The slow disintegration of the NBA season may have gripped the basketball cognoscenti, but such concerns don’t seem to be weighing too heavily on the minds of players at Basket ball City. The state-of-the-art indoor basketball facility on New York’s Pier 63, which often hosts the very players embroiled in the current labor dispute, is buzzing with established pros and up-and-comers looking for a good run. And as the management-imposed lockout continues, and more of the NBA schedule is wiped out, more of them will be heading to this heavenly playground to play in pick-up games and organized scrimmages. Last week, in the wake of the first-ever labor-induced cancellation of NBA contests, some of those pros were going full throttle on one of the facility’s six gleaming hardwood courts.
There was Milwaukee Bucks guard and He Got Game star Ray Allen driving through the lane. As a knot of defenders converges in his path, Allen changes direction and then opts for the vertical route. He elevates, and with a smooth, sure flick of the wrist, sinks the basket. Nothing but net.
Another play finds Detroit Pistons for ward and Bronx native Malik Sealy alone under the hoop. A quick-thinking teammate heaves a pass the length of the floor to Sealy, who seizes the moment with a decisive dunk.
Play is hard on this court. There is no settling for lay-ups.
Sealy is no less intense in response to the sound of a referee’s whistle when he is a little too aggressive about shaking off the tight defense of former San Antonio Spurs guard and New York playground legend Lloyd Daniels. “Nuh, uh. That’s our ball,” Sealy protests, arguing that Daniels was the one who committed the foul.
“People at the Y don’t play like that,” remarks a spectator who has wandered over from another court to take advantage of one of the incidental benefits of playing pick-up here. It isn’t every day that you get to stand on the sideline and watch basketball’s most skilled artists at work, especially these days, when having courtside seats at the Garden only gets you a view of an empty arena.
Basketball City, the only facility of its kind in New York, has emerged as something of a meeting ground for local hoops enthusiasts of every stripe. It is one of the few places in the region where NBA players, barred for the duration of the lockout from using team facilities, can work out and run the court with players of their own caliber. Owner Irv Landau says he spared no expense in constructing courts modeled after those in the NBA. The solid maple floors were laid over rubber matting to provide the courts with just the right amount of give, protecting worn knees from further strain. Forty-eight thousand watts of light and top-of-the-line glass backboards add to the facility’s professional feel. But unlike NBA venues, there is little room for spectating here. Everybody comes to play.
Jim Couch, a well-known street coach who has been nurturing the talents of New York’s young players for more than 40 years, runs regular organized scrimmages here with his partner, Arnie Jacobs. A select group of for mer college stars and promising players from the CBA and international ranks run the court with a laundry list of well-established professionals that includes current and former Knicks Chris Childs, Charles Oakley, Mark Jackson, and Anthony Mason. These workouts have taken the place of NBA training camps for pros who want to stay in shape and aspiring young players looking to get noticed.
But the vast majority of visitors to Basketball City are of a caliber more likely be found in the seats of an NBA arena, not on its court. Since opening in 1997, Basketball City has built a booming business on the huge market for extracurricular play. For $10 on weekdays and 15 on weekends, pick-up play minus the rickety rims and buckling blacktops of city playgrounds is open to anyone. Anyone, that is, who isn’t worried by the prospect of playing against the likes of New York Liberty’s Teresa Weatherspoon, who’s been known to join the mix during Basketball City’s open runs.
Landau, himself a veteran of pick-up play, conceived Basketball City as a place for the player who doesn’t have the skills to dominate a playground court, not to mention a professional arena. Several years ago, Landau says that he and a group of friends—all middle-aged, well-to-do professionals—got tired of be ing manhandled by young bucks on the black top. The end result was Basketball City, what Landau calls his own “field of dreams,” where any basketball lover—man or woman, young or old—can play out their fantasies against a real-life backdrop.
The bulk of Landau’s business is drawn from New York’s flourishing amateur leagues, which are bankrolled by corporate sponsors like Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs. Nearly 100 teams, including 14 women’s teams, participate in year-round league competition that fills the courts on most weeknights. The club also runs a variety of youth programs, including after-school clinics and camps.
Although corporations with deep pockets are Basketball City’s bread and butter, Landau isn’t looking to create an exclusive enclave for the wealthy. The pro-style scrimmages and youth programs at the facility account for a relatively small portion of revenues, but they contribute to the diversity of clientele that is essential to Landau’s vision. He is determined to remain true to basketball’s roots in New York’s playgrounds. That “street element” is “what basketball is all about,” says Landau.
Basketball City’s pick-up games are only open to those who can afford the entrance fee, but the facility is working toward providing scholarships for its variety of programs for kids, soon to include a youth league.
Landau is particularly proud of a program called Saturday Night Hoopla that Basketball City runs in conjunction with the New York City Housing Authority. For three hours every Saturday night, Basketball City opens its courts free of charge to about 100 youths from public housing projects in nearby Chelsea. Volunteer staff work with kids of all ages and skill levels, teaching them the game’s fundamentals, running drills, and keeping impromptu matches from degenerating into free-for-alls. Parents who accompany their children are free to use the club’s exercise equipment and watch the on-court antics from an adjoining room.
Michael Vita, a 29-year-old with a passion for physical fitness, was one of several volunteer “coaches” presiding over Saturday Night Hoopla last weekend. He sees basketball as an opportunity to help the kids develop life skills. “If you can play ball, you can do anything in life. You learn to communicate with people, deal with many different personalities,” says Vita. His train of thought is interrupted by Erica, a 14-year-old girl with a tentative smile. In the three weeks since the program started, she’s blossomed from a shy presence on the sidelines to a confident player who doesn’t back down from a chance to run the court with the boys.
“I was scared of the ball at first,” recalls Erica. “Now, I don’t care, I just want to play ball.”
Many a visitor to Basketball City—NBA stars locked out of work, pick-up players looking to escape their work, and young players dreaming about making basketball their life’s work—could be heard echoing that sentiment in recent days.
They all just want to play.
“This is the mecca of basketball,” beams Shawn Grant, a bright-eyed Basketball City staffer who played guard and forward at Gar den City Community College in Kansas and still hopes to break into the professional ranks.
Although Basketball City isn’t in the running quite yet to usurp Madison Square Gar den of its sacred legacy, it may help to fill a void as long as the hallowed granddaddy of the basketball world is idled by a tug-of-war over money and power. Those forces may be strong enough to grind the NBA to a halt, but they don’t carry much weight on the courts at Basketball City.