It’s the gritty urban basketball Mecca where Gary Payton and Jason Kidd developed the toughness and skill that would make them NBA All-Stars. It’s where street-ball legend Demetrius “Hook” Mitchell is said to have jumped over a Cadillac to win an outdoor dunk contest. Mosswood Playground’s fame as a hotbed for pickup hoops even landed the North Oakland park a featured role in EA Sports’ popular 2003 video game NBA Street Vol. 2.
But the guy about to shoot a three-pointer toward one of the basketball courts’ white square backboards on a recent weekday evening doesn’t much resemble an NBA All-Star or video game hero. He looks more like someone who spends much of his time indoors, maybe playing video games. Short, cornrowed and with a paunch that strains against his baggy white tee-shirt, he poses a rhetorical question to the three men milling about under the basket.
“I’m gonna start it up,” he says. “Ready?” He shoots a weathered gray basketball with a jerky, almost spastic motion, missing badly.
The game is called “21.” It’s a basketball free-for-all in which each player accumulates points by scoring single-handedly against all others before trying to add to his total by sinking free shots. First to score 21 points wins.
A skinny teenager in beat-up Air Jordans chases down the cornrowed man’s rebound and, after trying a series of dribble feints against his defender, takes a wild shot from the corner, which also misses badly.
“Yeah, right,” says the cornrowed man.
“Nah, I perfect that,” the teenager responds, laughing. “I work on that shit, man. I know what I’m going to do.” No one else on the court seems convinced.
“I’m gonna require a double or triple team right now,” boasts a big man wearing a striped headband, before caroming a shot off the side of the backboard. Two of the younger players fall back against a tree in hysterics, momentarily disabled as the game goes on.
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Decades ago, at the apex of his basketball jones, John Hill haunted Mosswood’s outdoor courts looking for what he considered the Bay Area’s best and fiercest pickup basketball. Now, looking out at the park’s four baskets from the doorway of the Mosswood Recreation Center, which he has directed the past five years, Hill is more interested in reliving the past than touting Mosswood’s current standard of play.
“It’s nothing like it was in the 70s or 80s when you had the real ballers coming through here,” he says. “Back then, if you lost a game you probably couldn’t even play again until the next day, there were so many people lined up waiting to get next.”
After the inevitable eventual loss at Mosswood, Hill and his friends often would simply move on to another park, continuing on a tour of the area’s pickup basketball spots. “We’d usually start playing here, then when we lost go to Bushrod, then the old Grove Street Park in South Berkeley, then hit San Pablo Park, then go up to Harmon where Cal [The UC Berkeley Golden Bear basketball team] played, then over to Live Oak, then finally go home,” he says with a wistful smile. He says that nowadays it’s hard to compare that type of zealousness with what he sees from many of Mosswood’s current regulars. “Most of the kids here now, they just want to imitate what they see on TV, different crossover dribbles and things like that,” he says.
Hill spreads his fingers and turns his palm over and over at his side in an exaggerated motion. “See, to me, that’s a carry,” he says, referring to the basketball dribbling violation. “It’s just a different kind of thing now, I guess.”
* * *
Gradually, more players have trickled into the game of 21 until the area underneath the hoop’s rim is a knotted mess of seven or eight men half-heartedly jockeying for position while one or two of the more industrious types try to defend the man with the ball. At one point, the big man who previously demanded multiple defenders drifts away from the group, lying down on a nearby bench to take a call on his cell phone.
One of the newer players, a tall, broad-shouldered teenager, rises above the pack to grab a rebound one-handed before clearing the ball out to the perimeter.
“He got 19! He got 19! Get on him!” players shout from the tangled mass underneath the rim. It’s the first time any sense of urgency has entered the game.
The tall teen dribbles easily around two defenders, then spins and tosses up a soft hook shot that finds the bottom of the net. Game over.