Mid 50s: Bound for Minsk, Belarus to choreograph West Side Story
There is a sense, as there always is in mid-flight, that time and distance have no meaning any longer, transcended by moments of suspension, carried into rare air and the demarcation line of earth and space. You see it through the window, that thin blue line, and are made to understand that strength and frailty, too, live separated only by tiny sequences of metal and rivets strung together and the keen eye of a pilot and the programs he deploys to keep you within that blueness. Call it a tipping point you hope very much not to tip, a teeter-totter that doesn’t.
It comes to mind not because of physics or fantasy. Within it are images of balance that we seek and yet seek to destroy as well – living on the edge, tripping beyond it. These are the places logic tells you not to go, but passion provokes you far, far beyond. Call it what you will, it's the thing that drives us to do what we should not if we want that little blue line to keep us safe.
Yet though we rarely go there ourselves, we seek it out in others, in stories, in fantasy, in ideas and dreams. We look for it in other eyes, in places where passion is the purpose, the point, and where we can, at least for a moment, taste and touch what is beyond our courage so often.
When I was in my early and mid-teens, when basketball was my obsession, I went over to the West Side, down to the mid 50s seeking out courts where the game was really played hard. Hells Kitchen was a real name then, and I remember the tangible fear of walking down streets where it was evident I didn’t belong. Holding that worn out Wilson basketball in the crick of my left arm, bent elbow nutcracker-ing it to my side, sweat from July summer afternoons licking the nape of my neck and ears, I would walk west off the 1 train until I came to the courts, courts which would reveal themselves behind high chain-link fences and the odd, urban echo of the balls bouncing – no, not bouncing – being beaten hard into the ground, a kind of vengeance behind each dribble, a dare to the ball to come back for more. “FRAZIER!” A great pass, a wicked pump fake and Clyde was invoked. “PEARL!” – the sound of a freeze-you-in-your-shoes move, a spin at the hip, a defender laid out. It was all Knicks all the time over there. Those were the glory days of New York Basketball, and whether you loved Willis or Dollar Bill or The Dream (Dean Memminger), you never, ever wanted to be anyone but a Knick. Didn’t matter what side you played on, you were a New Yorker and everyone else was the enemy.
At courtside, waiting to get a game, you had this strange sensation, if you closed your eyes, that everyone was the same. Black. White. Latin (not a lot of Latin ballplayers on those courts at that time); white kids wanted to be The Captain (Willis Reed) as much as black kids wanted to be Mike Riordan (before he got traded to the Bullets for the Pearl), the deadly jumper at the last second taking the game. And everyone invoked the same Gods of the game – it was like soldiers going into battle and praying to the same God to stand by them. Someone was going to get favor. Someone was going to get whacked.
In those, days, on that asphalt, there was one guy we all wanted to be. One Knick who epitomized the game as it was meant to be on those courts, the guy who took the toughest player on the other side and just beat him senseless all game. People would talk about him – not kids like me, other NBA players – in a way that made you think that they were just afraid of the guy. His name was Dave DeBuschere and he was the Knicks enforcer. He played what we called BIG D – big defense. It wasn’t that he was a dirty player. I never, ever remember seeing him shove a guy or hit someone late after a whistle. It wasn’t like that. It was that he was relentless. No one got by DeBuschere. You just didn’t. On the West Side people said “he played the game right.” I remember him talking in an interview about his stomach muscles being so sore after a game that it was like they were going to cramp. It was different over there, on the West Side. It was about defense, about standing your ground. You earned respect for getting knocked down and getting up and keeping your mouth shut.
For me, as the littlest guy on the court always, the only way I got respect was to get hit, or to take a hit, and just live with what came. I remember getting hit so hard by a kid determined to just go through me (he was at least 8 inches taller than me) that my feet just left the ground. I heard it more than I felt it, and I swear the guy didn’t so much go into me as through me – an Agent Smith kind of morph where he came out on the other side and left me absolutely flat on my back.
We lost that game. Bad. Really bad. Like, I’m not even sure we scored – that kind of bad. But at the end, when I went back over to the side, along the chain-link, the guy who had taken me out came over to me. I think I figured I was about to get punched in the face for something.
“What do you weigh, man, like 50 pounds?”
I had no idea what to say. Like I said, I figured my teeth were about to be rearranged.
“This isn’t your neighborhood. You can get in it just by walking the wrong side of the street and you so little nobody would know nothing. Why you here?”
I said something about just wanting to play the game – some dumb response to impending doom.
“Well, OK. I can’t do nothing for you outside this fence, but when you’re in here, you’re OK. Anybody gets run down like you do all the time and gets up for more can play – at least until you end up in the hospital or something.”
Not altogether sure what had just happened I started to sit down and wait my turn when the guy called out to me. “Hey – little man – Little D – we’re down a man. Why don’t you come get in this game with us.”
These are things I haven’t thought about for a long time, memories about being too young, too stupid to understand that a basketball wasn’t a halo and couldn’t protect you from trouble late at night in Hell’s Kitchen. But I never, ever had any trouble from anyone. Maybe I was too little, or maybe it was because I just was so obviously out of place nobody cared. Maybe the kid who ran me over, and who called me Little D from then on, was looking out for me. I don’t know. Maybe it was just luck.
Whatever the reason, it was certainly the place I learned to take a hit. Here, in the first days of July with a new Company and new dreams to stretch out to, and old hits to step beyond, it’s funny that that one day is what comes to mind.
I’m on a plane, at 35,000 feet, just a few days removed from filming in Machu Picchu, heading to the opposite side of the world in just about every way. And in a darkened cabin I’m trying to understand why that memory, of all those that could come, is the one that is present now.
A few weeks after my day as Little D I was up at my Dad’s on 95th street. We didn’t see each other often, and so when we did there were always many questions about what I was doing with my time and my world, about what I cared about and why. My basketball obsession made no sense to my Dad. He listened, he tried to understand it, but you could see by the look in his eye that it was parental affection that made him interested, not the game itself (and that was OK).
For some reason I told him the Little D story.
He was quite for a moment when I finished it. I remember a cigarette in his hand, the sunlight through the window making everything hazy and Marko, our Collie, chewing on something on the carpet.
“What street is the court on?” I told him.
He pulled out the album, a red cover with a fire escape staircase and big black block letters on it.