An excerpt from
Black Men Can’t Shoot
Scott N. Brooks
OLD HEADS AND YOUNG BULLS
Ray and Jermaine learned that interactions with old heads were important. Marcus Thompson, an old head at Espy, gave them their earliest opportunities to play with the weekend regulars. He “picked them up,” selecting them as teammates, along with his son, as part of their rite of passage into more serious basketball and manhood. Their playing with men was necessary to their overall development. They would be challenged and toughened by playing against wiser, stronger, bigger, and more physically intimidating players than their peers.
The Role of Old Heads
Relationships formed on the playground often are distinctive and remarkable, most notably, relationships between older and younger men, “old heads” and “young bulls.” Old heads are important as supporters, role models, and/or coaches because they teach, encourage, praise, and provide support for younger players. Jermaine described old heads in this way: “It’s like, it’s like certain people like respect [an old head] … it’s a respect thing. You call them an old head, it’s like, nah’imean [you know what I mean] … you admire their game. Or you call them old head, they older than you, nah’imean.” There are some instances where old heads perform different functions, as Jermaine explained in his relationships:
You got different ones, it depends, like, my old head, I still got the same one, but some of them come and go. Like, most of them, they get locked up or something, they stop playing basketball or whatever or they really don’t care … they just there 'cause they think you gonna go to the League (NBA) or something like that. That’s how most of them is.
Old heads often become friends with younger men who show promise, “taking [them] on.” “Taking a kid on” suggests that an old head is tied to a young bull and has a close relationship offering emotional, financial, or other types of support or resources when necessary. They come in different forms. Coaches, mentors, and instructors can be old heads, and their personal success and experience in basketball increases the amount of technical assistance they can give. But drug dealers can be old heads too, attracted by being associated with a local celebrity who might later “make it.” They can mentor through warning and turn younger men away from the street because of the potential to do something great and legitimate, or they can exploit players through gambling. They stage one-on-one games between players or bet on games, choosing their young bull or his team to win. Money is often central to this relationship, as drug dealers can support and subsidize a young ball player. Repayment may be necessary and made explicit. After purchasing several pairs of basketball shoes for Ray, one old head asked him to sign a handwritten contract to be repaid $10,000 if he made it to the NBA.
Marcus—also called Big Marcus, a thirty-something father of four boys and one daughter—is known throughout the city and even beyond. He is an old head. Ray and Jermaine got to know Marcus after befriending his son, Marcus Jr. or “Lil” Marcus. Big Marcus was a talented point guard at Buddy Strong High School in the 1980s, and his high school reputation as one of the best players in the city still garners respect. Local scouting services make references to him when writing about his son, who was rated one of the top high school juniors. A quarterly ranking of high school players reads, “Marcus Jones, Jr. [son of Buddy Strong High School great Marcus Jones, Sr.] …”
Chuck vouches for Marcus’s past talent and skill, because he coached him briefly, but says that Marcus was conflicted. He did not take advantage of what basketball could have done for him. Marcus came to Chuck’s practices for a short while and then stopped attending. Marcus wanted to be a basketball player but also to hang with his buddies who were thugs. He ended up getting into trouble and now teaches others from his youthful struggles.
Marcus acts as a mentor and role model for his sons as well as Ray and Jermaine, advising them to stay out of trouble and not do what he did. He was a good college player, but perhaps he could have done even more with his ability. Jermaine recounted what kept Marcus from being successful:
What he told me was, he started smoking and getting into the streets and he had a baby [Marcus Jr.] and he had to support his family. He spent two years at Texas Southern; he [first] went to Southwest [College] for a year, [and] he got the assist record there, and the … , he was like second in steals there; and then he went to … Texas Southern, [and] he [was] like third in assists and fifth in steals. Like dag. Like he told me he didn’t make it [to the pros] because he started smoking, getting into the streets, drinking, whatever… . He stopped working out like that [hard], 'cause he said the baby was stressing him out; he just had the baby, so he had to get a job and all that.
Marcus grew up in South Philly and considered Espy his home court because he played there as a young bull. He felt obligated to help when he saw Ray’s and Jermaine’s raw talent.
And it was like, so he said, he said he didn’t have the people around him so he could have made it, like Steve, like Harold and all them [old heads in the neighborhood], they wasn’t the type of person[s] that just come and work out with him and all that.
Marcus works full-time for the city as a social services coordinator and is back in school working toward his bachelor’s degree. At the playground he serves young men who play basketball, hoping that they will be successful, go to college, get a degree, and be upwardly mobile. He is looking for what he might get materially from his relationship with younger players. Marcus imparts wisdom and creates opportunities for players to play more and gain skills. Yet this example illustrates a sad fact. Old heads are available to affect the lives of young bulls because they have failed to become upwardly mobile and they remain in the same poor communities in which they were raised. Old heads generally have no direct experience with being an elite player, or they have experienced both success and tragedy. Therefore, teaching is usually focused on what not to do and perceptions/speculations of what to do.
Marcus offered advice and encouragement to many younger boys, but his relationship with Ray was special. Usually, the bond between a young bull and old head with status is formed because an old head is drawn to those he perceives as being like himself. Ray was considered the best in his neighborhood. Marcus saw him play, in between playing his own games, and thought Ray had a lot of potential. “Ray remind me of me when I was a young bull, except for the drinking.” In return, Ray claimed that he wanted to be like Marcus. “Marcus is my main role model, Scott. I mean, he nice [good]. He be cooking [beating] young bulls, so I know he was nice when he was young. I want to be like that when I get old, still schooling young bulls.” Ray respected Marcus’s status and hoped to be like him someday.
Marcus created opportunities for Ray and increased his networks. He sponsored Ray, Jermaine, and his oldest son at Espy. He had influence as one of the oldest and best players at the playground. Marcus often played on the same team with Ray and Jermaine, ensuring they got a chance to participate and play well. They worked hard to validate his letting them play with older regulars.
They didn’t used to let us play. They told us we was too young and all that. But we kept asking them—me, Ray, and Lil Marcus—and when some of the old heads left, we would get our squad and play and we’d beat 'em. We knew we had to shut them up. And then Big Marcus started telling them that we could play and that was it. We’ve been playing ever since. You still got some of them old heads who say we can’t play, but they stupid.
Marcus also introduced Ray to other good older players who could advise and encourage him. One such man was Jackson, who played every Saturday and during the week. This relationship carried expectations. On one occasion Ray, Jermaine, and I were headed back to their homes after shooting baskets at Espy. Ray spotted Jackson at a far-off corner of the playground, stopped in his tracks, and said:
“Yo, I can’t go home right now. I’ll get with you later.”
Ray was obligated to play Jackson. Jermaine explained, “That’s how it is with some old heads. When they see you, they want to play you, to school you and make you better.” On Saturdays Ray, along with Jermaine, often played on Jackson and Marcus’s team. During games Jackson and Marcus kept a watchful eye on Ray and instructed him.
Marcus and other old heads from Espy also attended Ray’s and Jermaine’s games away from the playground, particularly high school games. Marcus spoke with coaches from high schools, traveling teams, and junior colleges. Jermaine believed that he benefited from Marcus’s reputation and influence.
His [Marcus’s] reputation help[s] him a lot because everybody know who he is. They take his word for everything. So that helped me somewhat, for the simple fact that is, for a couple of teams I really didn’t get no time on, and he called the coach and told them I could play, and they put me in—I start starting afterward. Marcus, he helped a lot of people get into college, like a lot of people that can’t go straight to college, he got a lot of junior college connects [contacts]. Like two summers ago, he had two coaches from two different junior colleges come down and see a couple of us play. And he was trying to get us in school or whatever.
Many young men in South Philly considered Marcus their old head because of his local status and generosity with his time, instruction, and advice. He was known for providing “workouts,” or informal sessions consisting of drills and conditioning. He mentored young players on the court, teaching them skills and basketball theory. He would push them emotionally to work harder and play tougher. Marcus was a gatekeeper of sorts, as well. He knew a lot of coaches in and around the city, particularly at the high school level, and could vouch for players. He also had relationships that bridged kids and colleges (albeit junior colleges). However, this rarely panned out because low-level coaches were given and followed a lot of recruiting leads. Marcus usually met these coaches while watching games in which they were recruiting or via weak ties—the friends of friends.
Jermaine was rarely “that guy” or the person with highest status. At Espy, Ray and Lil Marcus carried higher status. Jermaine wanted to be considered a star and to have the amount of respect and attention that Ray and Lil Marcus received. He worked much harder than he probably would have if he had attained their status level. This began on the playground. He learned what it took to become a star, from current and former stars, old heads, and peers. He also learned the different statuses and accompanying treatment of players and how to use old heads.
A SATURDAY MORNING AT ESPY
Jermaine and Ray’s relationship developed because they were neighbors close in age, but intensified with their shared basketball experiences and dedication to becoming known basketball players. They went to their local playground, Espy, daily to practice shooting, play games, and check in with others. Playing in their neighborhood, on courts they considered their home courts, was where they felt safest and could play with familiarity. Jermaine and Ray knew who would be there, the rules of the court, when the regulars played, and their status position among friends. They played on the same team whenever possible, feeling that their friendship and knowledge of each other was a definite advantage. They pushed each other to improve and to earn local reputations as players.
One spring Saturday morning, I watched Jermaine and Ray play at Espy playground. They were warming up with others, trying their best to take turns shooting. It was important to make shots because players return the ball to a shooter after a made shot, but misses are rebounded and shot by whoever gets the rebound. Jermaine practiced jump shots and “finger roll” layups. He looked to see if it was clear for him to shoot, to avoid his ball hitting another ball being shot at the same time. Jermaine would dribble hard to the basket, lunge, and then jump up toward the basket, one leg leading, while cradling the ball in his right arm. As he rose in the air and neared the rim, he lifted the ball up in one fell swoop until it was just above the rim. Jermaine rolled the ball down his hand, and with a light flip of his wrist, the ball hopped from his fingertips and through the rim. These moves were rehearsals for his eventual performance. Jermaine was considered a jumper, and it was important for him to test his legs and show his jumping ability, that he had “ups” or “bunnies,” just as Ray practiced jump shots because he was known as a shooter. These shows could intimidate opposing players and encourage teammates.
Someone yelled, “Let’s go,” and the players moved into their positions. Those who were about to play in the first game took their last practice shots and went through their stretching and warm-up rituals: running in place, jumping up and down, touching their toes, and standing on one leg, while grabbing and pulling their other leg behind them. Those who were not playing sat down or moved to a side court.
Ray and Jermaine were playing with Marcus, Jackson, and one other man. Ray had missed on “shooting for firsts [or outs]”—the shot that is taken to determine which team gets the first offensive possession—so the other team started with the ball. Marcus directed Ray and Jermaine on defense by pointing to spots on the court where they should be. Marcus had two goals—to win and for the boys to learn something they would need for high school basketball.
At Espy the regulars play a two-three zone defense, which means that the defenders guard a specific area of the court. Two players are set about ten feet in front of the basket they are defending, and their other three teammates are in positions three feet in front of the basket. Both sets of defenders form horizontal lines parallel to the basket. Playing zone defense is not typical playground basketball. On most other playgrounds in the city, man-to-man defense is the rule. In man-to-man defense, each player guards a particular individual on the opposing team, one that they choose or are instructed to guard. This prevents confusion, because each player is only responsible for defending one competitor. A zone defense, however, requires awareness, coordination, trust, and players who share an understanding of what their teammates are going to do in certain situations. Zone defenses are territorial, and individuals are expected to cover a range that is constantly in flux. Marcus’s special directions to Jermaine and Ray illustrate this: “Jermaine, you got down low, the center. Don’t let them pass the ball in the middle. [Then looking to Ray] Ray, you play up top with me. If a man has the ball, you got to guard him until he give it up [passes the ball], then you rotate back, all right?”
Ray was supposed to move with the player as long as they had the ball, Marcus said, and then he was to move back to his spot when the player gave up the ball. While Ray guarded the player that was out of his spot, Marcus would be covering Ray’s spot, and when Ray moved back, Marcus would return to his own spot. They had to trust each other to move to the right place at the right time, and they had to be aware of any movement by opposing players. Jermaine was told to be in the center of the court close to the basket, and to make sure that players on the opposing team did not get the ball in the middle of the zone. Marcus’s directions aligned the team’s efforts. If each person was clear on his role, there would be no confusion among teammates or breakdowns in communication that would allow the other team to get an open shot or easy basket.
Jermaine was tested as soon as the game began. An opposing player darted to the center of the zone defense, and Jermaine moved to prevent the pass into the player. He was too late and the player caught the ball. Jermaine crowded the player with his arms outstretched to deter him from trying to shoot or drive to the basket. Jermaine’s actions worked; the player passed the ball.
Marcus coached Jermaine and Ray on offense, as well. When Jermaine grabbed a rebound after the opposing team missed a shot, Marcus yelled, “Look up!” Jermaine looked up the court and threw the ball to Ray, who out-sprinted the opposing team down to the other basket and scored.
On this particular Saturday, their team won four games in a row, before losing one. They played well and Marcus had guided Ray and Jermaine throughout, telling them where they should be, what they should do, and encouraging them (mostly Ray) to shoot and be tougher.
Marcus and Jackson shot the most, and they scored most of the team’s points. Jackson was a gunner, meaning he shot a lot and rarely passed. He took shots while two people guarded him. He drove to the basket, where the other team had their three players in a zone, and tried to shoot over the bigger guys. Jackson also had breakdowns on defense. Instead of being in a good position to prevent easy scores, he reached after the ball a few times to jar it loose from an opposing player’s hands, often letting the opposing player drive for an easy basket when he was unable to steal the ball. None of his teammates said anything, and no one seemed upset that he had played poor defense or had not passed the ball. Jackson was respected for his scoring ability, and therefore his teammates deferred to him, allowing him to shoot the ball whenever he pleased and to play poor defense with no backlash. The silence from other teammates when Jackson played poorly illustrated the team’s hierarchy, the roles of different individuals, and that they all understood the code of conduct.
On the other hand, Jackson criticized Jermaine for taking a difficult shot and missing it. The score was tied eleven to eleven—the game ends when one team scores twelve. Up to that point, Jermaine had not taken a lot of shots. He was set up near the basket and Ray passed him the ball. Jermaine received the pass with his back to the basket, quickly jumped, and shot the ball without seeing the basket, turning 180 degrees in the air as he shot. Unfortunately, his defender jumped at the same time and blocked the shot.
“What are you doing? I was open. Damn!” Jackson said as he trotted back on defense. Jermaine pouted and said, “That’s the only shot I took all game.” It was a costly shot. The other team scored the go-ahead basket and won. Jermaine’s shot was inappropriate, according to Jackson, and no one challenged Jackson’s view. Jermaine did not have the status to take a shot and miss when it could mean winning or losing the game. By taking his shot at that moment, he defied convention and the hierarchy that the team had been following. Had Jermaine made the basket, Jackson most likely would not have criticized him. Instead, he may have given Jermaine “props” (praise or respect) for taking the shot at such an important time and making it. The last shot is an important shot, usually reserved for those of high status. The team had to sit down to wait for another opportunity to play, which usually was a long wait.
The team was organized according to how much each player’s scoring ability was recognized. Essentially, it was predetermined who should shoot. Jackson and Marcus had the “green light,” or freedom to shoot whenever they wanted, without suffering any repercussions or upsetting the others. Ray was allowed some freedom to shoot because he was known for his age and was considered a good shooter. Jermaine and the other teammate—five on five is played at Espy—were lowest on the totem pole. They knew that they were expected to assume supporting roles. One had to have a preexisting status (as a known player or thug) or had to work hard to gain the respect of others before being given the right to shoot freely. Higher-status individuals are expected by others to monopolize the ball and get the most shots; therefore they are typically the leading scorers even when they shoot a low percentage. Moreover, they typically receive little blame, relative to their amount of responsibility. Importantly though, a person’s status is not simply a static label that, once achieved, requires no further effort. Rather, achieving and retaining status is a dynamic process. It demands constant attention because status differences between people inform expectations and interactions. This is not always settled—there are people with ambition, hoping to improve their status.