's talent is big, but the court's too small to contain all the flying elbows. To some tourists, this may look like a steel-cage wrestling match. "If you don't like a physical brand of basketball," says A-Train, "stay away from West 4th."
It's not cushy for fans, eitherstanding room only, except for a small cluster of folding chairs reserved for the man behind the bullhorn, a timekeeper, a dude who sells West 4th T-shirts, and the players' family and friends.
But there's plenty of room to dream. Mario Elie was a three-time West 4th MVP during Harlem USA's run of five straight titles from 1978-82. After honing his game in the Cage, Elie fought his way from CBA obscurity into a long career in the NBA, where he's garnered three championship rings.
West 4th is the kind of place where it's never too late to dream. Take the case of Chaz Dudley, who recalls briefly playing for Tark the Shark's UNLV Runnin' Rebels more than 20 years ago. Injured after only two games, Dudley says, he returned to New York, where he finished his career at Baruch College and spent a few years playing pro in Italy.
Chaz Hoop has made it to six Final Fours and three championship games in the past nine seasons of the West 4th Street League, and Dudley thinks this is his team's year. That would ease some old hurts for the coach.
"I went from playing on TV in front of 20,000 fans in Vegas to playing in front of empty seats and three fat cheerleaders at Baruch," says Dudley, looking smooth in a salt-and-pepper blazer and black slacks. "It was rough."