Thursday, July 27, 2000

Hoop dreamers shoot for the sky


Over-the-Rhine neighbors gather to watch top-notch basketball competition and absorb the friendship

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Ramondo “Mondo” Hill is making like the second coming of Michael Jordan. He drives the lane, one-hands the ball, and from somewhere near the foul line, launches his 6-foot-1 frame toward an orange rim.

        Slam!

        The dunk is impressive. So is the physique. He's a chiseled mass of muscle, clad only in black shorts and shoes.

        Next trip down the court, it's Mondo again. Same move.

        Slam!

        Looks like he brought his “A” game today. Which is to say, he's sharp. But then a dunk attempt goes awry. “Wantin' it too bad,” he'll say later. Meanwhile, the crowd's enjoying the show.

        Several dozen people line the perimeter of the cracked asphalt court at McMicken Avenue and Dunlap Street in the Mohawk area of Over-the-Rhine. It's early afternoon. By evening, hundreds more will converge on this inner-city playground to watch neighborhood teams play pickup basketball.

        They all have hoop dreams: Gritty playgrounders who want to prove they're as good as the guys who got scholarships. Hoopsters who can't afford league fees but want a place to play. Young men still hoping for a shot at junior college. Aging legends of the asphalt who want to show someone — maybe themselves — that they still got game.

        Ramondo Hill is here every weekend. Because at 22, he too has hoop dreams.

        “We need something like this in the city,” the Over-the-Rhine man says. He's just come off the court. His team, Most Wanted, beat Spot Bar.

        In high school he played only part of a season for Taft. “Grades wasn't together,” he says. But now he's working toward a GED. And then maybe he can get into junior college. And play ball.

        A friend sees him. “Put down, no defense,” the friend tells a reporter. “The team got defense, but Mondo don't.”

        Mondo pays him no mind. He looks to the court. “This is gonna be a good game right here,” he says. A-1, an Avondale team, is about to take on the Young Guns, from Over-the-Rhine.

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        Tony Brown says he had no idea the games would get this popular. He's 37, a supervisor for a plastics company. He lives in Mount Auburn and describes himself as a former “gym rat.” Mr. Brown played for Hughes High. Back in May, he and a couple of dozen friends got together for some pickup basketball.

        They gathered at a court at Spring and 12th streets. Then the word spread, and the number of players and spectators grew. Soon people were assembling teams in Over-the-Rhine, West End, Avondale, Evanston, English Woods and elsewhere. Mostly, it was guys who'd been playing together all their lives.

        The games made headlines last month when the Cincinnati Recreation Commission removed the rims at Spring and 12th. Officials said a chain link fence had been destroyed, and there were concerns about litter.

        “There was a thought that we were trying to eliminate the games by taking the goals down — absolutely not true,” says Wayne Bain, CRC director. The downed fence posed a safety hazard for children who might run into the street, he says.

        So the games moved to a bigger playground at McMicken and Dunlap. There are still concerns about too much trash, but organizers got garbage bags and the CRC cleans up on Mondays. The informal summer league runs all weekend. There are plans for an August tournament.

        On this Sunday morning, things start slowly. About 9, a few people arrive with a grill, hot dogs and chicken. At 10:15, a van pulls up with charcoal and ice. Somebody brings a new basketball net to replace a tattered one.

        Darrell Clark is one of the early arrivals. He's 33 and plays for a team called the Suns, Tony Brown's team. “We're in first place, man,” he says. They've got a lot of former high school all-stars on that team, and a lot of experience. Which is to say, most of their players are older.

        The Suns will take on English Woods later today. Two good teams.

        Usually in pickup games, a team stays on the court until it gets beat. But nobody wanted one team to dominate, Tony Brown says. So each of the 22 teams plays once a day. A game consists of two 20-minute halves.

        Competition is fierce. “Because it's neighborhoods. It's braggin' rights,” says Michael Brown, Tony's 45-year-old brother and a Suns player.

        A few teams have special T-shirts made up, but most can't afford it. Sometimes, it's shirts vs. skins.

        Charlotte Phillips and Verna Johnson drove from Mount Airy to take it all in. They sit in lawn chairs under a big umbrella that shields them from the sun.

        “You got a Michael Jordan dunkin', you got a Scottie Pippin out there, and a Kobe (Bryant),” says Charlotte, who is 32.

        You got fast-paced, high-flyin' basketball.

        “It's the amateur NBA out here,” says 27-year-old Laurie Maull of Price Hill, here with three step-sisters. “We know somebody on every team, so we're basically rooting for all the teams.”

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        Nobody roots for the refs.

        It's OK. Bo Johnson can take it. He'll officiate seven, maybe eight games on a Saturday. Then do it again Sunday.

        “It's rough out there,” the 42-year-old Westwood man says. “You might make a good call, and they say, "That's a bad call.' You might come down on the other end, and they say, "Man, you got to give me some calls.'

        “I always tell 'em, "You got to bring your game. I ain't givin' you nothin.'”

        On the court, there's lots of trash talk. “Lots of techs, too,” he says. Technical fouls. He's not afraid to blow the whistle.

        He's been poked in the chest a few times. But that's the extent of it, he says. Never any physical violence.

        In the heat of competition, tempers sometimes flare, Tony Brown says, “but we've been able to say, "We ain't having that.' And that's the end of it.”

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        Ron Mack of East Walnut Hills is here with his sons, 6-year-old Rassan, and 11-year-old Ron Jr. The boys play in organized leagues.

        “You learn the fundamentals in the gym,” Ron Sr. says, “but you learn everything else out here on the blacktop. Very seldom do you see somebody out here that's real mediocre. If they're down here, they came to bring it.”

        If you can “bring it,” you can put the ball in the hole. Ricardo “Hometown” Foster can bring it. He's 37 years old. Mr. Foster played for Hughes High from 1979-82, and says he led the city in assists his last two years.

        Now he's a point guard for the Suns. “I can't go like I used to go,” he says. Neither can his teammates, who are twice as old as some of the players they face. “But we're the best team because we play smart and together. (Younger players) jump out like rabbits, and at the end, we show up.”

        The best team? You get different opinions.

        “I know we're the best team out there,” says Kevin “K-K” Jones. He's a stockily-built, 5-foot-10 power forward. A wide body. He plays for Smoke Stack, a team from Laurel Homes.

        He played some high school ball. “Ran into a little trouble,” he says, “then I started playing in the penitentiary.”

        Drug charges. It's all behind him now, he says.

        At 27, he says he'll play “as long as these old knees hold up.”

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        The day wears on. The crowd grows larger. Smoke from three charcoal grills wafts over the playground. The talk courtside turns to the day's marquee matchup: Suns vs. English Woods.

        English Woods has some talent. Shamahn McBride, an Aiken High grad, was a shooting guard for the University of Houston until he graduated in 1998. He played pro ball in Vienna, Austria, last year.

        English Woods also has Kendrick Lockett, who played for Hughes High and Clermont College. He's pumped. “If I can't get you 20 points, I'll get you 15 boards,” he tells a friend.

        Just after 7 p.m., LC, a team from Lincoln Court, wraps up a win against McMicken. Then English Woods and the Suns take the court.

        Maybe 500 people surround the court. Their chatter mixes with a blasting car stereo, simple tunes from an ice cream truck and trash talk on the asphalt.

        English Woods jumps out to a 6-0 lead. They're fast and flashy, and it looks like the older Suns can't keep up. Midway through the first half, an English Woods guard, Andre Thompson, makes a pretty behind-the-back pass to Kendrick Lockett, who finishes the play with a dunk. The crowd loves it.

        But the Suns settle down, and battle back. At halftime, they're ahead by a point.

        Late in the second half, the Suns find themselves 12 points down. It looks like they're out of it. Then Tony Brown gets a hot hand, and drills three 3-pointers. Regulation time expires with the teams tied at 67.

        In overtime, Tony Brown scores all the Suns points. They win, 72-70.

        Kendrick Lockett's gray T-shirt is drenched in sweat. He's complaining about the refs' calls. He's complaining about his coach's strategy. “It was a good game, though,” he says, and he shakes hands with Tony Brown.

        But Kendrick can't put the lid on trash talk just yet.

        “We'll see (the Suns) in the championship game, 'cause they'll cheat their way there.”

        Tristate Scenes is a periodic series of stories on the people, places and events that help define Greater Cincinnati. If you have a story suggestion, e-mail John Johnston at jjohnston@enquirer.com.

       



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