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Original Issue


During the summer, playground basketball steps out jauntily in leagues as varied as their locales

In the West 4th Street Pro-Classic league in Manhattan's Greenwich Village (left), the commissioner rules from his taxicab, not by executive Fiat. During time-outs, coaches compete for the ears of their players with the disco beat blaring from spectators' boxes. By New York City subway stops and in languid New England towns, across the U.S. heartland to the beaches of California, summer basketball leagues take the anarchy of the playground game and slap crude codes upon it. Listen to Ron Creth, the man on the megaphone at West 4th Street. An improbable shot rises from an interchange of arms and legs in the lane, known as Death Valley: "He's beggin' for rain in the desert!" Sometimes pros mingle with average Joes to give a league cachet. A young Lew Alcindor once stepped through the fence onto the cramped court at West 4th; at the Dirt Bowl in Lexington, Ky., former University of Kentucky and NBA players Jack Givens and James Lee guard each other; Billy Paultz (Spurs) and Mark Olberding (Bulls) are among those going three-on-three in Laguna Beach, Calif. They'll pull rebounds out of the sky until autumn drives them back indoors.

While presiding over the weekend quadrupleheaders at West 4th Street, Commissioner Ken Graham (above) always tries to be fare. Omar Khayyam, as the scorekeeper calls himself, records the points with an artistic flourish. In Woodstock, Vt. (far right), the local court is hard by a clapboard old folks' home. An errant pass may land in the adjacent Ottauquechee River; once, a passing motorist, seeing a ball go over the dam three miles downstream, retrieved it and brought it back the next day.

The Herb Washington Arena in Lexington is named for the founder of the storied Dirt Bowl League in Douglass Park, which began in 1962 on an earthen court. Now, on Super Sunday in July, the painted asphalt court hosts six games and a slam-dunk contest, while nearby tents purveying barbecue and revivalist religion do a booming business. Young and old alike turn out to hear little Randall (Toot Toot) McAfee (right) sing The Star-Spangled Banner, as the public address man describes it, "in 10 different languages at the same time."

The city of Laguna Beach once had full courts surfside, but everyone seemed too laid back to play anything but the half-court game, so two half courts were installed instead. Now the summer's three three-on-three tournaments attract players from all over the West in five different age and height divisions. The participants even call their own fouls and violations.