It's a clip so viral that the CDC is probably tracking it—YouTube footage of Kevin Durant in Harlem last month, dropping a dozen of his 66 points in a summer-league game at Rucker Park. Two things in that video stand out, and together they tell us something enduring about basketball at this lockout-fraught moment. One: After each of the four three-pointers Durant sinks down the stretch, he revels in every touch and hug from rapturous spectators who spill from the sideline onto the court. And two: In the middle of the crowd mobbing Durant after the buzzer is a guy wearing a T-shirt reading SECURITY.
If we won't be getting a shot of hoops at a licensed establishment anytime soon, the game's speakeasies appear happy to do the pouring. On Aug. 16 the Lakers' Kobe Bryant dropped a buzzer-beating winner over Durant's Oklahoma City teammate James Harden during a game in Los Angeles's Drew League. On Aug. 30 nearly 4,000 fans filled Morgan State's Hill Field House in Baltimore to catch a Melo League team (patron Carmelo Anthony, plus LeBron James and Chris Paul) beat one from D.C.'s Goodman League (Durant, Austin Daye and Jarrett Jack). When the Drews jumped cross-country to take on the Goodmans in Washington (the home team won 135--134 in a game that at one point had nine NBA players on the court), everyone wore a shirt bearing the phrase BASKETBALL NEVER STOPS.
Given the odds against a 2011--12 NBA season, that message is an ideological statement, one that should cheer fans and give owners pause. When pros show up to run at a park on the corner for nothing and kids who could never afford a ticket to an NBA game hang from chain-link to watch them, also for nothing, Durant and his brethren don't seem as avaricious as management would like to paint them. "People recognize that players could get injured," says Bobbito Garcia, author, deejay and arbiter of all things asphalt, whose documentary on New York City playground ball, Doin' It in the Park, is expected to be released next year. "And places like Barry Farm [in D.C.] and Dyckman [in upper Manhattan] aren't protected environments like NBA arenas. So in terms of credibility—basketball and street—it's great. It's outreach. They're saying, 'We love the game. We play for nothing.'"
Even if this is all being stage-managed by savvy agents, shoe companies or the players' association itself, it's smart p.r. More than that, it's quintessential hoops. Basketball is the lone sport whose top players consistently bypass middlemen to go directly to the people. In New York City the schoolyard cameo dates back to the 1950s, when Wilt Chamberlain showed up for a Rucker League game, only to be hook-dunked on by a kid just out of Boys' High in Brooklyn named Connie Hawkins. In the early '70s playground legend Joe (the Destroyer) Hammond took on ABA stars Charlie Scott and Julius Erving, with Hammond lighting up one of them (oral historians differ as to which) for 50 in one half. When a Pee Wee Kirkland matches up with a Nate (Tiny) Archibald, the public can take the might-have-been's measure and decide just how much might is there. Nate Robinson will always be beloved in New York for showing up at West Fourth Street in 2006 to call "Next!" in the midst of his rookie season with the Knicks. "After Bernard King rocked West Fourth in the '70s, people talked about it for decades," Garcia says. "Those moments live on as fantasy because they're only retold through folklore. That's what makes them beautiful. With YouTube, everything's more documented now."
Documented or not, the point is, it's still happening. Years ago commissioner David Stern resuscitated the NBA by making the league's players its product. Now the players are following that marketing maxim as faithfully as any Midtown executive. The Drews are hoping to get Bryant for a rematch with the Goodmans, this time on the West Coast—Round 2 of a bragging-rights derby that if extended, could become a kind of NBA season in the breach. And trainer-to-the-stars Joe Abunassar has plans for a two-week, eight-team, pros-only league at his Impact Academy in Las Vegas, set to begin on Sept. 12.
So don't mourn the ruination of your NBA fantasy league. Precisely because it isn't on ESPN or TNT, bootleg basketball provides more than enough fantasy to compensate. Recall what former Globetrotter Bobby Hunter once said about a from-the-foul-line, two-full-corkscrews-in-flight dunk that playground legend Earl (the Goat) Manigault reputedly hammered over two college stars, 6'5" Vaughn Harper and 6'9" Val Reed, in a gym on Harlem's 113th Street in 1963: "I have personally never seen its equal. And I was in Detroit at the time."
"BOOTLEG BASKETBALL COULD BECOME A KIND OF NBA SEASON IN THE BREACH."
SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE
The Islanders have designated Tattoo Lou's, a Long Island--based chain, as the "official tattoo shop of the New York Islanders Hockey Club" and will set up a tattooing and body-piercing station (made to look like a penalty box) on the Nassau Coliseum concourse for 10 home games this season.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW