It's All In The Game | Feature | Chicago Reader

It's All In The Game 

On the court everything comes into focus: the guys I'm up against, the struggle to dominate, the asphalt, the net--and my life.

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By Melissa King

Names in this story have been changed in the interest of privacy.

Eckhart Park, Noble and Chicago

I like my husband, but I love my snowmobile. That's what his T-shirt said. He didn't speak English too well, and I bet he bought the shirt at a thrift store because he liked the color--an appealing purple, actually. Somebody must have told him what "husband" meant, because he had obviously tried to eradicate the word with white shoe polish. You could still see it, but I guess he succeeded in changing the message. Yo soy heterosexual.

I don't know his name. I played basketball with him, his brother, and their roommate today. They were new to the game, but they played hard. The most experienced player (also the tallest and the best English speaker) was the one who asked me to play. I had been at the other end of the court shooting baskets, stealing glances at them, knowing they were returning the favor. When you're a 30-year-old white woman shooting around by yourself in a park populated largely by Latinos, everybody looks at you.

This is the way it works. I shoot around, make a point to have them notice me clandestinely checking them out. I stand tall and swagger a little, as if to say, "I got skills. I play all the time. I know what you're thinking. The question is, are you good enough to play with me?" I can't actually say "I got skills," or "My bad" or "I got next" or any of that stuff. I hate it when white people try to talk street. But that's how I feel.

So I did my little routine and the tall good-English-speaking guy asked me to play two-on-two. My team won both games. And I played some more after that, with another group of guys; the teams just kept melding and interchanging, with new groups of people coming to play. The sun was beating down and a slightly sickening chocolate smell wafted west from the Blommer factory on Kinzie. I played for hours.

Horner Park, Montrose and California

Tori, Melinda, and I got into a discussion tonight about whether or not the person we'd all seen as we walked into the gym was a teenage boy or a woman in her 20s.

Tori was changing into her basketball clothes right there on the side of the court. It was a little brazen, but people hadn't started arriving yet for the Monday-night women's open gym.

"It's a guy," Tori said, standing there in her bra.

"She has breasts," Melinda argued.

"He's not wearing a bra."

"So?"

There's a television commercial where Sheryl Swoopes is talking about what she likes to buy with her Discover card. "I'm very prissy," she says, and then you see her playing playground ball with a bunch of men, screaming like a crazed warrior put up or shut up! as she drives the lane.

"I love to get my hair done, get manicures, pedicures, but my greatest weakness is shoes," she says in the next cut, walking through a mall in a trendy outfit.

We never did decide.

John, who for some reason plays with us at the women's open gym, was there; it was just the four of us because it was really too hot to play and no one else showed up. John's not quite as good as he looks like he would be, but he looks like he would be good. A guy I used to date has a poster in his house captioned "Shirts and Skins." It's a drawing of a bunch of black men going up for a rebound, stretched out all long limbed and elegantly gangly toward the sky, everyone moving in what looks from a distance to be a synchronized unit, like a flock of geese falling in instinctually for flight. John looks like one of those guys.

John likes us. He's there almost every Monday, and I always notice him listening to what everybody's saying, even though he never says anything. So I said, "John, do you think that person out front is a man or a woman?" He was shooting around, looking like he was in his own world (he's a little cross-eyed). "Boy," he said.

"This guy walked by me once," Melinda said, taking a shot, "and he goes, 'Hey dude.' I told him, I said, 'Hey, I'm a woman.'"

Then Tori said she was in a car wreck once, and while waiting for the ambulance to arrive she was laid out on the floor of a convenience store. People kept coming up to her and looking over her and saying, "What's up with dude?" She said she kept fading in and out of consciousness saying, "Hey, I'm a woman."

I've never been mistaken for a man that I know of, but when I'm going for rebounds, screaming like a karate master, wringing the sweat from my shirt, making faces I probably wouldn't want to see, I feel kind of weird. Sometimes it occurs to me that I'm aggressive. Not "assertive"--aggressive.

Tori said to me once, "Girl, you're like a Reebok commercial. This is your world.You go."

It's a good way to feel.

Wicker Park, Damen and Wicker Park

Sometimes I really like white people. Not always, and you might say not even very often, but sometimes I really like them. Today I rode over to Wicker Park on my bike and got stuck in the rain, waited it out under an awning. Afterward three white guys came over and played with me. We played two on two, and they were so without egos.

As they should have been--they sucked. They were fouling the hell out of each other, totally laughing, having a good time. I think they were a little drunk. This guy, Vince, who had been the first one to come over and shoot around with me, was my teammate. After one particularly good play he stuck both hands behind his back, palms up, while he was running backward down the court, for me to slap him ten. It was stupid, but he knew it was stupid. That's kind of fun. In fact, I think it's pretty evolved.

Another time in this same park I was shooting around with a kid called Orlando. His three friends rode up on two bicycles to watch us. The Gap can only dream of capturing the urban slouch of these kids in their baggy jeans, sitting on two-thirds enough bicycle.

They kept saying, "Yeah, she's going to the WNBA next week. She got a right, she got a left, she got a shot, got some D." Orlando was teasing me too, pretending he was shoving me around and laughing, saying stuff like "All right, it's on now" and "You know I'm mad now." I was kidding him back, saying, Thanks for the warning, Orlando. I like that kid.

I tried to tell Orlando about how, when you're playing defense, you need to look at someone's belly. How you don't look at his face, because he can fake you out with his face but he can't fake you out with his belly. I wanted Orlando to be good. He liked it that I was telling him something, but I think he already knew about the belly.

A group of older guys started playing on the other end of the court. They were playing 21. I hate that game sometimes, because it's so rebound oriented. I love to get rebounds, but I can't get any rebounds against those guys. "Orlando," I said, "do you think those guys would let me play with them?" Orlando looked at me funny. "I don't think so. They're kind of rough," he said.

Orlando left with his friends. I did my thing, hoping the older guys would ask me to play. They never did, even though I know they saw me wanting to get in the game. I rode home thinking those sons of bitches made me sick. They didn't know if I could play or not.

Vince had written his phone number on my arm with a felt-tip pen after we finished playing. I wrote it down somewhere else when I got home, but I don't know what I did with it now.

Eckhart Park

Snowmobile wasn't there today, but his two compadres were. The court was so crowded I couldn't get out there. The other Snowmobiles were having the same problem, so I sat down on the ground next to them.

It makes me so mad that I can't speak Spanish. I had three semesters of it in college, for God's sake. And I made As all three times.

So I chatted in English with Snowmobile #2 and Snowmobile #3. They told me they were both taking English classes four times a week. They kept saying they still couldn't speak English. I told them yes they could.

I couldn't understand why they weren't getting in the game. I mean, for me, being a woman, sometimes you just get the sense that a court is not exactly an equal opportunity situation, but they're guys. It seemed like any guy should be able to play.

They said they weren't good enough. I told them yes they were.

When I was in college taking those Spanish classes, I used to have dreams where I could really speak Spanish. In my dreams the words would just be flying out in whole sentences with a perfect accent.

A young black guy was bouncing his ball around on the side of the court, screaming at the players in the game: "I'm gonna kick ya'll's tired asses when I get in there!"

Snowmobile #2 was telling me I could come to play with them next weekend at this park they play at sometimes where there's always plenty of room. "They have sodas," he said.

I have those same kind of dreams about basketball. That I'm making every shot, flying toward the basket, never tired, no one can stop me. When I wake up I feel like those dogs too old to run anymore. You can see them chasing rabbits in their sleep, their legs twitching.

Wicker Park

"What's up kittycat?" That's what this old park dude was saying to me as I sat on my bike scanning the court, seeing if I wanted to play.

"What's up kittycat you gonna shoot some hoops you gonna play me some one-on-one can you dunk it?"

Damn. I almost turned around and rode off, because I knew this guy was gonna stick to me the whole time I was there, but there was an empty hoop and I all of a sudden felt irritated about having to leave a court because of this old park dude.

The guy I told you about earlier that I used to date, the one with the poster, used to say I should stay away from the criminal element. He thought I was reckless. He won't ride the el, and he never gives money to homeless people on the street. But he volunteers at homeless shelters around the holidays and sits on the boards of several charitable organizations.

Park Dude was walking away, so I shot for a while. Then he came back and started shooting around with me. There's a certain etiquette when two people shoot around. One person shoots from the outside and the other stands under the hoop and rebounds. When the shooter misses he goes in for a layup, and it's the other guy's turn. Everybody knows that.

Park Dude was not so great to shoot around with. He kept throwing the ball back to me too hard, or over my head or off to the side so that I had to jump or make a quick move to catch it. Every once in a while it got past me and I would have to run after it, trying to stop it before it went onto the other court or rolled into the middle of the softball game going on 20 feet away. It was really pissing me off. If I were a male or truly urban I would have said, "Man, would you watch that shit? What's the matter with you? Damn." But I'm not.

The thing about Park Dude was that he could really shoot a hook shot. Who the hell shoots a hook shot?

A bunch of kids trickled onto the court. At this particular park I sometimes find myself in a game with kids of all shapes and sizes. It's my ball and no one else has one, and I know they want to play, so I play.

A little white girl asked me how old I was. She nearly fell over when I told her I was 30. "How old are you?" I asked her. "Ten."

Park Dude let fly with one of his hook shots, missing the hoop completely this time. "He's weird," the girl said. "He smells like beer." He was, he did, I thought, but far as I could tell there was nothing wrong with his hearing.

Park Dude said he was getting hot, and he took his shirt off. He had a long, vertical scar running down his rib cage and stomach.

There's a sign in the park that says WARNING YOU ARE IN A SAFETY ZONE PENALTIES FOR SELLING DRUGS OR OTHER CRIMINAL ACTIVITY IN THIS PARK ARE SEVERELY INCREASED. I've seen guys walk past each other making secretive handoffs, or drive up in separate cars, walk off together, then come back a few minutes later and go their separate ways. The park is segregated, with the park dudes sticking to the Damen side and the hipsters playing Frisbee with their dogs in the back corner. All over, savvy little independent kids are running around.

I worry about what happens to a harmless park dude's brain when he's treated like dirt by arrogant white girls. My personal opinion is that inclusion is safer than exclusion, but I'm not positive about that.

All of a sudden I did feel a little reckless, not for being there myself but for being the thing that brought the park dude and the little girl together. After the game petered out, I hung around for a while, making sure everyone had scattered before I rode home.

Wicker Park

I wanted to play so bad today. This morning I couldn't get up to save myself. I hit the snooze alarm for an hour.

I muddled through work, came straight home, got on my bicycle, and went looking for a game. I ended up at Wicker Park, shooting around with a little kid, another little kid, and his toddler brother, killing time until a game developed.

I kept grinning at the toddler because he was cute, but his brother didn't grin; he included him. He expected him to play, but he wasn't too rough on him. The toddler just ran around with the ball, happy as could be. He could dribble pretty good for a three-year-old.

All of a sudden a commotion broke out on the other court and we all got still, watching.

"Why you testin' me, nigga? Why don't you test summa these other niggas!" one kid was saying to a shorter kid, pushing him in his face. Two middle-aged guys were standing on the side of the court. They were Park District employees; I could tell because they were wearing those plastic ID holders on their shirts. One of the other boys got between the kids, and then one of the Park District guys walked over and said something. It was about damn time.

"Gentlemen, gentlemen," he said. "Let's just play ball. Gentlemen." But those two kids didn't care about some middle-aged white guy with a pot belly and an ID tag. They just kept on. "Man if you ever touch my shit again, I'll kill you. Come on, nigga, swing! Do it!"

I don't know why it ended, but it did. The taller kid stalked off, daring the other kid to follow and fight him. The older brother on my court looked over at the toddler and said gently, "Boo, wanna go see a fight?" The toddler just laughed, running around in his stiff-legged toddler way, holding the ball.

After a while the game on the other court disintegrated and an older guy asked me if I'd like to play with him and some other guys. I said sure. I was the only woman and the only white person. I played the best I've ever played, only erring a few times, when I misjudged how fast these young guys were and how high they could jump. I'm not that great a shooter, but that night I was. They kept yelling at each other, looking for someone to blame every time I made a shot. "Who's guarding that girl?" They started calling me "little Larry Bird."

We all have our moments.

The guy who asked me to play was an adult; everyone else was a teen. He was intense, and the kids were kind of laughing at him until we started kicking their butts. The guy who asked me to play kept saying to the scoffing teens, "You know I play hard." The rest of them got into it in spite of themselves, though nobody could ever remember the score.

Riding home, I remembered how I used to sit around the house waiting for something to happen. It was good not to be doing that.

Eckhart Park

My friend Laurie used to tell me how she couldn't go to church without about three guys asking her out. It was the biggest pickup situation you ever saw, evidently, because everyone there wanted to meet somebody at church. She would joke that all the single people at her church were "datin' for Jesus!"

Well, the same thing happens in basketball. I met a guy on the court today. Let's call him Peter. I saw Peter looking at me all intense from the other end of the court. He made sure he got in the game I was in, and then he hung around afterward and asked if I wanted to go have a drink later. I said I did; he was very cute, and he was a good player. A guy doesn't have to be that good for me to like him, but it doesn't hurt.

The thing about some guys is, the most important thing about you is where they met you. For instance, I met a guy at a dog party once. It was a dog party because it was a party everyone brought a dog to, and it was supposed to help you mingle and meet other dog owners. The dogs kept fighting with each other and trying to get at each other's butts, which was potentially embarrassing for strangers trying to chat, but people just kept acting like they didn't notice and trying to meet one another.

I went to the party with this girl I worked with, who kind of talked me into it. Neither of us actually had a dog, so we borrowed one, that's how hot she was to go. Single women in their 30s are always latching on to me to do stuff like this. We don't even really like each other, necessarily, but they need someone to go do these man-meeting things with. It's incredibly depressing, and usually I run the other way when I smell these situations coming, but this time I went, mostly because I was always telling this woman no.

So at this dog party, this guy, Ed, decided he liked me. And he did everything right. He asked me out for a polite date, and I went, and it wasn't too terrible so I said I'd go out with him again. He introduced me to his friends, always asked me for the next date before he left. He was sweatin' me, as they say.

But there was no connection. The only reason he wanted to go out with me was that he could just imagine telling everybody how we met at a dog party. The story was all the cuter because I didn't even have a dog. It was very That Girl.

People don't want to say they met in a bar or through the personal ads. There's always got to be some damn cute story or you don't have a chance.

Peter was all over me because he met me the way he always envisioned meeting the woman: on the basketball court. That's what he said, "I always wanted to meet a woman on the basketball court." Me personally, I don't really care how I meet someone, so long as one of us doesn't bore the other half to death.

Horner Park

There's this other guy that keeps asking me out too. He plays with our coed group on Wednesday nights. Lucky me, he prefers my butt to all the other Wednesday night butts. I should write him a thank you note, I guess. But I already heard him say he has a girlfriend, the dumbass. Oh, and guess what; the girlfriend lives in another city.

The thing about men is, they'll ruin every last thing you like if you let them.

Peter and I went out for a week. We rode our bikes to the lake, played basketball, sat on park benches kissing. All very romantic.

He was funny, although he wasn't the kind of funny where he knew he was funny. The day we went riding I met him at his house, and he came out carrying a bottle of wine, some plastic cups, a corkscrew, and two sheets to sit on, all in a white plastic garbage bag. That kind of stuff can be kind of funny.

When he kissed me he was always pulling the back of my hair. I have short hair, and I kept thinking he was wishing I had longer hair so he could really grab on and pull. I really wanted to say, Hey what the hellareya doin', but I didn't.

One night he asked me to come to his house and watch a Bears game. I was a little late getting there, and when he answered his door he just looked at me kind of sternly and said, "You're late."

I think he was drunk, and there were two joints sitting on the kitchen counter. He was talking a mile a minute. In fact, I was starting to notice, Peter was the sort of person who didn't let you get a word in edgewise. And, if he didn't think you were listening closely enough, he would move closer and talk louder.

We sat down to watch the game, and he lit up one of the joints. I hate to admit it, but I smoked some. I used to smoke in college, but I don't anymore. I used to get too paranoid. I'm kind of self-conscious already and pot just makes it worse.

All of a sudden I couldn't tell if Peter was really stupid or just pretended to be as a joke. And I hadn't really noticed he was stupid before. I mean, he wasn't by any means the smartest guy I had ever run into, but I just thought he was really physical, that he related to the world in a physical way. If I think a guy is kind of cute, and he entertains me at all, and if he seems to like me, I can kind of make excuses for him and overlook a lot of rude and just plain stupid behavior. A lot of women do that. Decent men without girlfriends must really get sickened by it.

So I was sitting on this chair, really stoned, trying to sit up straight. Peter sat down beside me in the chair and put his arm around me, and he was kind of absentmindedly digging his fingers into my arm, hard. It seemed compulsive. It was like he couldn't help himself, it felt so good to him. And then, and this is really embarrassing, Peter got up and started gyrating around like a Chippendale dancer, saying, "So, what should I do...do you want me to dance for you?" I just kept hoping he meant to be cheesy to make me laugh. But I didn't laugh, because I was afraid he was serious. All I could think of to say was, "Man, I'm stoned."

All of a sudden, Peter picked me up and carried me over to an open window. I never like it when guys physically pick me up. I know it's supposed to be all romantic, but I just think it's embarrassing. It's too dramatic unless they're going to laugh and maybe act like you're so heavy they're gonna throw their back out or something.

Then I started to worry that he was going to sort of chuck me out the window. I squirmed to get down without saying why, and then Peter said, "I wouldn't throw you out the window."

That's when I really got scared. Peter's face looked really brutish to me, and when he moved anywhere near me it felt like he was trying to dominate me, not just get close. After I got out of his King Kong-like grasp, he tried to pick me up on his back, like we were going to play piggyback. And his movements were slow and, I don't know, just slow, like a dumb animal's.I got the distinct impression that he wanted to hurt me. That even if I said I would have sex with him he would still want to hurt me. I kept thinking about that postracquetball scene in Cape Fear, the new version, with Robert De Niro. If you saw the movie, you know what I'm talking about.

Peter kept saying, "Why are you so afraid of me, try to have a little self-confidence, why don'tcha...I know I can make you feel good," and other creepy stuff like that. I got the hell out of there. I was afraid to drive but I drove home anyway, thinking I was going to go mad the whole time if I had to drive that car one more inch.

But like I said, I quit smoking pot because it makes me paranoid.

Wicker Park

These three girls I had seen before came running over, saying, "There's that girl again!"

They looked like a female version of the Fat Albert gang. I asked them if they wanted to shoot around, and the youngest one, who wore about 25 colored barrettes in her hair and jeans about three sizes too big, took the ball.

"I can't do it," she said every time she missed a shot.

"Yes you can, you just need to practice some. Nobody makes it every time."

"Why aren't you shootin'?" she asked me.

"I'm all right, go ahead."

These girls, you had to draw them in. I've never seen any boy worry about if he was keeping you from playing.

One girl wouldn't play at all. We tried to play two-on-two, but she just wouldn't play. She kept saying she didn't know how, and she couldn't make it, and all that stuff. The youngest one's younger brother came up and tried to play. He was running all over the court, never dribbling, a big grin on his face, saying "almost" every time he shot the ball.

The girls didn't play long, but they didn't leave, either. They hung around at the edge of the court, watching. You could see them kind of whispering together and looking at different boys.

"Where's you girls' boyfriends?" I asked them, just to see what they'd say.

"Twanisha got her a man," the little one said.

"Where's Twanisha's boyfriend?"

"He over there with his boys."

"That why you won't play basketball, Twanisha? What's his name?"

She shrugged her shoulders.

They were doing it already, waiting around for something to happen. Damn, it made me sad. It reminded me of this story I saw on TV, on 20/20 maybe, about whether or not little girls could learn as well when they had boys in their class. They couldn't, some researchers had decided, because the boys just got in there first, talking faster and talking louder. I wanted to shake Twanisha and say, "Listen here, young lady, you're gonna spend your life falling for arrogant men and sitting around a dirty apartment waiting for them to call if you don't start taking an interest in some things."

If I ever have a daughter, she'll have to learn how not to be stupid about men. I don't know how I'll teach her, because I don't entirely know myself. But somehow she's got to know early on it's OK to miss some shots on your own, that you can't let other people always do your shooting for you.

I started playing with some adults, so I told a bunch of adolescents who had walked up that they could play with my ball if they took care of it. They had a big game going before long.

One of the guys on their court was mad because one of his peers had defected to play with us. Leon was on my team. He was two feet shorter than almost everyone else out there, but he could play. He was smart and serious about it. This other kid was screaming at him: "Oh, yeah, I see how it is. You wanna play over there with them. Man, I hate people like you!" He was joined by a glaring fellow malcontent who ran up to us and said, "Can I play," really sarcastic. Suddenly the tension was racial, because most of the adults were white.

Once our ball flew over onto their court, and the loud kid shot it into their hoop like he thought it was the ball from their game, or I should say my ball. He looked over at us and went, "Oh, is that your ball?"

Leon ignored them. He wouldn't even look at them. We just kept playing. I kept looking over to make sure my ball was still there, and sure enough, the next time I looked up, all the kids and my ball were gone.

So as our game was winding down I asked Leon, "Hey, do you know those kids that were over there?"

"Which ones?"

"Those ones that were playing with my ball over there."

"Your ball? What's it look like?"

"Orange. Rubber."

"Man, I think they took off with it," Leon said, kind of laughing.

At the tender age of 12, Leon knew he was glad he wasn't a thief or an idiot.

Lewis, another kid about Leon's size who was playing with us, said, "There they are. Hey, Thomas, you got that girl's ball!" There they were, standing about 100 yards away with my ball. I wondered if Leon had seen them.

"Come on man, you got that girl's ball! Bring it back! Bring it back now!"

Thomas threw it across the playground at us, and we went back to our game.

Wicker Park

Oh my God, David. That child is pure love. He comes to the park with his mom on Saturdays. She's a good player; you can tell she was really good in high school. She coaches a bunch of girls in the gym at Wicker Park.

I played with her in a pickup game once, and after it was over I shot around and David came over to talk to me.

"Where's your friend?" he asked me.

"What friend?"

"Your friend. She wears black shoes too."

David thought he remembered me from somewhere, I guess, so I told him I didn't know who he meant, was he sure it was me he had seen before, and he said yes, he was sure.

I asked him how old he was. He's five.

"I play with my mama."

"You do? Was she the one who was playing with me a little earlier? She's pretty good."

She came over to shoot around with us.

"She made me in her stomach," David informed me. I said, Really, how 'bout that.

He said something quietly to his mom. "Well, she's pretty good too," his mom said.

A few months later I was playing a two-on-two game and saw David's mom again. She told us to come inside the gym and play if we wanted. After the game, David came running over to me, shouting, "Hi Melissa!"

I couldn't remember his name. What an asshole I am, I thought as I talked to him, said it looked like his front teeth were growing in and asked what he had been doing. Then he ran around all over the gym with kids his age while his mom and I and a bunch of teens played a game.

In the middle of the game David came over and said, "Maaama...maaama...

maaaaaaama!" His mom, the point guard, picked up her dribble and said, "What!"

David hesitated, caught off guard by her attention. "Do you want me?" he asked. He looked at his mom expectantly.

"I want you," she said, "but not right this minute."

Satisfied, David resumed running around, and we went on with our game.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Eugene Zakusilo: Horner Park; Eckhart Park (two photos); Wicker Park.

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