The Red Shorts Basketball Society and the Demographics of Washington Heights

BY Anonymous

Basketball

(Photo: Briana E. Heard)

It was the first summery day of spring, the kind of day you remember from your childhood, the first day you can wear shorts, the first sunburn of the season. My face is still as crispy and golden as a Peking Duck, my back an unmistakably yuppie series of sports bra tan lines.

I hated running until I went to Los Angeles and discovered I loved hiking canyons and running down. I was even happier when I realized I could replicate the same experience back home in the unexpectedly rugged topography of Washington Heights and Inwood. Broadway north of 177th Street forms a lovely valley between the cliffs east and west of it, a landscape not unlike Madonna’s pointy Jean Paul Gaultier bra. Some of my favorite trails, especially in Inwood Park, are even dirt or gravel and not pavement. At the top of the eastern cliff in High Bridge Park, one of my favorite paths, is a playground complete with a series of basketball courts, appropriately positioned directly across from a public school.

There’s a world of difference between running the canyons in LA and in NYC, where I’m doing hurdles over garbage bags instead of rogue tree roots, but also between the two hills nestled around Broadway. There’s a strange de facto segregation in Washington Heights and Inwood. All of the white people and yuppies live west of Broadway while east of Broadway is primarily Dominican and a number of other Spanish-speaking nationalities. There are also various conservative and orthodox Jewish enclaves, especially north of where I live and closer to Yeshiva University. It’s been this way since the heavy wave of German Jewish immigration to the area between the first and second World Wars. There are some Russian remnants in the neighborhood, like the bakery at the corner of 181st and Fort Washington, but the most noticeable cultural divide is between the yuppie early thirties couples with babies next door at the Starbucks who are scared of everything east of Broadway. I’ve heard residents flat out say that they won’t go there. They literally live on their own little city on a hill. Down the hill is Broadway, where people speak Spanish, and we all know how scary Spanish is. There are vegetables they’ve never heard of, and not the kind that Whole Foods is getting a shipment of because Dr. Oz just endorsed them as a superfood.

I’m convinced that white people have some sort of complex where they feel uncomfortable when they aren’t surrounded by white people all of the time, whereas minorities are supposedly “in the minority” and are thus possibly less weirded out, or at least more accustomed to it. I love all of my neighborhood, not just the part that looks like me or speaks the same language. I’m ashamed to have to say something like that in 2013, that I’m a sometimes in the minority in embracing the continuous melting pot of New York City.

I run up and down the various cliffs from river to river, dodging thirtysomethings with strollers and thick rimmed glasses engrossed in their iphones on my way westward down 181st to the Hudson, and zipping around the coco helado and piragua carts and leathery older folks relaxing in sun chairs on my way east up Fairview Ave from Broadway.

It was my second day of watching basketball at High Bridge Park. It’s a great place to catch some rays while catching a game. On my first day stopping by, I was impressed by the skills of the players. Their ages ranged, but I doubt they were more than only a year or two younger than me. I don’t know much about basketball, but there was a lot of swift passing, many faked or looped behind backs. The kid in the blue shorts loved to shoot threes, the chubby kid who joined the game late wasn’t as agile but sunk almost all of his shots, grey shirt was great at blocking lay-ups. It was smooth. Why pay $80 and have to go all the way downtown for shitty seats at a Knicks game when I can sit outside, a few feet away, and walk to the court?

The same guys weren’t playing on Tuesday as Monday. Half the court was kids in red shorts and white wife beaters, who through some breach of logic were not playing on the same team. There were dropped passes, crowding under the net, some poor dribbling, and more attempts at fancy footwork than actual skill. There was a lot more bickering and more yelling nigga, both playfully and angrily, at each other. It’s obvious that the Red Shorts Basketball Club is the inferior neighborhood clique.

I asked the guy sitting on the bench where I had sat the previous day if I could sit next to him. He was rolling a joint in a five dollar bill. Seemed like a waste of a five when there was plenty of toilet paper in the park bathroom. One guy wearing fake Ray Bans with a foot-tall hi-top fade did a lap around the court on a child’s moped and then disappeared, looking like the High Bridge Park equivalent of a circus bear riding a tricycle. But I didn’t really start to enjoy myself until the Jews showed up. At this point you’re probably thinking I’m anti-Semitic. Tell that to the framed Annie Hall and Ben Shahn posters on my walls. It’s just that the three vastly different cultures in the neighborhoods seem generally isolationist and it’s always fun to see them interact uncomfortably.

To say that these kids looked out of place would be the understatement of the century. They made me look cool, and I looked like a sunburned honkey tourist who got lost in the heights while exercising, wearing red compression shorts and a blue tank top with rainbow New Balance kicks, not to mention being the only girl on the playground. Two out of four of these kids were gingers. By the way, Gingers are red headed people, usually with freckles. One of the gingers had the beginnings of a Jew Fro going on. He was the biggest, a little chubby, and wearing green socks, purple shorts, and a blue t-shirt with a realistic picture of a pterodactyl outlined in lime green as if it had been exposed to too much uranium. Ginger #2 was wearing Velcro sneakers. A third kid looked like he was making at attempt to be hip, wearing a white t-shirt and skinny cut khaki pants and would have looked much less out of place at a Williamsburg warehouse party or a meet and greet at NYU. Even though the hip one had a basketball on his yarmulke, somehow I doubted any of them were very good at basketball. They skulked around the various courts but none was open, not that I have any idea what they would have done if there had been any open courts since they hadn’t brought a ball. After much deliberation, they sat on the bench one over from me, waiting their turn for the court.

They were waiting for at least an hour. Khaki shorts at some point got restless and ran to jump and touch the net to show he was hot stuff while the red shorts club was in play at the other end of the court. Everyone knows running and touching the net is an invaluable basketball skill. When two of the kids got up to again look for an open court, Ginger #2 held down the fort by talking selfies of himself drinking a soda from Mr. Softee. A once in a lifetime opportunity, better take a picture of this special moment!

I left when the red shorts club decided to leave, not wanting to see how humiliatingly long it would take their successors to find a ball and a fifth player for their team.

Check out: Inwood v. Inwood

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