It’s late Sunday afternoon. My teenage son and his friend aren’t yet back from shooting hoops at Jefferson Park. My son plays on the freshman basketball team at La Salle High School. He plays pick-up games at the park to work on his game, experiment with new moves his coach would glower at in league play. So my wife, who doesn’t like them to hang out alone for too long down there, prods me off the couch to bring them home. I put on my old sneaks (just in case my ball-handling skills are needed) and jog the few blocks to the park.
The wide-open, grass-covered square block is filled with families and teams of amateur athletes, playing softball on the diamond, soccer on the grass, and basketball on the courts. Frisbees fly on air smoky and sweetened by barbecues. Friends eat in groups at tables and on benches. Kids swing on playground swings, ride razor scooters on walkways, and run zig-zag everywhere. But as I near the b-ball courts, another sweet, familiar fragrance wafts past me. Three young guys—late teens or early twenties—share a burning roach on the sidelines of the court under a sign which reads: “Drug-Free Zone —Increased Penalties for Drug Use or Possession.”
One guy—with tats and scars—looks like a gang-banger maybe; the other two are just a couple of tight-eyed knuckleheads. No one says anything to them, even though we all know it’s not cool to smoke around kids. But why start trouble? Or risk acting uncool.
Everyone plays basketball nowadays: blacks, whites, Asians, Armenians, Latinos. Even girls. It isn’t about color or sex. It’s about game. And whether or not you have it—the ability to impose your will upon others. I recognize some of the guys hangin’ on the sidelines from past games. I nod. They nod back. Everyone’s cool.
On the court, my son—fourteen and already taller than I—pushes the ball on a fast break, then passes off to his buddy in the corner, who jacks up a three-pointer that clangs off the rim. But their center—tall, broad-shouldered, a little older than the others and obviously the most imposing presence on the painted asphalt—trails the fast break, muscles the rebound away from the opposition, and slams home what is apparently the game-winning basket. The losers swear, hang their heads as they relinquish the court.
Another make-shift team runs out to challenge the winners, who slap palms and knock knuckles in victory. My son spots me on the sidelines and gestures if I want in their game. I shake my head and indicate that it’s time to go. Reluctantly, he tells his buddy. They bid goodbye to their center, who offers his fist. Eager to be comrades with the big man in the middle, each boy coolly bumps knuckles with their center before walking off the court. My son grabs his basketball from the bench. His bud grabs a backpack, from which he produces an iPod; he places the ear buds in his ears. As they relate the day’s exploits, they smell of sweat, not weed. I’m relieved. Not that I have any reason to be suspicious. It’s just the situation. And they are teenagers. So I’m still anxious as we leave the park.
I hate sounding like a parent, but it’s my job, so as we walk home, I give them the low-down: “Just so you know, this is what’s going to happen down there. Someone’s going to complain. Cop cars are going to pull up on both sides of the court. Three, maybe four officers from the Pasadena Police Department will approach. One of the guys in the game—an undercover cop—will point. Him, him, him. Cops are going to bust anyone who’s been smoking weed in a public park. Cuff ‘em and throw ‘em in jail. Just so you know.”
My son dribbles the ball between his legs and replies: “We weren’t smoking, Dad.”
“I know. I’m just letting you know.”
“Dude, Big Man already told us,” his buddy adds, although I’m not sure how he can hear me with the iPod blaring in his ears.
“Our center,” my son explains.
His buddy continues: “Dude, Big Man said you got to prioritize. Get your education, your wife, your house, your fence, and your dog first. Then smoke if you wanna smoke, Dude.”
It isn’t the worst advice I’ve ever heard. They’re a long way from the “then” part. But as I said, it’s my job, so I’m compelled to add to Big Man’s game plan: “Just don’t do it. Okay?” All of a sudden, I’m Nancy Reagan in baggy shorts and high-tops.
Still dribbling, my son advises: “Don’t worry, Dad.”
His friend adds: “Dude, we’re cool.”
Yeah, everyone’s cool. “Let’s not mention this to your mother.”
My son picks up his dribble, “Dad, I’m not crazy,” and looks at me as if I’m crazy.
“Du-u-de,” his bud agrees.
I nod. Right. But when we cross the street together—it’s about game, boys—I reach in, poke the ball away, and push it out front like a point guard on a break-away.
Laughing and cussing behind, the boys chase me up the block and follow me home.
Three weeks later, the cops make their bust at the park. Game.
© Copyright 2009 Mark Barkawitz. All rights reserved.
Mark Barkawitz has earned local and national awards for his fiction, poetry, essay, and screenwriting. His work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, literary journals & anthologies, underground ‘zines, and is posted on numerous websites. He wrote the screenplay for the feature film, “Turn of the Blade” (NorthStar Ent., ’95) and has taught creative writing classes at the community college level. He coaches a championship track team of student/athletes and ran the 2001 L.A. Marathon in 3:44:42. He lives with his wife, has two kids, and breeds golden retrievers (Woof Goldens) in his backyard in Pasadena, CA.