Wednesday, February 2, 2011
High on Hoops in L.A! (1976)
I met Devon Haines on the basketball court in Poinsettia Park one warm sun-drenched California afternoon in 1976 . He’d been waiting patiently to enter the next game and needed one more player to complete his team. I was new to the court and a bit leery of invading the fracas without a semi-formal introduction. Rather than eagerly volunteer I decided to watch before joining the battle.
My mate and I, drove from Toronto to L.A. stopping briefly in Arizona for a round of clay court basketball at the home of the Arizona Wildcats. After a couple thousand miles of sleet and frigid temperatures the dense blue sky and soothing heat proved most inviting. A few games of two on two were a blissful prelude to the months ahead.
As beautiful as it was in Arizona, L.A. was where the real basketball action was. There was an air of coolness on and off the court that made hands sweat and mind sharp. The brothers in the park regarded Devon “The little man from Detroit”. Somebody always knew someone who had a cousin related to a neighbor living near a basketball court.
The brothers in L.A. came from every playground in America, and were somehow interconnected. The object to this scene was to maintain cool and float in and out like a near visible slab of Greenlandic ice. Only then would one be invited to join in conversation. The best introduction was made by making a modest showing on the court. This meant don’t throw the ball away. Don’t pass to the other team; which I must admit was my first mistake, and feed the ball to the guys who earn their reputation jamming the ball through the hole daily. If at some point you found yourself open with the ball and shot it cleanly through the cylinder you were rewarded a small amount of respect, usually in the form of a passing slap at a sweaty palm or an opportunity to touch the ball on another occasion.
As I awaited my call to glory, Devon gave me one of those black men, white man intros. Eyebrows spread, voice deepened, triceps pumped, then the words. “Where you from big man”? When I said Toronto, he thought I said Tonto. In my broken southern and partial Canadian dialect I guess it must have sounded like the Lone Ranger’s sidekick. Devon soon warmed to our regional commonality and ran off a list of homeboys he thought I may have had occasion to meet. Suddenly the game ended and it was our turn to burn the pavement.
When teams were divided and play ready to resume I made a mental note of those players assigned to my team. One white dude - nine brothers. Faces I’d never seen in my life. Fortunately, Devon was on my side so I knew one person I could pass to without throwing the ball away.
As soon as the ball was inbound I gripped it and a voice bellowed,” Over here”. That’s when I quickly reacted with a well - timed pass in the hands of the opposition. This brought a wild chorus of laughter. Devon was no help with his size and awkwardness. With Afro Devon measured a tall 5’11”. But in actual body distance he was more like 5’6”.
As he dribbled the ball his legs spread like a figure skater in a side to side glide making any forward progress implausible. The other players were well-conditioned athletes used to the fast pace and hungry for a struggle under the boards.
The game passed quickly, which didn’t disappoint me. Besides this was my first time in this climate and I knew my body would eventually thaw. I’d just made my first conversation with another ball hound and nothing could have been sweeter.
After the wipeout, Devon and I shared our first laughs. He had a broad smile, infectious laugh and desire to know more about me. During our exchange we discovered common ground, our love of music and sports. He spoke of Lou Rawls, Sarah Vaughan, Little Richard, Ray Leonard, Ali, Kenny Norton, Eddy “the Animal” Lopez, Carlos Palomino. Singers and fighters! He lived to be outdoors. Detroit winters robbed him of precious moments in warm sunshine. Devon dreamed of being on stage traveling the world like his heroes.
Haines was handsome with light brown skin partially dotted with small freckles. He was momma’s boy away from home with too much pride to call and confess things weren’t progressing in Hollywood as he’d envisioned. In fact it was the environment that impeded his maturing into the entertainer he’d hope to be. He loved the taste of cheap weed. Shunned all alcohol, and loved playing family man with his adopted wife and son. This was a family at ease with the lifestyle and under a lot of pressure to stay afloat. Their apartment was always heated to the point of inducing drowsiness in all visitors. The kitchen counter was the entertainment centre stabilizing the super- super eight projector, making daily viewing of boxing’s great moments, the main event.
Devon owned an upright piano located at the apartment’s entrance. From there he gave the occasional singing lesson to aspiring young singers. The pocket change afforded him the luxury of buying a dime bag of twigs, seeds and a bit of dust for a short high.
There were about six of us from the court who would pile in the tiny living room and whoop it up. We’d be on our feet for every “Sugar Ray” blow and on the carpet for every DarrylDawkins slam. On the ceiling for every Dr. J. skydive, pumped and ready for a return confrontation in the park. We traveled as a group, Bruce, Ron, Devon, myself, and two other brothers not as tightly wound to our scene.
We hit Cahaunega Park every day at 4:00 p.m. and at least once a week the midnight game at San Vincente Park. Each playground had its own cast of superstars and hacks. The right combination of personalities took the afternoon to euphoric proportions. One bad seed brought out the pre-evolution traits all males should aspire to exorcise from the body.
I booked Devon a few cameo-singing interludes at a weekly amateur night called Skippy Lowe’s Showcase ‘76, of which I was the house replacement pianist. For awhile it offered him an opportunity to perform in front of a neutral audience. He was received enthusiastically until Lowe decided to fill the position with white boys he thought he could prey on. The brothers from the court encouraged Scott, but after awhile it alienated both of us from the pasty-faced predator. I was fired and Devon's limitations as a vocalist became more apparent. He relied too much on the gospel thumping mannerisms and vocal inflections of Little Richard. He never ventured far from the tradition. It was like his potential had been straight-jacketed.
Remember me mentioning the heat in Scott’s apartment? When we’d visit, Susan, Devon and young John, would nod-out simultaneously as if someone had asked them to participate in group hypnosis. The same would happen when they’d visit our cottage. My wife and I played a little game with Devon’s car keys. He’d usually slope unconscious upright in a wooden chair. We’d dangle the car keys around his ears inducing a smile and a few garbled sentences. Eventually the neck would weaken and the head would collapse. We’d repeat the sequence until we’d almost bruise a gut muscle. Susan and John were usually pronounced dead. No pulse, no party. After a couple hours of unconscious merriment we’d gently awaken and deliver them to the van.
The two years spent in this environment made me believe life would stretch into one endless series of jump shots and aerial moves. My work took me beyond the neighborhood for months at a time. When I returned, my friends were all there, as if time had held them in place.
Devon cruised his way around Hollywood smiling like a Cheshire cat, with Afro comb in hand and body perfectly toned from hours spent pumping iron courtesy parks department.
Towards the end of our hang we made one last drive for the elusive Colombian Ganga. SDevon had a friend who knew someone on Sunset Boulevard who possessed the real buzz -less twig and more smoke.
We drove around in Devon’s white and red pinstriped van eventually locating a number which corresponded with some homeboy’s instructions. A rap on the door brought one of the meanest looking dudes I’ve ever come face to face with. Devon used the cousin from Detroit bullshit line gaining entry to the playpen. While Scott quietly looked over the shoulder of the dealer who had a revolver placed strategically on the table, I was interrogated by a PCP addict who informed me of his desire to kill someone. Killer was recently released from an L.A. jail, barely capable of restraining an urge to extract retribution. Devon contained the room by assuring everyone I was cool. I felt like Woody Allen in one of those implausible situations only an unsuspecting idiot would invade. Fortunately, for the both of us the headman’s old lady lost her patience with the whole situation and began arguing with her lover/dealer. That allowed the both of us an escape route past PCP man, out of a potentially dangerous situation.
While the twosome fought on the street we sped off to Watts and an extended night of adventure. Devon had a friend who knew some guy who was, ‘The man’ in Watts . He liked music, in fact owned expensive high-end recording equipment. The whole proposition seemed risky to me. But off we drove intent on buying a dime of herbal bliss.
As we approached our destination, police helicopters circled above us. The moment we park a penetrating beam strikes a pedestrian shuffling along the street. From the clouds above comes a commanding voice demanding to know the name, reason, and travel details of the old gentleman. After viewing the suspect for a few moments, the copter quickly disappears on a mission more eventful than this. We froze with fear in Scott’s van, but the thought of smoking the real ganja kept us focused on our mission.
Surprisingly, the old man was heading to same address. The young man who answered the door was like one of the young black militants I had met in the Fillmore district of San Francisco a decade earlier and with hair was wound tightly in corn-rows. He was cautious, yet sharp enough to read us as no threat. Besides we had to be crazy driving down here together.
The three of us sat around the living room as he stood over a baby’s crib, reached under the mattress, and pulled out a plastic bag. He gave us a handful of joints each a different
color, labeled with some kind of inscription. He then asked how high we wanted to go - From Mexico to PCP land. We settled on Colombia. The old man wanted to fry his brain on PCP, way out of our league.
The young brother had a beautiful upright piano resting peacefully in a corner. Devon introduced me as a bad-assed blues and jazz pianist. This got me a place situated behind the keys. I played and played and played. Each piece sounded better than the previous. The room resonated with the rhythm of the vibrating strings. When I figured I’d exhausted the moment, the fellows keep encouraging me to play on. We laugh, sing, we listen. We share one of the most special moments in our lives. There was no uneasiness over color. No fear of being in the wrong neighborhood. No need to compete with each other - just magic.
When Devon and I drove away that night we sensed we’d never spend another evening together as precious as this. There was a quiet calm during the ride back to Hollywood.
Devon and I went mountain climbing, more driving and found ourselves in many hilarious situations, but time on the loose was running out. I needed to move on with my family and Scott had to come to grips with his.
Seven years later I returned to L.A. and located Devon. He had changed dramatically. The family was gone and laughter missing from his eyes. Con man had entered his soul along with addictive Asian powder. His pants were stained and pride diminished. His dreams were more a distant excuse for living a life he had never intended. I loved him as a true friend and was shattered by what I had witnessed. I was now the intruder with little time to bring him back.
I ran into Bruce near a liquor store. His life had succumbed to begging quarters for another pint. The basketball court where we earned one another’s respect was now vacant. The neighborhood was all the more dangerous. Our game had become a ghostly memory. None of us were pro material or a threat to unseat the street legends. We were guys who found a world of friendship, shared interests, and a whole lot of laughter, at a crossroads in our lives.