By Judith Stiles
High-profile tournaments, trophies, sponsors, scouts, designer uniforms and exorbitant fees are an integral part of the professionalizing of youth sports in America these days. So, it’s refreshing to learn that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and a reason to play sports that does not include trying to get a college scholarship or going pro.
The light has burned brightly for almost 30 years in the St. Luke’s gym on Hudson St., where a bunch of guys have faithfully showed up every week to play basketball, motivated by a simple love of the game. Every Thursday night, these sportsmen bolt out of work and ditch their families to play rolling games of b-ball, without referees and fancy uniforms, just a readiness to hustle and play a physically demanding game.
Now in his 50s, Sam Miller begins his Thursdays early at 4:30 a.m., commuting to his job at HUD (the Department of Housing and Urban Development). But instead of rushing home at the end of the day, he can be found zipping around the basketball court for hours with his longtime buddies.
“When I think about it, I don’t think my wife has actually stepped in this gym,” says a bemused Miller, who goes on to explain that although she doesn’t watch him play, she totally supports his dedication to these games because it benefits his mental and physical health.
Make no mistake, these fellows may seem like a laid-back bunch, but once the games begin, they play a smart and skilled game of basketball, with more than a few elbows strategically flying. They all agree that games can get a little contentious, especially when one team is on the verge of winning. They play by their own rules, which include four on a side, one point per basket and the first team to reach nine points wins.
There are no jump balls and no foul shots, but plenty of hotly contested fouls, which are resolved by arguing, followed by a throw-in by the winner of the argument. And although a bit of bickering comes into play when picking teams, Robert “Magic” Barry says with a wink, “Yes, picking new teams can be a delicate negotiation, but it is often resolved by balancing the teams according to height.” Barry also goes by the nickname “The Commissioner” because he has been with the group since 1980.
What happens when a new player hears about the game and wants to join the group? Newcomers are another delicate negotiation. As Will Friedman explains, “We don’t take players who are bad to the point of being dangerous, and we don’t want a guy who throws elbows more than we do.” He adds with a laugh, “Our rule is no maiming.”
These informal guidelines have left a steady player pool of about 15 men, which includes Hart Hooton, a.k.a. “Hootie,” who played in the same gym as a child, when he lived on Grove St. Another regular is Richard Johnson, of the New York Post’s Page Six. Johnson was a student at the St. Luke’s School, starting in preschool at age 3. He has been playing hoops there so long, he now invites his adult son Damon to join the oldsters a few times a year.
For all the regulars, the rules of the game have remained the same, but the changes in the neighborhood basketball culture are striking. When they began these games there was no e-mail and no cell phones, and youngsters played ball in city playgrounds without a bunch of hyperactive adults running the show.
“When I was young, kids walked out the door in the morning and came home by dark. But now everything is highly organized and structured for kids,” says Johnson, as he wistfully describes how different youth sports are today.
Most of the players agree that life for Greenwich Village kids radically changed when Etan Patz, 6, disappeared on his way to school in 1979. That marked the end of unsupervised play for the most part.
However, when the St. Luke’s b-ball guys grew up and eventually became middle-aged, they continued to steer clear of organized leagues and tournaments, hanging on to the notion of unstructured play with very few rules. In addition to a Post columnist, their current roster includes a lawyer, a social service worker, a banker, a horseracing analyst, a teacher and even an F.B.I. man, who amiably toss aside their political and social differences to meet every Thursday for a few great hours of basketball.
And although there have been many injuries, torn ligaments, broken ankles and a knee replacement over the years, they have no intention of stopping anytime soon. They say they aren’t getting faster or much better at basketball, just a little older every year. And even though they are heading toward retirement, the next light at the end of the tunnel will certainly not include a life of geriatric golf. With a little luck, they might be playing more basketball at the St. Luke’s gym. For these guys, that would be heaven!