When we first arrived at the courts near 85th and 5th in Central Park, a huge, muscular middle-aged black man wearing athletic shorts and no shirt was chasing and yelling at a scared looking, smaller 20-year old. A whole crowd of black guys in basketball gear gathered around what looked like was going to be a fight.
"You think you a man? I'm a man! He not a man! Punch me if you think you a man."
Lots of arguing and hollering, but no punching, thankfully, by any man, ensued.
Turns out the 20-year old had punched the big black guy's son (17 years old) in the face in self defense. The 17 year-old had put his hands around the 20-year-old's neck in some sort of fight earlier that evening. The kid called his dad, who showed up, pissed that a "man" punched a minor, no matter the reason.
Well, there I was, one of the only three white people at the courts (me, First Born Prince, and Charming Baby) in my J. Crew summer clothes and $3 bottle of chilled water. CB was next to me, driving his brand new remote control car from FAO Shwarz.
I typed "9-1-1" into my phone, my thumb hovering over the green call button, just in case, and went over to the benches where cooler-headed players were watching the game that was still going on. I asked what was happening which is how I got all the details.
FBP was horrified I was talking to them after I promised to just drop him off and then leave, so he went to the other side of the court and pretended he didn't know me. He kept texting, "Please leave."
I wanted to make sure everyone knew he was only 14 and confirm they weren’t hoods. None of them could believe First Born Prince was only 14. They wanted to know what I fed him, how big his father was, and if we were Catholic (that question had to do with the top NYC high school teams being St. Patrick’s and Bishop Loughlin). I chatted them up, suggesting they try FBP out, saying he wouldn't ask to play himself because he was shy, being only 14 and all. They ignored me on that.
I watched several games and started to relax when I saw the players didn’t argue unnecessarily and were making fair calls. It felt safe, safe enough to leave my baby.
I waited for him back at my in-law’s apartment, keeping an eye on my phone, waiting for the text saying he was on his way home. Finally, at dark, liked we agreed, I received, “On my way.” I exhaled a long, slow breath.
Expecting a jubilant son, I was surprised when his eyes flashed anger as he walked in the door.
“Mom, why did you hang out there for so long, talking to everyone? You ruined it for me!”
“I am sorry, but with that crazy fight going on, I had to make sure it was okay.”
“A whole hour, and why did you have to talk to them?”
“Oh, big deal, they were nice. They wanted to know what you ate. They wanted to know all about you. They were actually great conversationalists. I was making sure they were sane. Give me a break. Did you get to play?”
“They called me ‘Mama’s Boy’!”
“I am sure they were just joking around. You know, like you do with your friends.”
Dropping his shoulders, a grin appeared on his face. He sat down at the table, helping himself to a huge slice of pizza.
At first no one would give him the ball but when one guy had no other choice except pass it to him, the only open man, FBP immediately sunk a clean shot. The team got excited, “Mama’s Boy can shoot!” He got a little bit of action, mostly just supporting his new found team.
He went back, alone, the next night, making me promise I wouldn’t go watch. He stood court side patiently waiting for about 45 minutes until the self-appointed team captain finally made eye contact with him.
FBP asked, “Do you have 5?”
“Yeah, we got 5.”
FPB looked down, wondering how much longer he would have to wait.
The captain laughed, “You the 5th, Mama’s Boy!”
He went back again several times. On Saturday, he was there from 2:00 until 7:30. A woman who knew one of the players brought a cooler full of sandwiches to the court. They offered one to FBP.
CB and I rode bikes by the courts later that same day and peeked through the bushes, making sure he couldn’t see us. He was the only white guy, playing a quiet game, not getting in anyone's face, but he hustled and got himself open and took plenty of shots. His team high-fived him when he made baskets.
I took a few photos with my iPhone and then pedaled off, pretending we didn’t know the smiling white boy on the court.
When we were getting ready to leave New York City, I asked him if he told the guys he had been playing with all week that he was leaving.
"Yeah, I told them."
"Well, what did they say?"
"They said, 'We expect you to be dunkin' next summer, Mama's Boy.'"