Every time you watch Melvin Johnson drop a feathery floater through the net or admire his ability to knife through wafts of defenders, you can give a little thanks to the city the produced the VCU freshman guard, New York, New York.
A native of the White Plains neighborhood in the Bronx, Johnson, like the umpteen basketball stars the city has churned out over the years – Lew Alcindor, Mark Jackson, Bernard King, Bob Cousy, Tiny Archibald, Rafer Alston to name a few – owes some of his game to the anthropology of New York City hoops.
“You’d be surprised how intense it can be,” Johnson said of games in his hometown.
New York has always been a brash, in-your-face metropolis; the pace fast, the personalities colorful. New York basketball is the same way.
The culture of playground hoops is legendary. It’s not just Rucker Park, the most famous launching pad for city ballers. It’s everywhere. It’s places like the park near Melvin Johnson’s house, where he’d crowd around the court with sometimes 30 or more guys, waiting for a game. When you win, you retain the right to stay on the court. If you lose, you might not see the asphalt again that day. The unforgiving, double-rimmed goals can mute the effect of jump shooters, so ball skills and creativity are often the avenue to victory.
“You’ve just really got to create,” Johnson said. “It’s a lot of people talking smack. A lot of older guys come to the court and they challenge you just because you’re an okay player. It’s actually fun growing up in that kind of environment knowing you can just go to the park and get a lot of good games.”