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BEACH BLANKET BASKETBALL : Every Day, Players Gather from All Over the City to Show Off Their Moves on the Venice Courts of Cool

February 02, 1992|JAMES GREENBERG | James Greenberg, who writes about sports and movies, is still working on his two-handed set shot

IT'S A POSTCARD DAY AT VENICE BEACH. BLUE SKY, ocean breeze, ranting lunatics. A crew shooting a marketing video for lava-lava skirts from Tonga makes its way to the basketball courts next to Muscle Beach. A woman waving the brightly colored fabric as if it were a flag interrupts a half-court game and asks the guys if they'd like to model the product for the camera. Play stops as they wrap the tropical wear around their bodies and over their pants, their Air Jordans sticking out at the bottom. If Gauguin had painted basketball players, they might look like this. Six big black guys wearing flowered skirts, slamming the hell out of the ball.

Advertisers know that basketball in Venice is one of the hippest shows in town. The game at Ocean Front Walk next to the weight pit and the paddle ball courts has been a part of the local scene since the 1950s. The playground was remodeled and expanded to three full courts by the L.A. Department of Recreation and Parks in 1989, and hundreds of people of every size and shape come by to play or watch each week. Today, a roller-skater tends the world's biggest boombox blasting the latest rap hits. Hardly anyone notices. It's just the soundtrack for another day at the courts.

"Hey, Rasta, what are you doin' with those dreadlocks?" a regular calls out to one of the locals. "Everybody knows you're from St. Louis." You could be from anywhere and still fit in here. At Venice Beach a giraffe could get in a game if it could dunk the ball. If Venice is the capital of laissez faire, then the basketball courts are its senate. There are other outdoor basketball games in the city where the quality of play may be better, but nowhere are the participants as colorful or diverse. True, neighborhood violence and racial tensions occasionally seep into the games, but this is one of the few spots where people whose paths would otherwise never cross can get together to enjoy each other and the beauty of the city. Great cities have great public spaces where people can meet; Los Angeles has the basketball courts in Venice.

This is not just a neighborhood game. Like any cultural site, the Venice games draw visitors from all over. Players drive from the San Fernando Valley and South Bay to get into a game, and many come from farther than that. Old-timers tend to play on weekend mornings, and the younger hotshots come out in the afternoon, but Saturdays and Sundays are so crowded that many regulars skip them altogether. Mark Shields came to Venice Beach, like many of the players, by way of a big Eastern city, looking for an urban experience among the palm trees. "We were just out there shooting in the dark one night and found out that we were all pretty close together--Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City. Guys from New York come out here and they can't believe it. It's like a dream."

"Look out there at that beach, that's reality," rhapsodizes one regular. "You got the palm trees and the beach--it's beautiful, man. And the girls. There's some beautiful girls around here."

It is not only the natural beauty that draws crowds to the Venice courts but also the reputation of the place. Chris Beard, a waiter and aspiring writer who recently arrived from New York, says he heard about the games while playing on West 4th Street in Manhattan, probably the best-known street game in the country. "The Venice Beach game is legend in New York," Beard says. "Everyone said when you come out here, you've got to go to Venice."

What Beard found was a lot different than what he was accustomed to in New York. In Venice, players are sometimes more interested in looking good than in winning: They all want to be stars, even if they don't know the fundamentals. "And it's a more closed community in New York. Here it's more democratic. I never played anywhere where so many people don't speak English," says Beard, who once spent 15 minutes trying to explain the local rules to a big Greek kid. The game at Venice has a definite international flavor, and visiting talent from Spain, Yugoslavia or Sweden is a regular part of the scene. One veteran recalls the day a Hasidic Jew showed up at the court, took off his yarmulke and prayer shawl and aired out his game.

The spectators, who crowd around the stands near the full-court game, are an important part of the scene, too. The other two courts are divided into four half-court games, three players on each team, which go pretty much unnoticed. One local arrives early, opens a beach chair, lights a cigar and settles down with the sports page for a day at the courts. Tourists come and pick up the jargon and then take it home with them. "I wouldn't be selling you no woof ticket," a player says, assuring me that he's not full of hot air. A spirited game is known as a good run, and if someone hits a few tough shots off the backboard, "The bank is open, the bank is open."

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