Why is basketball called Kaefig
basketball : Manhattan Wrens: New York's toughest basketball court
The spectators in the first row have clawed their hands in the mesh of the cage, those behind stretch their necks in order to be able to take a look at the game. A few students hold their smartphones on them. “Wooooohhh”, they whisper excitedly when one of the basketball players pulls past two defenders and puts the ball in the net, really big show. Suddenly, however, two players build up in front of each other, one holds the other by the neck, pushes him away, the show becomes serious.
"Guys, guys, guys. Get in, "says Doc and puts his massive torso in between. Doc wears black shorts and a bright red T-shirt, his bald head shines in the sun. He pushes the men away from each other with both hands, they hiss a few more insults, then it's quiet.
Doc is 52, they respect Doc. After all, he's been coming here for more than 30 years, on New York's most famous outdoor basketball court, the name of which sounds as legendary as it is intimidating: The Cage. The cage. Because the playing field is surrounded by a black four meter high chain link fence. Because the course is narrower and shorter than others, it makes the game more aggressive. Because only a few dare to get in here - and because the cage won't let go of those who dare.
Doc came back
When Doc first played in the cage, he was a teenager. A school friend had taken him away. “The course was legendary back then and I wasn't really up for it. I was nervous, you can imagine, ”he says. His mother still lives in the apartment Doc grew up in, just a few minutes from the cage. His buddy lost interest at some point. Doc came back. Walked from school to the cage every afternoon. Made new friends. Regardless of whether he worked as a bicycle courier as a young man, later tried his hand at singing or, as he does today, runs a small recording studio in Manhattan's Midtown - Doc stayed true to the cage.
He has never dreamed of being a professional, he had no talent for that. However, some of his cage companions made it into the NBA professional league. Like Williams Henry "Smush" Parker, who played with superstar Kobe Bryant for the Los Angeles Lakers from 2005 to 2007 and earned millions. Other friends became addicted to crack and collapsed in front of Doc.
“For most of us, the cage has become a constant in life. Even if things don't go well at work or in a relationship, you know the boys are there. "Doc now lives in Jersey City, on the other side of the Hudson River. He is still drawn to the cage several times a week. He has neither a wife nor children, which is one of the reasons why the cage provides support. “Sometimes I start working extra early so I can play in the afternoon,” he says. The others did the same.
Tourists stand on the sandals
The cage is on Sixth Avenue, between West 3rd and West 4th Streets. In the middle of Greenwich Village, one of the most expensive and desirable neighborhoods in New York. Around the corner from Washington Square Park and Bleecker Street, where the cappuccino is $ 4.50. Tourists stand here on their sandals for jazz concerts in the Blue Note. Carrie Bradshaw's famous entrance from the series "Sex and the City" is not far.
Where the cage is, you can still get a glimpse of the Manhattan of yore. Piercing studio next to tattoo parlor next to hot dog stall. Everything a bit shattered, especially the McDonald’s, which is famous for its drunkenness.
Before it starts on this sunny May Tuesday, it is shortly before 2 p.m., Doc shoves his broad chest into the cage. Sits on one of the few folding chairs reserved for the veterans. He brought a pack of chicken wings. “The special thing about the Cage is the audience,” he says. “We play for them. And we are rewarded with applause. ”And:“ This is not a game, this is a fight. ”The phrases, he knows, are legendary.
More dramatic than Broadway plays
There is an exit from the West 4th Street subway station directly in front of the cage. Seven lines stop here. Thousands of people rush out of the stuffy underground into the air every day - but hardly anyone rushes past the cage. Some slow their pace for a few seconds, most stay stuck for minutes. Some viewers spend several hours here every day in the summer. You come for the great drama that is called basketball but is so much more.
The cage offers performances that are more dramatic than many Broadway plays, funnier than some stand-up comedy, and rougher than the trick basketball players of the Harlem Globetrotters. Nowhere is there a show like it. "We players know that we have to offer something," says Doc.
There are hundreds of courts in New York where basketball is played. The game on the street is part of the myth of the city like graffiti, rap and breakdancing. Anyone who makes a name for themselves here can become a legend. Like Herman "Helicopter" Knowlings in the 60s, Joe "The Destroyer" Hammond in the 70s, James "Pookie" Wilson in the 80s. Or just "Smush" Parker.
Without a nickname, you're a nobody in the cage. Doc is not called Doc either, his name is Angelo Velasquez, but that doesn't matter here. How did he get his nickname? “Because I don't speak much when I play. I am very focused. Like a doctor. ”Doc takes off his sunglasses, takes off his sweater and digs orange sneakers out of his backpack.
Chewing gum in your mouth, headphones in your ear
If you want attention, get it here. Whereby you have to work out the possibilities for self-expression. The beginners start at an extra basket on the edge and have to hold out there for some time before they can go onto the big field. They call the main square “N.B.A.”. No Babies Allowed. And there, too, special rules apply to the newcomers. Don't claim fouls, for example. And above all: listen to the experienced.
In summer the cage is usually filled from 2 p.m., but even in winter the hardened throw their baskets. The cage is only empty when it rains or the temperatures drop too much. The game is played as long as daylight allows.
The other regular players have now also entered the cage. Chewing gum in your mouth, headphones in your ear, cap on your head. Sisqo and CIA, the Greek and T.J., Wyclef, The Green Eyed Bandit, Beenie. Drop their backpacks on the edge of the field, have a sip of Gatorade or a cola. “What's going on, brother?” You hug each other, pat the other on the back with your fist. Everything in slow motion. Pulling a heel to your butt, disinterested stretching. Just don't get excited. There will be later.
New York has a few other basketball courts with local notoriety. The one in the northern part of Central Park, for example. Or the one on the Brooklyn Piers, right on the East River. But only about the cage on West 4th Street were books written and films made. Simeon Soffer's documentary “Portrait of a Park” was last published in 2015. The Cage plays a supporting role in a number of feature films, for example in the Whoopi Goldberg comedy "Eddie". Even Gregg Popovich, the legendary coach of the San Antonio Spurs and future coach of the US national team, stopped by.
"An NBA Star!"
The tournaments in summer - the so-called Summer League - are also legendary. In contrast to everyday life, men and women play, many of whom are active in clubs. The teams have coaches, there are referees and, in the end, a male and a female winning team. Young basketball players from the Bronx, Harlem or Brooklyn have a good chance of being spotted here.
Doc remembers how spectators even sat in the trees when the great "Smush" Parker competed in the Summer League a few years ago. Parker had recently retired from his professional career. “An NBA star! But he really wanted to know again in the cage, "says Doc, who at the time was just watching and crossing his fingers for his buddy.
But the Summer League has become too professional over the decades, says Doc. “It used to be rough, a tournament for the guys from the neighborhood. It's too neat today. Nike jerseys and stuff. ”But Doc also knows that the annual tournament helped make the cage known. Thanks to the television and newspaper reports, even basketball fans in Los Angeles, Chicago or Miami know about him. If you are looking for street basketball in New York, you cannot ignore the cage.
Only Worthy has more authority in the cage than Doc, he keeps things tidy. An African American with gray, short hair and an imposing gap in the lower row of teeth, you can see Worthy every 57 years of his life. At least. He wears a whistle around his neck, which is only used in extreme cases. The players settle fouls among themselves.
"Your face is a joke!"
Worthy's socks are in black flip-flops. He didn't come to play, more importantly: Worthy is the master of the list. The players stand on a piece of cardboard in the order in which they can choose their teams. 1. Speedy, 2. Doc, 3. Chris, 4. Wyclef. “Someone has to organize,” says Worthy. "Otherwise the kids will do what they want."
Worthy is convinced that the spectators are offered top-class sport in the cage. “Even LeBron would have problems here,” he explains. Worthy means LeBron James, the superstar of the Cleveland Cavaliers, currently the best basketball player in the world. “The pitch is tight, the game is rough. Body size matters less here, you have to get used to it, ”says Worthy. Also of the constant noise of the insults, the trash talk. In professional sport, the sayings are there to intimidate the opponent. In the cage to entertain the audience. "Your movements are a joke!" - "Your face is a joke!"
When the first game started, all relaxation was gone. The main show includes yelling, jostling, and sometimes beating. Five against five. Whoever scores twelve points wins. The outfits can also be extroverted. The one they call Wyclef plays in jeans and a bare chest. CIA doesn't take off his sunglasses. One of the boys keeps his headphones in his ear.
He doesn't sprint, he trots. He's allowed to
The blue-yellow hard rubber place is covered with maple blossoms and is slippery. The first actions fail. A pass ends up out of bounds, a lay-up goes wrong. After two minutes the first stress. The Greek, who actually comes from Greece, and a man with a headband insult each other. It's hard to guess why. It doesn't matter, drama as an end in itself. "Get out of here!" - "Who are you?" Next.
Both teams fit a lot and quickly. Only Doc is holding back. He doesn't sprint, he trots. Avoid the corners, organize the game from behind. Younger players shouldn't afford such comfort. Doc may.
When does he want to stop? What a question. He's only 52. "People have already played here, they were almost 80!" Says Doc, opening his eyes wide. The cage is a part of his life like music. “I spend most of the time either in my studio or on the court. I need this balance, ”he says. The other players are his friends, of course, although you can hardly see each other outside the field. "It's basketball friendships," says Doc. "But those for life."
There is a VIP area in the cage. Leo's Corner. A corner full of plastic folding chairs reserved for the elderly with back pain. In the summer, Uncle Leo, a pensioner with a gray shaggy beard, rents the seats to spectators. Two dollars a game.
The dialectic of tenderness and hardness
On the field, sweat is now flowing freely, defenders and attackers are fighting under the basket for the best position, for every centimeter. Sometimes they lean their bodies against each other almost gently, only to push each other with force. The magic of the cage also includes this dialectic of tenderness and hardness.
Then another argument. “You were last on the ball, right arm!” - “You are lying. Damn it always. We all know! ”The games also last so long because every foul and every ball is discussed when it is out of bounds. The more dramatic, the more likely that more passers-by will stop.
Feeling like a star without being a star - there is no other outdoor space in New York that works as well as the Cage. "Some people don't get a lot of attention in life," says Doc, "here they can show what they can do and are respected."
The leisurely captain has a decent day. Doc hands out the passports, and while the others swirl around in sweat-soaked T-shirts, his forehead is still dry. His team will win in the end, 12 to 9. Once he hits from the triple line, the audience claps, and on the way back to his own half he peaks his mouth in a long “uhhhhhh”. Such moments, they still feel very, very good even after more than 30 years in the cage.
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