16th And Philly: A Playground Basketball Conversation With Isaiah Nathaniel

By Josh Naso / @silverfox8008

Basketball in Philadelphia has a long, rich tradition. The 76ers have won three NBA titles and been the home to some of the greatest players in the game’s history. Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer, Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Maurice Cheeks (get him in the Hall already!), Charles Barkley, and Allen Iverson all did their thing for this proud franchise.

The city is home to one of the greatest traditions in college basketball: The great rivalries of the Big 5. Temple, La Salle, Penn, St. Joe’s, and Villanova all have incredibly rich histories, including national championships, and amazing players. Every year, they do battle with each other for city bragging rights. Many an epic game has gone down at the legendary Palestra, on Penn’s campus, and on campus courts across the city. You then add in Drexel, though the Dragons don’t participate in the Big 5, for another layer of rivalry to get the City 6.

The high schools of Philadelphia produce tons of Division 1 and professional talent, guys like Wilt Chamberlain, Earl Monroe, Rasheed Wallace and Kyle Lowry, just to name a few. They pump talent not only into the six local universities, but across the nation as well.

And then there is the playground. The playground is where a love for the game is birthed, where skills are honed and where reputations are built. It is where guys from all over a certain area can come together to see who is really the best. It is a place where an entire community can gather to watch an intense matchup on a warm summer evening. It is a place where nicknames like “Sadeye,” “Skip to My Lou” and “Booger” are given.

Whether it is a solitary kid shooting jump shots and working on his crossover or an intense pickup game between two neighborhoods’ best guys, the playground is where most youngsters get their start in the game. It is a place where guys who are past their glory days of high school or college can come to show they still got it, a place where guys who will never play professionally or even collegiately can come to show they still know a thing or two. From that lonely kid emulating his favorite player and imagining taking a last-second shot, to a high school kid honing his game and building his rep, to the older guys trying not to be outdone, from a game of one-on-one, to a night of intense pick-up games, to an elite summer league — it is beautiful, and it is special.

People say that playground basketball is dying. That is a sad and scary thing to me. Some of the best memories of my youth are from long days out on the courts of my local playground, with just a quick lunch break at the pizza shop down the street in the afternoon, then everyone dispersing for dinner only to quickly reconvene after eating and playing late into the night. From driving home from high school, throwing my books on the table, grabbing my sneakers and a pair of shorts, and meeting my friends at the playground to driving around to different courts in different towns trying to find the best games, and finally from a run of glory my local playground had when the courts were “the place to be” for the best pickup games in the area on Sunday nights, the memories are still fresh.

There were two courts at the playground, and on those Sunday nights they would be designated “A” and “B.” The younger guys would do their thing on “B” while the more experienced guys waited their turn to get on “A” and prove their mettle. It really was an awesome time, not only playing, but watching as well. I still love getting out on the playground when I get a chance, and every time I drive past an empty playground court on a beautiful summer day my heart breaks a little bit.

People cite a lot of things when they discuss the demise of this great basketball tradition. Violence in inner cities/the drug game, the influence of AAU ball, fear of injury and the money now involved in the game all come up.

While brainstorming and doing some research for this piece, I came across “16th and Philly,” a documentary about the legendary playground at 16th and Susquehanna Streets in North Philadelphia. I encourage you to check it out.

The executive producer of the film, Isaiah Nathaniel, was kind enough to take some time and answer some questions about the project and playground basketball as a whole.

TSFJ: Where did the idea for the film come from? How did you get involved with the project, and what made you decide to do so? What do you hope the project can accomplish? What do you hope its significance will be?
Isaiah: The idea to do “16th and Philly” came from playing basketball in Philadelphia and in the league that was held at 16th and Susquehanna and knowing the level of competition that came through the court. In addition to this, it was wanting to put all the stories and memories together on film that would always be a hot topic of discussion at many basketball events.

I got involved in the project as myself and the other executive producer, Anis Taylor, met initially to discuss putting the project together and wanting to do something for Philadelphia that was never done before.

I hope the project accomplishes a few goals, and those are that it puts Philadelphia back on the national map to which it belongs. Another goal is that all the up-and-coming young basketball players recognize and realize the type of basketball pedigree they come from. Lastly, I hope it helps the guys who played during that era, including the legends, get their just due and respect nationally for the work they put in.

TSFJ: What are your thoughts on the importance of the playground game to the game of basketball as a whole, whether it be summer leagues or just pickup ball?
Isaiah: The history of playground basketball not only in Philadelphia but in the country is very significant to the game of basketball as a whole. The playground was where you learned how to play and hone your skills because you could play all day uninhibited from the pressure of an organized environment of a system and such.

If it wasn’t for the playground, I think the flair of the game would be nonexistent, as this is where you had the freedom to try different things, to which it eventually made its way to the organized hardwood game. Players would first try these moves on the playground and then take them to the hardwood, so chances are when you’re seeing a special move there it was already done on the playground, but the stage of the hardwood made it special.

The future of playground basketball seems bleak right now because of AAU and guys choosing to play indoors more often, but I think that is because there hasn’t been a transition of the playground into more indoor-like situations and attracting the proper talent to the playground to make it competitive. But all it will take is a few things and one great atmosphere, and it can come back.

TSFJ: What are your thoughts on the role of playground basketball in a community, in the lives of young people?
Isaiah: Playground basketball is very important in the community because it can save and change lives. It gives older guys the chance to give back what they learned to the younger generation. It gives the community something to do after work ,thereby creating creative ways to make money by selling food, art and miscellaneous items. As it relates to the younger kids, as I stated earlier, kids get the opportunity to hone and develop other skills on the playground that make them that much more effective on the hardwood.

TSFJ: How has playground ball played a role in your life personally?
Isaiah: Personally, playground basketball shaped my basketball career, first by developing the drive by wanting to beat the older guys. Then my high school coach saw me play at a playground, and this shaped his idea of my abilities and accelerated my playing time in high school. Then it developed my toughness to play at the college level, and many, many nights I played on the playground working on my game when all the gyms were closed. It has helped me through tough times and given me solace in times of need. I love the playground.

TSFJ: What are some of your fondest memories of playground ball?
Isaiah: My fondest memory of playground basketball is the day I beat my dad on the court at 14 years old at our neighborhood playground, which fueled me to play the way I do today. The second memory I have is when I first dunked at the legendary 16th St. courts and the amazing feeling I had after it.

TSFJ: People have said that playground basketball is dying. Do you agree? If so, can it be revived? How? What are your thoughts on the current state of playground basketball and its future?
Isaiah: I don’t think playground basketball is dying; I just think that guys are choosing the indoor arenas because that is where the best competition and talent are playing. There are still guys playing basketball outside, but what happens is if it isn’t under an officiated whistle, then people perceive it as not happening or it dying. No, you just aren’t seeing it. So I think we have to put more emphasis on it, and it can make a smashing comeback because playground basketball really can bring out the best in a player.

TSFJ: People point to many factors when arguing the decline of playground basketball, whether it be the influence of AAU, injury fears, violence or the mindset of today's youth. What do you think is playing the biggest role? Are there ways to combat these factors?
Isaiah: I think the stigma of all the things you mention are combining to the declining factor of playground basketball. I think you combat all the negativity that may surround playground basketball now by, one, putting structure to it during games and make them exciting; two, you have community support; and, lastly, the support of the city government.

TSFJ: What/where are the best leagues in the city currently?
Isaiah: The best leagues in the city right now are the Chosen League for the high school guys, the Danny Rumph Tournament for the professional players, Myers Basketball rec league for the 30 and over, the Hank Gathers rec league for the 35 and over guys.

TSFJ: What are your favorite courts in Philly? What are the most important courts, either historically or presently? Where are the best courts to find a good pickup game today?
Isaiah: My favorite courts in Philadelphia are of course 16th and Susquehanna for its importance and history to the Philadelphia basketball community. I also like 33rd and Diamond and my neighborhood courts at Sedwick playground because that is where I grew up playing. To find a great pickup game guys should go to 33rd and Diamond and 10th and Olney.

TSFJ: And finally, just for fun, who would be your all-time top five Philly playground players? Top five players from Philly period?
Isaiah: My top five Philly players of all time are Bryant “Sadeye” Watson, Jared “JK” Kearse, Eddie Griffin, Omar “OT" Thomas and Lynn Greer. That is a very tough question.

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Playground basketball is important and special for so many reasons. It’s a productive thing for the young people to do. It can provide special times for fathers and sons or daughters. It provides beautiful and lasting memories for not only the participants, but also for communities who are taking in memorable games. It can provide valuable social and economic opportunities for individuals and for communities. It provides players opportunities to hone their skills, prove themselves and build their reputations, and serves as a lab to work on moves that they can’t develop in the more structured environments of team practices. It allows for the growth that provides the flair and poetry of this beautiful game. It provides stories and memories that last a lifetime and can be shared with future generations. It provides opportunities for Joe from the neighborhood to go up against an elite talent, whether it be a high school standout or a past/present/or future college player. It provides “I remember the time I saw so-and-so do this” or “the time I saw player x go against player y” or “the time I got to play against player x” moments.

The playground game has added such an amazing layer to the rich tapestry of the beautiful game of basketball, at the community, city and national level. Its influence goes far beyond the fenced-in concrete, as so many great players have taken their games that were honed here on to the college and professional level, and so many of the rest of us are left with great experiences and memories that we carry with us all the time.

One of the best things about Philly’s Big 5 is that besides the rivalries generated by the close proximity of the schools and the desire to be able to be known as the best in the city is that the rosters of these schools are made up of a lot of guys from Philly who had been doing battle on the playgrounds long before they arrived at their respective schools, and that ratchets up the intensity yet another level.

I wouldn’t trade my memories of the playground for anything and am so thankful that despite my aging I still have the ability to go out and shoot some jumpers or find a pickup game. I would love to see playground basketball return to its glory and to see packed courts at every playground.

While things like city funding and the other issues that were discussed above work to erode playground basketball’s popularity and influence, all of us who love basketball and the playground can do our own little part to keep it going. Get together with your boys, or gather your kids and share your favorite stories; reminisce over the glories and bloopers and epic battles that were held on those concrete courts. Talk of your favorite moments and the best players you saw/played with and the best games you witnessed. And finally, dust of the old kicks and get out there and play.

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