Growing up a devoted catholic, I was taught by the nuns and the priests at Holy Name that heaven was located somewhere up above. I got news for them, I lived across the street from heaven.
It was the spring of 1970, I was a couple of months shy of my 6th birthday. This was right about the time the New York Knicks were on top of the basketball world. You remember Willis Reed, the Knicks captain, their heart and soul limping out of the locker room for game 7 of the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers? The crowd at M.S.G roared when Willis appeared from the tunnel.
It went down as one of the most courageous moments in sports history. I had my fearless moment too.
I’m not talking about Rae and Otto’s Candy Store on the avenue where they made the best egg creams. I’m not talking about L&J Bakery either and no, I’m not talking about playing Seven Minutes in Heaven with Laura Loesch.
This skinny, freckled face, redheaded kid found something better, something more meaningful which would have a major impact on my life; that memorable day I walked through the unlocked fence to the boys schoolyard at Holy Name of Jesus.
If you attended H.N.S. or lived in the neighborhood, it’s almost certain you spent some time in the yard. If you didn’t, I feel for you. You missed out…
Passing the yard on either Howard Place or Prospect Avenue, looking through the chain-linked fence you might see Gerard or Bobby Trapp. Maybe you could see John Corrar shooting his left-handed outside jump-shot from either corner? Quick point guards Richie Deere and Brian Keating displaying their ball handling wizardry. It’s possible you saw Cadge catching the ball in the low post and powering the ball up for a lay-up. How about Tommy Kash looking around the court always questioning a call? Then there was Jimmy Rauthier scoring at will on the defense from either outside or driving to the basket for an easy layup in traffic. Sure there were others, but those 8 guys left an impression on this impressionable young boy.
By the way, how lucky were the Trapp’s to live at 15 Howard Place, right across the street from paradise. Keep in mind too, that if you didn’t have a basketball, you could always walk down their basement steps and ‘borrow’ one. That’s the kind of people the Trapp’s were.
“For me, our schoolyard was a special place,” Gerard Trapp told me. “I always knew it was a good place to be growing up but I never really knew what we had until I had children of my own and saw what they had in comparison. I wish my children could have had the experience of our schoolyard.”
3-on-3 was a game I enjoyed watching. Every possession was important. Guys would get pissed off if they missed a shot or turned the ball over. Because if you lost, there was a long wait to get back on the court. Over on the sidelines you sat down against the fence thinking of how you lost or you played the game ‘taps’.
As I aimlessly cruised into my teens, ‘The Yard’ became a daily escape for me, an escape from my dysfunctional and oftentimes confusing life at home. Our address was 228A P.P.W., we lived in a five-room, railroad apartment on top of Bob’s Hardware Store; no one in my family encouraged me to play basketball; I learned how to play from watching the older guys. Lessons on how to play the game from coaches like Georgie Rauthier, the late Joe Farrell and Danny Pisselli, whet my appetite for the orange roundball.
On Saturday mornings I’d wake up and eat a bowl of cereal, watch Popeye the Sailor man, get dressed, and rush out of our apartment. Speed walking down Windsor Place, hanging a right up Howard Place, I would start to listen for the bouncing of the ball or the voices of the kids coming from the boys schoolyard. I played a little game with myself while I dribbled; I wasn’t allowed to hit the cracks on the sidewalk. Most times I was one of the first to arrive. For some reason, I had no problem getting to the schoolyard early to play basketball, but when it came time to making the first school bell Monday through Friday, I was often tardy.
The Cullen’s; Jimmy, Frankie and Dave, Glenn Thomas, Michael Campbell, Kevin Molloy, John Godfrey, Jimmy Corrar, Ricky Ferro and Joe Lee were kids around my age who spent just as much time as I did in the yard. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Hispanic and black kids from Prospect Avenue and 17th street who often came by to play, they were always welcomed and always came in peace.
The color of your skin didn’t mean a thing once you stepped into the yard.
Like the older guys, 3-on-3 half-court was usually the flavor of the day. When we had enough guys we’d go 5-on-5 full-court. Taps, Around the World, Utah and 21 were other popular schoolyard games
Again, if you won, you stayed on. Lose, and you were waiting a while to play again. The games became physical because no one wanted to sit out. I enjoyed playing full-court the most; I liked pushing the ball and running the fast break. We had classic games. One day it was me, Frankie, Jimmy, Dave and Glenn against Timmy Kemp, Barry Welch, Jose, Tito and Ray. We went to 100. Each basket was worth two points. Some days they beat us, other days we beat them. Most important, it was competitive which enabled us to improve.
I might as well have rolled my bed into the schoolyard, that’s how much time I spent there. I was a fixture. My mother always knew where I was though, I think?
The best thing about basketball is that you don’t need multiple players to have fun. I often found myself alone shooting jump shot after jump shot at all hours. I’d shoot from all over the court and chase down the rebound. We didn’t have nets on the steel rims so every time I made a jump shot from the outside the ball would roll away from the court and I’d have to chase it down. We had those half-moon shaped backboards so shooting a bank shot was never one of my favorite shots. Matter of fact, I never used the banker.
All alone at night, under the moon and the stars I imagined I was going one-on-one against my favorite player, Phil Chenier of the Baltimore Bullets; I never lost…
We’d also work on our dribbling going baseline to baseline keeping our head up just like Danny would tell us during practice. They used to have a sign on the church wall with the schoolyard hours. Danny would make us read them out loud.
One day I was walking past the yard on Prospect Avenue and Edgar Dela-Rosa and his boy Gammie were out there. I had no intention of playing on this day, I was actually coming from my cousin’s house on Fuller Place. The snow blanketed every part of the schoolyard except for one long, narrow path that they had shovelled. With a shovel, these two dedicated ballplayers cleared a path from the Howard Place baseline to the church wall. A side note: Often times you grabbed a shovel and cleared the court to play. (Do kids still do that today?)
I was mesmerized by these two fantastic and disciplined point guards going up and down working on their dribbling skills; it’s no wonder they were two of the best point guards to come out of the neighborhood. Watching them for a few minutes, their drive and desire to improve enticed me to join them; which I did and they welcomed me with open arms, as long as I shovelled a bit.
Oftentimes you could find anyone in the yard as early as 9 A.M. or as late as 12 midnight. When it got dark, you were often thrown out by Monsignor Downing or Father Shine.
“HEY, GET OUTTA THE SCHOOLYARD!” Father Shine screamed at us one night from the window of the red brick church rectory. Can you blame him? It was well past eleven and I’m sure the priests couldn’t sleep on the count of the bouncing ball.
We took off as fast as we could, sprinting out of the schoolyard and down Howard Place like we were running the 100 yard dash for Mr. Gruschow at Midwood Field.
Standing on the corner of Windsor and Howard I shouted “FUCK, I FORGOT MY SWEATSHIRT.”
After getting thrown out of the yard more times than a drunk gets tossed from Farrell’s, I thought my ass was going straight to hell.
The musical artist Meatloaf sang about Paradise by the Dashboard Light, if I was writing a song about the schoolyard, it would be titled, ‘Paradise on the Schoolyard Pavement’.