Heaven Is a Playground

Heaven Is a Playground



The Pequod Review:

Rick Telander's excellent book Heaven Is a Playground recounts two summers (1973 and 1974) that Telander spent hanging around New York City's inner city basketball courts — specifically in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Telander originally planned to write a short sports-related article, but over time he realized that the neighborhood's residents had far richer stories to tell. His resulting book covers not just the individual basketball players but also their personal relationships and the wider community, all while evoking a strong sense of place in 1970s Brooklyn:

At Manhattan Beach, crowded and hot under a scorching sun, Rodney drags Albert along with him, first to the basketball courts and then through the masses of humanity to talk to some coaches he has spotted. Albert is reluctant, wanting simply to wade in the murky brown water and play with Rodney’s children. Rodney is oblivious to the boy’s feelings, leading him back and forth like a float in a parade.

Rodney gossips basketball in a ceaseless wave, stopping on the way back to chat with George Murden, a black coach in the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration’s youth division. George has had teams play against Albert and is convinced Al is unique. “He’s much better than either Jabbar or Hawkins was at that age,” he says. “In fact, I believe he’s better than any high school player in the city right now.”

Murden is also familiar with Fly [Williams], having once coached him in a summer league. “He gave me no problems because I demanded respect.” Indeed, Murden, with his stab wounds and rugged physique, is well known for openly battling the toughest kids, with fists if necessary. “If you can shut them up, you’ve got a chance,” he says.

Out of curiosity and a growing sense of kinship towards the other coaches, I ask him what he thinks the biggest problem with ghetto kids is.

“No doubt about it,” he replies. “The absence of male leadership. In the typical absent father home, the mother doesn’t have time to give the kids self-confidence. The boys see men acting like kids, so they never grow up. Like with Fly, this arrogance is a façade. In that Notre Dame game on TV I don’t think he was being cocky. He was scared.”...

For many ghetto boys, George Murden implies, the first contact with a father-figure is through their basketball coach.

And Telander highlights real neighborhood heroes — people who step up and truly change young men's lives in ways that will rarely be recognized:

Rodney Parker, who lived just two blocks from [Jim] McMillian, in the East New York district, would remain the young man’s guide throughout his amateur career. Rodney would buy him shoes, teach him strategy, lose money to him purposely in shooting games so the boy wouldn’t starve, then later try futilely to beat the flowering athlete as he went on to become All-City at Jefferson High and later an All-American. There were no strings attached. Rodney was always just there, giving the companionship and direction Mac might have received had he known the security of a real father.

When it came time to choose a college, Rodney was busy making sure McMillian went to the top. Deciding that the Ivy League would be a good spot for his gem, Rodney began riding the subway to Columbia University in Manhattan — visiting coaches, administrators, professors — literally talking his product into the elite school, then returning to hard-sell Mrs. McMillian and Jim.

Today McMillian, who earned a great deal of money in the NBA and has invested it wisely, shakes his head over his good fortune. “Rodney Parker was the big influence in my life. He just helped me grow up.”

A mysterious benefactor is a highly suspicious thing in the ghetto where street rules maintain that, above all, nobody does anything for nothing. Few players were as lucky as Jim McMillian but many, indeed, would not have been as gullible. Looking back, McMillian is amazed that money was never a factor in the relationship. “It’s hard to explain, but Rodney is like a little kid. When he gets somebody into school, he feels like he’s just put a puzzle together. He gets all excited. It’s an identity thing. I have a hunch that what he’d really like instead of money is a title, you know, a telephone and a desk — his own little office.”

Other playground players dealt with Rodney Parker simply because they had nothing to lose.

One of the book's real strengths is the way Telander mostly avoids offering heavy-handed moral lessons or prescriptive advice and simply observes — showing the reader what daily life is really like and what options are available for young inner-city men. This is a very good book that gets at the essence of urban life. Highly recommended.