"When I'm Here, I'm Free"

Playground basketball is a rich and storied tradition in the city. Don't believe it? Just listen to the words of those who've lived it.

By Ain´┐Ż Ardron-Doley
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Aug. 18, 2004

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Ride through the neighborhoods on any hot summer night and you'll quickly bear witness to our city's torrid love affair with playground roundball. You can see it in the eyes of the kids who play with rigged milk crates on poles and in the determined faces of the big-time hopefuls who play in uniformed leagues with refs and adoring fans.

There's lore and respect for the oral history of the courts, along with traditions--many specific to particular courts--that link generations of Philadelphia players. Here, playground basketball is a celebration of athleticism, creativity and brilliance. It's about backboard-shattering dunks, jaw-dropping dishes, wicked crossovers and fresh jump shots.

But playground hoops is also about focus and discipline, which makes it about family, friends, mentors, coaches and good times. For the "old heads" who still play the game, it's a means of staying in shape, a way to hang with friends, an opportunity to mentor. And just because there's a DJ and a lot of good-time trash talk doesn't mean the kids who populate the playgrounds these days are gangsters, thugs or lowlifes, says Bill Harris, a hoops veteran who still competes at Schuylkill River Park playground.

Philadelphia's basketball history is a proud continuum that stretches from Wilt to Dr. J to Allen Iverson; from the 76ers championships in '67 and '83 to Villanova's stunning victory over Georgetown in '85 to this year's remarkable run by the St. Joe's Hawks. The city's also home to living icons like Temple's John Chaney, and storied institutions like the Big Five and the hallowed Palestra.

And then there's Sonny Hill, the city's playground basketball guru and founder of the Baker League, and Earl "the Pearl" Monroe, the Bartram High playground wizard who became an NBA star. This is the real soul of Philly basketball. And you can still find it, alive and kickin' on the playgrounds. And in the hearts of the four playground impresarios we've showcased here.

Malik "Lik Nasty" Alvin: The Future

Malik Alvin took summer classes and still managed to play in eight different basketball leagues. At 5-foot-11, he's already drawing comparisons to NBA stars and getting interest from schools like Stanford, Clemson, Penn State and La Salle. "I jump pretty high for my size," he admits. His dream is to play for the 76ers, but since he's only 15, next year he'll be playing at Simon Gratz High School. On a recent sultry Philadelphia night at the Olney Rec Center at A and Spencer streets, Alvin sat quietly on a park bench and tried to ignore the other hoopsters watching him get interviewed. "My ninth-grade year I didn't play because of academic problems," he says. "But in 10th grade I averaged 24 points and five assists as a point and shooting guard." Alvin says he now works overtime to keep his grades up. "If your grades aren't right, a lot of coaches won't come see you play. I'm in summer school now from 8:30 to 12:30 every day." Alvin started playing basketball as an 8-year-old on this very playground. "The Olney Eagles helped me get better," he says. "We played against different rec centers and boys' clubs." Now in his first year of Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) ball, Alvin is on the court four hours a day, sometimes playing against grown men. He crisscrosses the city, catching rides when he can. "My mom and dad split up," he says. "My mom is having a baby, and she has my little sister and my brother to worry about." His support system consists of Kamal Yard and Lenny Young, who both serve as mentors. "He's one of the best players I've ever seen," says Young. "We used to call him Dennis Rodman. He'd be like,'Don't call me Rodman!' He was 9 years old and jumping over 13-year-olds. Now he's jumping over guys 6-foot-7." This fall Alvin will take his place on the team at Simon Gratz, a school that's produced a lot of big stars, including new NBA championship-ring holder Rasheed Wallace. "Malik has everything it takes to be the No. 1 prospect in America," says Young. "He need only keep his attitude and grades right."

Yolanda Laney: The Player, the Teacher

"I started playing in the sixth grade," says Yolanda Laney, a 41-year-old mother of two and an attorney for the city of Atlantic City. Raised in the West Queen Lane projects in Germantown, Laney started playing ball at the Wissahickon Boys & Girls Club and Mantua Rec Center. She played for teams that won two city championships at Pickett Middle School and three more championships at University City High. In 1982 Laney led her Cheyney University team to the Division I national championships before losing to Louisiana Tech. Two years later she became All-American. Now she's imparting her experience to more than 150 city girls. "Our Developmental Basketball League runs all year--from September to August," she says of her current hoops life. "We do skill work, go over fundamentals--dribbling, shooting, passing, defense, cognitive skills ... the X's and O's of the game." Now living in Willingboro, N.J., Laney commutes to her day job in A.C., then back to Philly for what she calls her "give back" job at places like Germantown's Mallery Rec Center and the Mantua Rec Center. "By the time these girls are seniors in high school, many are highly recruited athletes," she says of her charges. "We have 100 percent placement at Division I universities." This summer the program sent teams to national championships in three states and a teenage squad to the showtime national championships in Atlanta. Laney doesn't shun the entertaining aspects of the game either, noting the popularity of "streetball" and of hip-hop's influence on the game. "What AND1 does with the ball is an art," she says. "The Harlem Globetrotters have been doing it for years; now AND1's taken it to a different level. To show off you have to have the fundamental skills." As a nonprofit, the Developmental Basketball League--which has one of the fastest growing AAU programs in the country--relies heavily on contributions. "We do fundraisers. We get help from local pro athletes like Rasheed Wallace and Alvin Williams," she says. Two decades after she started sharing her knowledge with young girls in this league founded by her old high school coach, Yolanda Laney is as committed as ever. "When you give children a part of yourself, you relive your youth through them," she says.

For more information on the Developmental Basketball League, call 215.242.5473

Dawan "Bounce Wit Me" Robinson: The Collegian

On a recent blazing hot Saturday afternoon at the Waterview Recreation Center in Germantown, two young guys take it to the hoop in front of a few onlookers. "They're out of control," Dawan Robinson chuckles. "They don't take it serious enough." After averaging 31.5 points a game at Martin Luther King High School, Robinson faced a real dilemma his senior year. "I had no Division I scholarship offers," he says. "Nobody was looking at me. That really hurt." Robinson, 22, took his mother's advice and enrolled at Maine Central Institute with the thought of eventually going on to college on a scholarship. Recruiters were at the door before long. Full scholarship in hand, Robinson enrolled at the University of Rhode Island, where he averaged 16.5 points a game last year and was named Third Team All-Conference in the Atlantic 10. "This is where it all started," he says, looking out at the Waterview Rec courts. "Me and my father used to come up here all the time and play ball." It was in this concrete arena that Dawan earned the nickname "Bounce Wit Me." "Everybody knows me for my dribbling and from my appearance on the AND1 mixtape," he says. When not on the playground, Robinson "keeps it college" and practices hard. "There's always somebody better than you trying to get where you are," he says. "I look at film, see what I did wrong and work on it." This fall Robinson, a junior, says he hopes to lead Rhode Island out of the NIT and into the Big Dance.

Keep an eye on Dawan Robinson's career at www.gorhody.collegesports.com/sports/m-baskbl/uri-m-baskbl-body.html

Rodney "Hot Rod" Odrick: The Legend

Popping his head out of the doorway of the weight room at the Germantown Y, Rodney Odrick--a muscular married father of three--strolls across the floor. "I started playing in the projects at 24th and Jefferson when I was 9 or 10," he says by way of introduction. But he also credits the courts at 26th and Master for helping mature him. At 14, he loved Maurice Cheeks so much he wore No. 10 on his jersey. "I used to love wrestling," he says of his first days playing basketball. "Especially Rowdy Roddy Piper. His name was Hot Rod." So he told his coach, "I want 'Hot Rod' on my shirt. My coach was like, 'Who the hell is Hot Rod?'" Over the years Odrick withstood attempts to change his nickname. A playground announcer at 33rd and Diamond tried to dub him "Cut Left, Cut Right," and another at Simons Playground tried calling him "Cuts" for his ability to beat defenders off the dribble. Then came a day when suddenly there was no more basketball. "I stopped when my mom was killed," he says. "I didn't care about anything. I didn't really care about living." He dropped out of Ben Franklin High for a year and started running the streets. A few rough years later Odrick returned to basketball. With help from North Philadelphia basketball guru and mentor Littel Vaughn, Odrick, then 22, flew to California to play for Saddleback College. "I stayed for about two weeks," he says. Odrick was soon on the bus, headed back to Philly. But he couldn't take the trash talk on the street about his failures, so he boarded another bus back to California. He soon bounced to another junior college, and then to the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Reality soon set in. "I was getting older, and I wanted to play pro basketball." Odrick returned again to Philly, where his newly honed skills drew attention. Soon he was playing for teams in Iceland, Brazil and Colombia. "My first night in Colombia, I scored 39 points, had eight assists and probably five rebounds, and we lost the game. But I showed I could play." Now he's home again, but basketball is calling. He's working out and playing in a handful of leagues before heading back to Colombia for a three-month stay. In October he hopes to spend eight months playing for the island of Cyprus. Retirement is not yet in the 33-year-old Hot Rod's plans. "I wish I could have made it to the NBA, but I'm still playing pro basketball and I'm happy with what I'm doing," he says. "Fo' real." Stretching in the doorway that leads to the courts, the cornrowed Hot Rod voices one last observation before jumping into the pickup game: "When I'm here, I'm free."

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