Playground basketball in Boston is dying. Which is a shame, because for more than half a century hoops soothed the Hub during racism, violence, and injustice.
They were basketball legends.
Jimmy Walker invented the between-the-legs and crossover dribbles on a Humboldt Avenue playground. Steve “Stro” Strother had more moves than Ex-Lax. Willis “Spider” Bennett could jump so high he could take a dollar bill off the top of the backboard and leave change.
For more than 60 years, Boston streetball players put on a free show every summer—drawing oohs and ahs from crowds, sometimes outplaying NBA all-stars, and always bringing palms together on hot city nights.
The tales are endless: After the NCAA lifted the ban on dunking in the ’70s, Boston’s “Jammin’” James Bailey put the oop back in alley-oop while leading Rutgers to an NCAA Final Four appearance. After that, Bailey played nine years in the NBA, though one summer night he was famously outplayed by “Big” Tom Cowart, a local character who was unknown beyond Roxbury. It’s a similar story for Greg “Smooth” Simpson, who could have made the NBA, but instead set the all-time state prison scoring record. And don’t forget Dawun “Chan the Man” Chandler, who could dribble the ball like it was a yo-yo.
Look around Boston now and you’ll see that the show—with its improvisations, unforgettable characters, and dramatic twists —is nearing an end. Parks that raised generations of ballplayers are now barren. Different local hoops observers argue that the trend stems from various factors—gentrification, the rise of street gangs, more social distractions—but they agree on one thing: Boston basketball is dying.
“It brings a tear to my eye when I see empty courts at Washington Park,” says Dennis Wilson, whose extensive basketball history includes 34 years as the head coach at Madison Park High School in Roxbury. “The same passion isn’t there today. Kids today would rather chill, work, or unfortunately get caught up in that gang thing. Back in the day, summertime was synonymous with streetball.”
Wilson would know—he and his brother Harry founded the city’s premier outdoor league, the Roxbury Basketball Association, which operated from 1972 to 1987. The RBA was Boston’s counterpart to other storied basketball leagues such as the Rucker in Harlem or the Baker League in Philadelphia.
The stories that spring out of such leagues make up a secret basketball history—tall tales of high-flyers, ball-handling wizards, and playground legends who outplayed established pros. On the asphalt, everything is equal, and the players who distinguish themselves become streetball heroes. The dramatic victories and sad declines of these heroes make them more compelling than any fictional character as they become an integral part of the city’s lore.
The intensity of streetball then and now is captured concisely and poetically in the new book, Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop and Street Basketball, by Onaje X.O. Woodbine. In his work, Woodbine argues that street basketball is a “lived religion in which the central problems and structures of inner city life are displayed, renegotiated and reimagined on the court.”
Woodbine, a former Boston basketball star himself, conducted four years of field studies of inner-city Boston streetball. He found that “the ways the players move, style and display their bodies on the court say something profound about their search for ultimate meaning in the world.”
“Our exaggerated movements and deceptive tricks with the basketball spoke a language of resistance.”
In Boston, our highest asphalt god is Steve “Stro” Strother. And our greatest playground tale is the night that Stro outplayed an all-time great Celtic in Roxbury’s Washington Park. To put it simply, Stro is Boston’s greatest who never made it. In 1982, legendary Boston Globe sportswriter Peter Gammons offered this thumbnail bio:
Stro . . . a certified playground legend . . . the greatest one-on-one player in the history of this city . . . Dorchester High School class of ’71 . . .Providence College class of ’76 . . . drafted by the Houston Rockets in the spring of ’75 even though he’d never started a college ballgame . . . a 6-2 guard who could penetrate, stick the jumper, leap out of the gym and dribble through every defense known to man.
Strother might have been a favorite on the streets, but he didn’t get much attention playing at Dorchester High in the city league. Most of the spotlight at the time was on schoolboy stars Ron Lee, a Lexington High School player and one of the first METCO students, and Catholic Memorial star King Gaskins —two of the famed Boston Six who in 1972 created enough excitement to bring national recruiters here for the first time.
Strother graduated the year before that excitement. He wasn’t nationally recruited and settled on playing for Providence, where he infuriated coaches with his shot selection and collected splinters on the bench. As Strother struggled, Gaskins became Boston’s only first team All-American, while Lee went on to superstardom in his own right at the University of Oregon.
But in a Dec 23, 1975, televised matchup between Lee and Strother, it was Stro who stole the show. By then Lee was an All-American, the top defensive guard in the country, and on his way to becoming Oregon’s all-time scoring leader. But in a shocking outcome, Stro came off the bench to outplay Lee, score 18 points, and play tough defense on Lee in a Providence win over Oregon.
Talking to reporters after the game, Strother displayed his usual bravado: “Sure, the other guys—the Lees, Gaskins, good players—they got the publicity, but downtown, on the playgrounds, they knew I was the man.”
Stro was the man. Even Gaskins, widely regarded as Boston’s best pure shooter of all time, had to admit Stro was unstoppable. “When he played with us in summer leagues and we’d get down, we’d give the ball to Stro,” Gaskins told the Globe’s Gammons years later. “The fans would chant, ‘Run the show, Stro.’ That was like giving Wonder Dog his pill. He’d go crazy then. No one could stop him.”
“He was the one guy who could go one-on-one with the world,” Billy Collins, another member of the Boston Six, told the Globe. “Stro was money. If I had talent like that, I don’t think anything would have stopped me from being in the NBA.”
But Stro never made it. He was cut from his only NBA tryout and never bothered to go back to Providence for his degree. He went to work for Boston’s probation department, then took a job as a youth counselor, but the position was soon eliminated. In 1979 he showed up at Celtics training camp for a tryout with the team, but it was the year Larry Bird came to town, and there was no place for Stro. “Red [Auerbach] and [Bill] Fitch told me I should have been more formal,” he told a reporter.
“So many great players could have been stars and end up being street legends,” says Wilson, the Madison Park coach and key early organizer. “Stro never had an advisor to push him, and unfortunately he did get caught up in drinking and substances. Everyone knew he was the baddest boy in town.”
‘TOO STRONG FOR GUARDS’
Stro had missed the big time, but in the summer of ’76 he got a chance to prove himself against one of the best—Charlie Scott, an NBA All-Star and all-around champion.
In its heyday, the Roxbury Basketball Association attracted other NBA players as well, but few were as acclaimed as Charlie Scott. A New York City playground legend, Scott was the first African-American to receive an athletic scholarship to the University of North Carolina, won a gold medal in the 1968 Olympics, and is considered one of the most talented players not in the basketball hall of fame.
Stro was at his peak. “A beast,” Wilson says. “He was six-three, strong, too quick for big men and too strong for guards.”
The stage was set—Stro vs Scott, Washington Park, the Mecca of Boston streetball, an eight o’clock game under the lights. Wilson brought out speakers, his turntable, and a microphone so he could spread the word and announce the game. The streets buzzed. Spectators—maybe as many as 800—lined the court seven rows deep. Kids climbed up tennis court fences and stood on an ice cream truck to get a better view.
“It was a packed house,” Wilson says. “The music was blasting, beautiful ladies walking by. People came out for the festive atmosphere. Police respected us so much they let us double-park up and down the boulevard. The street dudes respected us and the crews policed the area. They let people know there wouldn’t be any drama Friday, Saturday, or Sunday night.”
The excitement was justified—Boston basketball had been waiting for a moment like this, a moment to establish itself, for decades.
Dennis Wilson (quoted above) is one of the main subjects portrayed in the outstanding Boston hoops documentary Madison Versus Madison.
Basketball, which requires only a slab of concrete, sneakers, a hoop, and a rock, has historically been the city game. But in the first half of the 20th century in Massachusetts, the art was perfected in cities other than Boston—places like Quincy, Fall River, and Somerville, where the children of European immigrants dominated the game. Meanwhile in Boston, basketball wasn’t even played in the city’s public schools until 1945.
Between 1950 and 1970, Boston’s black population more than tripled. In a city with declining economic fortunes, the growing black community was often scapegoated by whites who reacted with racial hostility in politics, housing, finances, and jobs.
On the court, however, throughout Boston’s most turbulent years, local basketball reached a high point—and even helped heal a broken city at some especially difficult moments. The Boston Neighborhood Basketball League, in particular, brought residents of different races together in competition—even as the city simmered with racial tension.
The BNBL is more of a social movement than a basketball league. The league’s bedrock is ’60s grassroots activism; it was founded by community leaders and socially conscious NBA icons as the public feared that Roxbury residents would riot, as people of color had done elsewhere.
Less than a year after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, three instrumental Boston community leaders in particular took the upcoming summer head-on. The previous two summers had seen local disturbances, and the trio had a shared concern for the youth. They were Ken Hudson, who worked at Coca-Cola; Clarence “Jeep” Jones, a streetball star turned deputy mayor to Kevin White; and Rudy Cabral, a longtime advocate for city youth.
“Ken [Hudson], Rudy [Cabral], and I got talking about hot, troubled summers and Rudy asked Ken if Coke might want to fund a summer basketball league. Rudy and I wrote a proposal that called for a $30,000 program including pro clinics and gave it to Kenny,” Jones recalled in a 1979 history of the BNBL written by Globe writer Dan Shaugnessey. The BNBL got off the ground and running within months—largely thanks to help from Roscoe Baker of the Roxbury Boys Club and Celtics champions Tom “Satch” Sanders and Wayne Embry. The South Boston branch was run by future mayor Ray Flynn, a former star player himself at Providence College. The next year, a girls’ league was added by Alfreda Harris.
In the BNBL’s 47 years, more than 120,000 Boston kids have learned the fundamentals of basketball while staying busy in the summer. In addition, the league helped keep the peace during violent times. Summer 1975 was arguably the peak of racial turmoil in Boston; with school busing scheduled to begin in the fall, on August 10 black picnic-goers were attacked at Carson Beach in South Boston, which set off a riot in which 40 were hurt. Two days later, in Mission Hill, police—reportedly with duct tape on their badges to obscure their names—chased black residents into a bar where they set dogs on and beat the residents.
The next night there was more conflict between police and black citizens—the Mission Hill projects were surrounded and blockaded by authorities. At the same time, across the street, a mixed-race crowd of close to one thousand screaming hoops fans watched the BNBL championship game—a game between an all-white West Roxbury team and an all-black Roxbury team—in peace.
The next day the Globe reported: “It was black versus white at the Boston State College gym last night. They were throwing around soft basketballs at soft iron hoops … The same conflict was going on just 50 yards across Huntington Ave. at the Mission Hill project. Except over there it was rocks and bottles that were flying through the air. And they were not aiming at basketball rims … it didn’t matter that the players were of different colors, or that fans wouldn’t be able to use some of the closed off side streets after the game. All that mattered was 20 foot jump shots and blocked shots.”
It may have been the BNBL’s finest moment. “Basketball brought us together,” says Mike Mitchell, who played in the first BNBL and is now the co-director. “Boston has always had racial tension but sports dissolves race—if you can play ball, you can play ball.”
Boston basketball was establishing itself in the summer of ’76, but hoops respect was earned on the streets, where everything is equal. In this meritocracy, Stro was Boston’s playground representative. In the irreverent 1980 chronicle of the playground game, The In Your Face Basketball Book, Stro is ranked among the 12 best playground ballers of all time in any region—an exclusive street hall of fame in which Strother is the only Bostonian. In the entry, his “memorable facial” move is described in a manner that sounds an awful lot like Michael Jordan’s most memorable play in the 1991 NBA Finals:
In one pick-up game, Stro drove the lane and, as he jumped and leaned in to take a right handed eight footer, a big man loomed in his way. In midair, Strother switched the ball to his left hand and—on his way down—threw in an underhanded scoop shot.
Stro electrified a troubled city when business was slow, crime was up, and those who could fled to the suburbs. As Boston crumbled around him, Stro’s incredible moves fueled a new sort of urban mythology. In his matchup against NBA baller Charlie Scott in Washington Park, Stro got his chance to put Boston streetball squarely on the atlas.
As the game opened on the sunken court at Washington Park, Scott missed his first shots and was soon being outplayed by Stro. “Stro gave him the business—took it to him and had the place jumping,” Wilson recalls. “Charlie Scott was a great offensive player but not the greatest defender. Stro had such an arsenal. The crowd started razzing Charlie Scott—chanting, ‘Run the show Stro! Run the show!’ Stro was good on D too, and Scott can’t get going.”
It all added up to a humiliating defeat for Scott, the New York legend, as he was conquered by Boston’s own. All that plus a final devastating denouement. Says Wilson: “Finally, the crowd is picking on Scott so much he kicks the ball two court-lengths away. He was embarrassed and he stormed off.”
Forty years after Stro’s memorable performance, Boston playgrounds no longer attract the same level of skill or excitement. “The talent and participation is watered down now,” says Greg “Smooth” Simpson, the playground ace who missed the NBA but rebounded to work with kids as a coach and anti-violence street worker. He continues, “Kids from the projects today can’t travel to play ball like when we were young … There’s so much talent in Jamaica Plain, the Bromley Heath Projects, but kids can’t go to Washington Park because they have beef with Humboldt—it’s not safe.”
Boston streetball can attract gang members, hustlers, and gamblers at the outer edges. In 2013, for example, a tournament that ended in a lost fistfight begat a gang member spraying the crowd with bullets. However, in Woodbine’s brilliant Black Gods of the Asphalt, the author points out that if you walk further through the crowd, you’ll see a diverse section of observers in the second ring as well as an innermost ring of wise basketball elders.
Woodbine observes that nearly every streetball tournament memorializes black men who died before their time—the Suave Life tournament, for example, is for the victims of the horrific quadruple Mattapan slaying in 2010. Woodbine also writes of “Willie ‘Chill’ Veal, or ‘Chill Will,’” who “organizes [a] tournament in memory of his late son, Little Chill, who was murdered in the streets of Boston.” The players in these tournaments, Woodbine adds, “turn their bodies into altars of the past in the hope of a future without violence.”
In the ’60s and ’70s, when Boston became a center for racial hate, basketball was a creative solution. And today, as the city wrestles with regular reports of gang-related murders and young victims, basketball is still relied on as a coping mechanism for the “hot troubled summers” that BNBL’s founders worried about.
This week kicks off the 47th year of the BNBL. Co-directors Mike Mitchell and Woodley Auguste will oversee more than 2,000 young ballplayers this summer as they expose a new generation to the city game. Mitchell says the league will emphasize the same things it did in the ’60s—even in the face of pressures to keep up with elite tournaments.
“Some guys want us to adjust the schedule and do more to attract the elite players, but I say the BNBL has always been for everybody, for the neighborhood kids,” Mitchell says. “We’ll teach the average players to be a cohesive unit of five, and we’ll beat the one superstar.”
The oldest divisions, Mitchell says, rarely play outside due to concerns over gang turf and rivalries. For that and other reasons, coaches will be focusing on the pee-wee players.
“That’s our future,”Mitchell says. “They’re the ones who can play outside and focus on the fundamentals. To me, there’s nothing better than seeing a court full of people. In the summer, what else are you going to do in the city? Play ball; it’s a neighborhood thing.”