Going Back to Heaven: A Rick Telander Interview
If you love basketball and can read, you likely know the story behind Rick Telander's Heaven Is a Playground. In 1973, a young Telander convinced Sports Illustrated to let him do a feature on high-profile college players back in their old neighborhoods for the summer. A year later, the aspiring journalist returned to Brooklyn, where he spent several months hanging around the Foster Park court, coaching a team of youngsters, taking notes, and snapping photos.
Heaven, published in 1976, may not have torn up the best-seller list, but since then has assumed near-legendary status. Both of its time and pointedly timeless, Telander's highly personal ethnography captures a moment in history, while at the same time providing the definitive take on inner city basketball. It has also influenced countless writers who take a more thoughtful, or less mainstream, approach to covering the game; Heaven is to the hoops vernacular what David Halberstam's The Breaks of the Game is to the NBA.
Fittingly, both books are now back in print and acknowledged as classics. But as with Heaven, the circumstances that lead to the new Bison Books edition -- which includes a new introduction and previously unseen photos -- are almost as fascinating, and telling, as the work itself.
To celebrate the 35th anniversary of Telander's first trip to Brooklyn, and that fateful SI piece, SLAM editor (and longtime Heaven booster) Ben Osborne ran an excerpt, once again raising interest in the book. This convinced University of Nebraska Press to bring out an expanded version in time for the 35th anniversary of Telander's summer residency. Then Converse, looking for ways to re-brand itself as it loses modern day stars like Dwyane Wade, agreed to host a photo/artifact show at the Converse Energy Space, an ad hoc gallery on the Lower East Side. After all, high-top Cons are everywhere in Telander's photographs, harkening back to a time when they were the baddest thing going.
The show remains open through the end of February; for further info, hit up the book's official site. You can also cop Heaven at a discount there. Also check out Ben's recap of the opening night party, which featured plenty of the book's characters and its share of hoops culture notables.
Bethlehem Shoals: How did you make the transition from writing about name players to guys on the margins?
Rick Telander: I had talked to people at Sports Illustrated about the city game. But the only way that I could figure to make it palatable to them, or anybody for that matter, was to say, "How about great ballplayers who go back home to the city roots?" My real interest had always been in whoever was there at those city parks, that subculture there, and I knew it wasn't being written about. I knew it because I couldn't find anything besides Pete Axthelm's The City Game.
There was nothing. I knew it existed but there was no way for me to sell that unless there was a hook. And that would mean guys like All-American John Shumate from Notre Dame going back [to Jersey], Brian Winters going back to Far Rockaway, Dennis DuVal who was a point guard for Syracuse going back to Queens or Long Island. But Fly Williams was the great one, going back right into the belly of the beast, into Brooklyn.
BS: So all along, you wanted to do something like Heaven Is a Playground?
RT: My real interest was in a guy like Fly, because he was a street ball player. The other ones that I wrote about initially made the whole thing acceptable and tolerable; those were normal, if you will, star college basketball players who went home. Fly was this street legend from the beginning. He was uncontrollable, he was wild, he was unpredictable, he was, in certain ways, antisocial, but he was also very much aware of his surroundings, and as I would find out, very funny almost in a Richard Pryor way, a self-deprecating, laughing at the horrors around him way.
It wasn't that I switched; I just found a way to get into that and go back the next summer and write a book about the disenfranchised ones, who were living this life that nobody knew about or nobody cared about. Maybe they shouldn't have, but I sure as hell did because of my interest in basketball and my curiosity and sense of adventure.
BS: In some ways, it's the kids who either need a miracle to make it to college, or do make it and abruptly come back, that reveal the most.
RT: We see kids go off to school and get flat-out homesick. They're going to an Ivy League school or a state school that they've always wanted to get into, and people are saying, "Oh man, it's great," and then they come home. Because part of them is comfortable with what they did before, and we all feel that. I was lucky that I had finally gotten over most of that, but I still needed my rootedness -- knowing that I could go home. That's how the book ended, with me going home. I'm saying goodbye to everybody even if they're asleep. Music Smith is just passed out on the bench. I knew some of these guys I would never see again, and some would die, like Music did. He's a nice guy.
That was always there: These are real people who are torn between real choices and real oppression that we all feel, the world's holding you back and yet the world's saying go.
BS: I think that's the hardest thing for an outsider, which most readers are, to understand.
RT: I wrote this piece for ESPN Magazine -- it never ran, but I think it was pretty good -- about Native American skateboarders and a pow-wow in Albuquerque called the All Nations Skate Jam. I think they're having their fourth one. I've stayed in touch with a bunch of these Indian guys from all around trying to help these kids.
There's one kid, Julian Chavez, from the Bear Clan Indian tribe, who is a regular kid with a horrible life. His mom's a crackhead and all that stuff. He's a great skater and he expressed the same thing I'd heard from these kids in Heaven Is a Playground over three decades ago, that there's a chance to make it big getting sponsored by somebody big like Etnies or Vans, one of the skateboarding companies, but he was afraid. He'd go out of town and he said, "I don't like it." Limited as his roots were, it was horrifying for him to take on the real world.
That's the essence of a street ball player, the essence of Fly Williams. My wife, who's a psychologist, reread Heaven is a Playground and she said, "You know, you can see as you're talking to him, that he's subconsciously ruining all of his chances because he will never be comfortable until he has no choices." And I guarantee you that that's true. I had no idea at the time; these are psychological truths that just kind of reveal themselves.
We all have those things where success is horrifying and freedom is terrifying. A lot of these are kind of philosophical truths that are revealed by these kids and these young men. It's mythology being reenacted as it is every day only here it's in this little bell jar of a playground.
BS: There's also that scene with Derrick Melvin, where he tells you that no one in the community really wants him to make it out, either.
RT: I had never really thought about that, but I realized that he was absolutely right. And all life is like that. We find incredible joy in scandals, or when people fail. Politicians fall, actresses, athletes ... we all do it because subconsciously it makes us feel better. That part of it was there all along.
One book that was truly inspirational to me, and I don't know that many people have heard of it. It's called Tally's Corner, it was written in the late sixties by a sociologist who hung out on a corner in D.C. It had nothing to do with sports, but had everything to do with this subculture of urban black males. He used their dialogue to help let them describe what they were actually doing. [The approach was] "What is happening inside of these guys? What is their motivation? What is their fears?"
In certain ways, it's like Alan Lomax who documented the blues down in Mississippi and recorded Robert Johnson. He was just there. You need somebody who was there when things were happening, especially when a form of expression -- whether it's art, music, writing, architecture, or any kind of cultural expression, a sociological thing [that matters to] history. What was it like then? Where did this come from? And so there's a snapshot of a time and I think people like that.
BS: One thing that's always struck me is the generation gap between Albert King and the rest of the players. He almost seems like a modern-day phenom, as opposed to one of Rodney Parker's discoveries.
RT: There's that divide. And I'm trying to think about that difference in age. Albert was 14; I still have a letter that he got in seventh or eighth grade from the University of Maryland. Not from Lefty Driesell, but from one of his assistants. But it was incredibly modern, and this is from 1972 or 1973. It's written on official University of Maryland recruiting stationary and has all the recruiting bulls**t without ever saying anything that would be against NCAA violations. So he's 14, 13 or 14, and Fly was probably 20, maybe 21.
There's the five year, six year difference that's the difference between the stone age and the bronze age, right there. Rodney Parker had been the guy to do everything with Fly, and Albert certainly didn't need any of that.
BS: About the association with Converse and its history, I wonder how much of the book's appeal is nostalgia.
RT: There's this nostalgia, but there's two things: Heaven is a Playground came out and made a tiny splash, like a pebble in a giant lake, and it kind of went away, and then like so many things, it takes some distance for people to say, "Well this is interesting." It's like a lot of music. There's a lot of music that disappeared. I could see disco coming back huge, it kind of has. The emphasis on dance music or house music is huge, but during the late eighties there was a period where people were embarrassed to even mention disco.
The second element was that people read this and say, "He had people just the way that they are right now." The best part about reading Shakespeare -- not to compare it to Shakespeare -- or anything that's historic, Beowulf, anything, you say, "Hey, these people are prompted and moved by the same impulses that we are." Different era, different everything, different-looking. You read something about any great character, any great book, and the people resonate with you. It's not what you'd think. It's not like reading about aliens where their emotions and their drives make no sense.
The third thing is just the sheer joy of basketball -- people just writing about basketball because it's such a great game.