My basketball career has gone precipitously downhill since eighth grade. Back then, my pre/pubescing self earned the nickname “Paxson” (as in John; I think it was a compliment to my jumper, but it might’ve referred to my haircut) and was actually pretty good. Since then, disuse and liver abuse have worn my game down to a downcast shadow of its former self. But one of the few places in New York where I’ve played multiple basketball games is Sara D. Roosevelt Park, on the Lower East Side, at Houston and Chrystie Streets. Sara Roosevelt, for those who don’t know (like me before I looked her up on Wikipedia), was the mother of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was her only son, much as my only legitimately decent full-game basketball performance since college came in the park bearing her name. Even then, the comparisons I got from friends after the game were to Robert Horry. No one’s ever dared compare me to Tyrone Nesby; I can only dream of appearing in the same sentence as Kevin Edwards. Except for just now, when I did it. Anyway, I guess maybe “The Kevin Edwards of CSTB Guest-Bloggers” isn’t totally unfair. What I’m saying is, I have some experience with this park.
But even including my glorious performances at the park (i.e. the time I scored five times in a game to 11) (once), what went down there earlier this evening was kind of a new thing. In a little-promoted but very well-attended game that benefited the charitable foundations of participants Claudio Reyna and Steve Nash, Sara Roosevelt Park hosted an 8-on-8 soccer game between an assemblage of MLS and European stars, NBA players and, uh, ESPN writer Marc Stein (who modestly failed to mention his presence in the game while writing it up at ESPN.com). Much of the large crowd — which climbed mold-like, up the park’s chain link fences and into some fragile-looking nearby trees, and stood nearby on the sidewalk and on benches — seemed to be there as much for the soccer stars as for the basketball players. All of us, though, came together in a couple of ways.
Foremost among those was a gentle, generally good-natured heckling of Baron Davis, who showed up for the event wearing Harry Caray-frame glasses, a baseball cap featuring an upside down Dodgers-style LA, and garish, mid-calf-length ancient-school Reebok Pumps. He, like all the other players, was outfitted with a t-shirt and khaki shorts. Unlike the rest of them, he refused to tighten the belt on those shorts enough that his undergarments weren’t always constantly at least kind of showing. Unlike Nash, who scored a pair of goals and is clearly a very good soccer player, Davis obviously had little experience with the game. He did have a sense of humor, though — highlighted by a belly-flop onto prone Liverpool forward Robbie Fowler, who (amusingly) feigned injury after a clumsy-ish Davis tackle — and also managed to score a goal off a nice feed from Jason Kidd. Yeah, Kidd also played. He was actually pretty good, and assisted on two goals. Also, if I even need to mention this, he’s freaking yooge: as big across as Claudio Reyna is up and down, give or take a few inches.
In all, the NBA delegation included Kidd, Nash, Davis, Leandrinho Barbosa (who’s good) and Raja Bell (who’s less good, but didn’t injure anyone); the soccer side of things was highlighted by Fowler (good, but short), Reyna (according to his bio, two inches shorter and a few pounds heavier than me, somehow), Henry (um, more to come here) and a few others who’ve played in Europe and the MLS. All told, considering that the game was played on a patch of Astroturf laid over a scraggly stretch of asphalt much smaller than the average soccer pitch (see what I did there? the terminology? right, I don’t really know what it means, but I heard Andy Gray say it once), it was pretty awesome. Actually, even if you/one don’t/doesn’t consider that, it was pretty fucking amazing. (If you’d like to read a higher-paid non-freelancer writing this, check out Joshua Robinson’s recap in today’s New York Times)
Goals — especially Davis’, but also lights-out penalty kicks from Henry and Reyna and a pair by Chelsea FC’s Solomon Kalou and Henry — were applauded robustly, but for the most part, the crowd was weirdly quiet. The only sound I heard, outside of nearby conversations, for much of the second half was the bassline and backbeat to various classic rock songs bumping from a nearby minivan, overlaid with the repeating jingle from a nearby ice cream truck. It was surprisingly catchy. The silence wasn’t a result of boredom, at least not on the Forsyth St. side of things (fucking Chrystie St is another story; I hate those guys); the reason, I’m pretty sure, was that the crowd was legitimately rapt before the combination of celebrity and virtuosity on display.
At the risk of losing your attention — raptness/rapture is more than I can hope for, except when I’m weighing in on the really important shit — I’ll mention a couple of things. (If you’d rather just look at pictures, check this guy’s flickr feed for shots of the game) First of which is this: if they ever choose to do an And1 Tour for soccer, and Thierry Henry is somehow otherwise unemployed (and he won’t be), you should go see it if he’s participating. While all the big-time soccer dudes showed (unsurprisingly, yet still surprisingly) ridiculous skills, Henry is absolutely the most exuberant and brilliant soccer player I’ve ever seen.
I thought as much during the few instances in which I’ve watched him on TV — and I haven’t watched nearly as much soccer as GC has, or as you probably have — but seeing him from 10 or so feet away was astonishing. The control of the ball, and the aplomb with which he utilized it — juggling it past defenders, lobbing a pass to himself over the head of Jason Kidd (who was even more overmatched by Henry than he was by Chris Paul), trapping the ball between his nose and forehead and running seven or so strides with it there — was amazing. The weather was bathwater-warm for the entire game, but while all the players broke a sweat to various degrees (Stein, a ringer for Patton Oswalt but not terrible at soccer, was sweating before he entered the game; Davis seemed barely to sweat), Henry was well-soaked by the end of the game. He gave the crowd a show, and the crowd gave him a sort of benign, buzzingly impromptu New York respect: a buzz gathered when he got the ball, and a sort of unspoken shout rose from the greater surrounding city din whenever Henry passed or uncorked a (half-speed: the goalies were unknowns, and playing with Baron Davis’ bespectacled goofery as their last line of defense) shot on goal. To say he was the best player out there is, obviously, obvious. It’s also unfair to him. It was a different type of greatness, and getting to see it up close was the sort of good fortune few Americans will have until he signs with the LA Galaxy in five years or something.
When the game was over — I think the yellow team (Henry and Nash’s) defeated the blue (Barbosa, Reyna and Kaloud’s) by a couple of goals — the players posed for a few photos and made their way into the LES. Henry was surrounded by a surprisingly modest mob, signed a few autographs, and climbed into a black SUV. Fowler left through the same gate, ran a block or two, realized he wasn’t being followed, and slowed down, about a block ahead of where me and my friends were walking to a bar in the neighborhood. I was half surprised when we didn’t find him there, slouched and sweating over a pint of Newcastle. My calves hurt from standing on tiptoe for an hour and a half, trying to see what was going on. His probably were sore from doing amazing soccer-related things (I can only imagine how his nostrils felt). Within a couple of blocks, we were both New Yorkers, soaking up what was good and (and this is cliched, and a self-satisfied cliche, but in this case…) unique about the city on our way to somewhere else. There were other things to do (I met my girlfriend for dinner, if you must know), but this was a pretty good one to do, all things considered.