‘Cage’ tourney scores with players and spectators

           Photo by Sam Spokony          Ballers compete in a recent game in Kenny Graham’s West Fourth Street tournament, now in its 35th year.     

BY SAM SPOKONY |  Fingers start appearing between the links in the fence in the midafternoon, when the air really gets hot. Some press against the frame, supporting a body leaning in close enough to smell the action. Others fingers curl around the wire, their owner leaning back to let loose a cheer or an insult, depending on his or her loyalties.

On a Saturday, The Cage is lined with photographers. Paused bike riders. European tourists. Old guys from Brooklyn.

But those who step inside, filling their spots on the W. Fourth St. courts every summer weekend, don’t have much time to sort out all the faces peering in. This is Kenny Graham’s West Fourth Street, after all, one of the epicenters of New York streetball. And while to some it’s just another weekend attraction, to those with the ball, it’s something much more — a chance at something like glory.

They may be playing in an amateur basketball tournament, but that doesn’t mean that the shots don’t count.

“There’s nowhere else like it,” said Perry Wilkes, 32, who hails from Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood and has been playing at W. Fourth St. for more than 10 years. “It’s got the best competition and the best talent compared to any other street league, so every game you really gotta show up, regardless of who’s watching.”

The basketball court next to the W. Fourth St. subway stop on Sixth Ave. — called The Cage by many players because of its small size and surrounding fence — has been the home of Kenny Graham’s West Fourth Street tournament for 35 years. Running from around Memorial Day weekend to the end of summer, the tourney is broken into divisions for high school boys and high school girls and adult men and women.

The high school teams take the court during weekday evenings and early on weekends, while the women play on weekend afternoons. And while those games aren’t generally as well attended as the men’s games later on weekend afternoons and evenings, there are still plenty of reasons to play for pride — if only to impress one or two wide-eyed tourists or passersby.

“When they see the girls on the court, they might want to walk away,” said Desiree Simmons, 19, who once played in the tournament’s high school division and recently returned to join the women’s league. “So it makes you want to prove yourself even more, so you can keep them watching.”

Kenny Graham, 60, who founded the current West Fourth Street league in 1977, was sitting silently off to the side of the court as last Saturday’s women’s game finished, making way for the men’s game to begin shortly. After building his organization from scratch 35 years ago by doing everything from refereeing games to sweeping up, to keeping the books, Graham found that the league began to run itself, as smoothly as any professional tournament. That, he knows, is because he helped to give both his workers and players a reason to protect their court — to find value and purpose in contributing to something bigger than themselves.

“A lot of guys will try to start a program up, and it doesn’t survive because as soon as the money starts coming in, they put it all straight in their pockets,” said Graham. “I make sure that everybody who comes out here has a chance to be a part of this, and get something out of it. And that’s why these guys have a sense of loyalty. They’ll come out here and support what this represents.”

He added that, along with developing corporate sponsorships as the league gained attention — Nike is the current major sponsor — simple donations helped to keep the games happening after the league got off the ground. In fact, one of Graham’s fondest memories is receiving a little early support from a certain New Yorker whose fame happened to be on the rise.

“Although he never played in the league, Denzel Washington used to play pickup ball out here,” Graham said. “One day I was standing around the court, and he just pulled up and wrote me a check for $1,000 for the league. That was back in the ’80s, just before he was a mega-star.”

Graham laughingly added, “If I would’ve known he was going to become a huge star, I would’ve Xeroxed it.”

Now, Kenny Graham’s West Fourth Street has become one of the Village’s most reliably crowded weekend attractions — while also providing a vital place for young athletes to hone their skills before attempting to play at a higher level.

Brian Heckstall, 18, is currently looking for a college to attend, where he’ll also play NCAA basketball. Coming into this year, he knew that West Fourth Street was the best court on which to train over the summer.

“I don’t know what school I’m going to play for yet,” said Heckstall, “but I just need to be prepared, and this is the place to do that. It’s tough, with people watching from outside every time and the veterans keeping you on your toes, but that’s why I came here. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

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