James Williams wants a chapter. He wants you to believe in His Game.
On this day, he's playing inside the Zelma George Center at Luke Easter (a.k.a. Woodhill) Park. People play all over Cleveland. But whether you're in a league, gambling, or just playing for the love of it, Luke Easter is where your name is made. "Even before they built this center, you could come up to Woodhill and find people playing all year 'round," says Al Black, an old baller who now prefers league play. "Sometimes they play for money. But up on the 'Hill, they mainly playing for the love of it."
This is where NBAers Charles Oakley, Earl Boykins, and Ricky Davis come to find competition. "If you don't play up here, nobody knows you," says Williams. "This here is like holy ground."
On the floor are the usual suspects: league players, high school ruffians, and streetballers with razor-sharp skills and elbows to match. There's a stout kid, shirtless, pushing 240, raining threes on his opponents and playing brutal defense. "Where you at, muthafucka!" he taunts his defender as he takes it to the hole.
A dark, lanky figure, maybe 6-foot-3 with a long wingspan, snatches balls away easily and dominates the inside.
A guy named Redd brings an amalgam of skills and manages to score on everyone.
But it's a low-scoring game -- until Williams drops in.
Sole chirps syncopate the music leaking from the roller rink next door, as all eyes turn his way. Two guys built like sequoias quickly move in for a double-team. Williams makes short work of them. He puts on the hard shake, drives through them and . . . swish.
As the contest heats up, he becomes David, challenging the neighborhood Nephilim, fearlessly dunking, playing predatory defense. Minutes later, he's easily 50 points deep against the stronger, older men.
"I've known him and watched his game most of his life," says Ed Hicks, recreation director at the center. "He got the best handles in the city of Cleveland. Anybody that steps in front of him, it's gonna be an unfair game."
Hicks puts Williams on a par with Lebron James -- kind of. "Well, he couldn't beat Lebron," he says. "In a 12-point game, I give it to Lebron by 6."
But you, the skeptic, aren't buying. At only 5'9" and 180 pounds, Williams is light work. Where's the defense? you think to yourself. This is bullshit.
So you lace up and tap out his defender. The rock beats relentlessly between Williams's hand and the hardwood. And then it hits you -- hard and sharp, just above the right eye, his forehead crashing into yours. Just as you man-up and catch your step, Williams pivots, steps, fakes left -- or was it right? -- and mows past you with his slight shoulder. He finds the foul line and jumps . . . Without wings or wires, he's in flight, slamming the ball home.
Two points -- all over you. The gym erupts in laughter.
A young boy walks up to you, shaking his head in disgust. "Damn, dude," he says. "You bleedin'."
Williams has blessed you with an inch-long cut on your eyebrow. The wetness pours past your eye, down the side of your face, into the corner of your lips. It tastes like basketball: sweet and salty, slightly acidic, alive with energy. And blood, like streetball, is the stuff of life.
James Reese Williams, 20, bounced through four high schools -- Central Catholic, John Hay, Glenville, and finally Collinwood -- trying to find a program that would highlight his play, but look past his bad grades.
Darryl Allen, John Hay's coach from '97 to '98, found Williams to be a fine athlete who loved the game, but had little regard for team play. "He would have the ball, and there would be his teammate, downcourt and wide open, up under the hoop," says Allen. "And he would run the ball from coast to coast."
Because of Cleveland's open enrollment policy, Williams could bounce around as his grades rose and fell, looking for a better opportunity. Allen loved James, but the baller was there and gone before he could lure a college scout in to check him out. "I think the bouncing and the grades hurt him," says Allen, "because loyalty is a quality that coaches and scouts are looking for."
"James Williams was an outstanding basketball player," says Cecil Short Jr., his coach at Glenville. "Back then, he was pretty much able to take anyone at will, mashing to the hole with his left or right." Yet his outside shot was inconsistent, and he was indecisive at the point position -- a bad combination.
At Collinwood, he was the right player at the right time. The Railroaders needed a point guard, and James came to play. He was a finisher, a sure stutter-stepper with hot springs. He averaged 15 points, 4 rebounds, and 5 assists per game -- good numbers for a regimented team that concentrates on fundamentals.
Williams had a good shot at a Division I scholarship, surely Division II, believes Collinwood coach Ken Vana, but "he didn't have the GPA to get into the better colleges." Though Williams did well when he showed up for class, it was the showing-up part that gave him trouble.
Vana nonetheless used his influence to pique the interest of Vermilion Community College in the north woods of Minnesota. But after being accused of cheating on an admissions test -- nothing became of the charge -- Williams landed at another JUCO, nearby Mesabi Range.
There were times when Mesabi coach Tom Stackpool thought Williams was an unstoppable force and cheered along with the rest of the school. Other times, Williams's showboating caused turnovers, and Stackpool couldn't pull him off the floor fast enough. It led to an uneven season: Williams got plenty of minutes, but remained the backup point guard.
"He's got a lot of ability, but no grades," says Stackpool. "Plus, he's got a lot of street in him. I don't think he's got the feel for playing in an organized system."
When the season ended, Williams stopped going to classes. "If he spent as much time chasin' the books as he spends chasin' girls," says his mom, Willa, "he'd be an A student. I keep tellin' him: Them heifers are gonna be there. Get your education."
A pound of flesh
Williams's game is gritty and aggressive, full of the showmanship that has made lesser men urban legends. On the playground, you get a rep for grace, style, and the ability to score. But unlike play in the NBA, forehead knocks, hard checks, and the body count you leave on the way to the hole feed the mythology.
Williams has a good grasp of the fundamentals, say his old coaches. Vana believes he could play for a ranking college, perhaps even make a run at the NBA or a European league, if he could put in two good years of junior college. But academic troubles have hobbled his chances, and his street game doesn't mesh easily with the structure coaches demand.
Moreover, as with most street players, there are holes in his game. "He's real quick -- gotten quicker since the old days," says former teammate Swaney Cooper, who now plays for Independence Community College in Kansas. "He needs to work on his mid-range jump shot, though. And he gets caught up in the one-on-one sometimes."
These are curses not unique to streetballers, but they have kept many a player from making a living on the court -- at least by conventional means.
Yet sports apparel houses are embracing the energy of the streets. They sponsor leagues and hold competitions, such as the And1 Mixtape Tour, a traveling exhibition. And they allow players to earn a living through endorsements, camps, and clinics. Most are former college ballers whose pro options have run out; the only way to keep playing is on the pro-am circuit.
Anthony Heyward -- a.k.a. "Half Man, Half Amazing" -- is a legend. He's been balling for 17 years, and got involved with shoemaker And1 while playing at Rucker Park in New York. He's played a little college ball and had a few NBA tryouts, but he made his bones against NBAers on the blacktop. He's been signed to And1 for five years.
Heyward has sustained a dislocated shoulder, busted his head a few times, received multiple stitches, and lost a lot of teeth. He admits the street game ages the body quickly. But based on a rep, a player can make some real cheese. On the low end: $35,000, $40,000 dollars. On the high end, "The sky's the limit," says Heyward.
The And1 Tour features the company team playing an all-star squad -- known as the JV -- composed of players from each city. It is the basis for the ESPN reality series Streetball. With each stop, one player is voted off the JV by And1 players and viewers registering their opinions online. Then a new player is added. Think of it as the sporting version of American Idol.
When the tour stopped at Cleveland's Convocation Center, 30-odd players showed up for the Open Run. But it was Williams who shone with his aggressive defense, hunger for the ball, and ability to score. He impressed both the crowd and the And1 players, who served as judges. In the end, he was picked as the best in Cleveland.
It was his call to the front of the church, his chance to bring His Game to the world. It might also be his only shot at a career playing basketball.
The upper room
And1 was launched 10 years ago as a T-shirt manufacturer and didn't start making footwear until 1997. From an initial nest egg of $50,000, it has become a $175 million company, its growth fueled by the free video mixtapes of infamous New York streetballer Skip to My Lou, which it gave away with each purchase at Foot Action outlets.
The tour, along with the ESPN show, "was born of the idea of, like, how can we get more footage?" says marketing coordinator Kristen Wein. "We needed to let more kids know about this kind of basketball."
Despite the company's phenomenal growth, sneaker freaks still aren't running to the stores. A poll of any playground will turn up the usual -- Nikes and Adidas -- but hardly any And1 gear. So instead of trying to compete head-on with the giants, who tied their stars to such NBAers as Michael Jordan, Kevin Garnett, and Shaquille O'Neal, And1 is branding itself with streetball.
"And1 is about keeping it real and authentic," says Wein. "The tour has given players an opportunity to play their kind of basketball their own way and make a living doing it."
The company team includes players from across America, with names like Headache, Sik Wid It, and AO. Williams made the JV. If he manages not to get voted off, he will win an And1 endorsement contract and a place on the European leg of the tour.
"Williams's shot at the contract may be better than most," says Heyward. "He's got as much potential as the other players we've picked up, if not more." But he's gotta have a game everyone remembers.
The US Bank Arena in Cincinnati is Williams's first time playing against the And1 team and his last stop in Ohio before the tour heads south. It's a hot, steamy day, and a storm is gathering outside, but the arena is nearly full.
John Williams, James's father and a retired metal-shop worker, has come to watch his boy. He's a redder, older image of his son, in a maroon Enyce jogging suit. He used to run the courts, too, but now prefers to watch. "My knees, man -- I can't do that shit no more," he says. "Besides, have you seen some of the things he do with that ball? I could never do any of that shit."
Williams's primary competition is Dennis Chism -- a.k.a. Spyda -- and Grayson Boucher, a white guy dubbed The Professor for the way he schools on the court. Spyda is known for hanging upside-down from the rim, legs askew. The Professor wows the crowd with his mischievous handles and the way he fearlessly asserts his game against the And1 Gods.
If any member of the JV has a bad night in any city, he can be replaced by one of the locals. They all vie for the same endgame: an And1 contract, lifetime bragging rights, and street fame. It's their chance to step into the Upper Room.
The crowd is excited. Same as at any good revival, people got the Ghost. They jump from their seats convulsing, speaking in tongues -- dittjuuuuuseeeeeeedatshit?! -- clapping and slapping hands, as they bear witness to the ineffable splendor of streetball.
Williams takes the court early and is greeted warmly, but with reserve. He catches a lump here and there as he's knocked about. AO, his defender, clowns him, but Williams makes AO work hard for his points.
Six minutes into the game, and Williams is losing the ball to AO's hermetic defense. He finally gets a pass, fakes left, and takes off from just inside the paint. He jams it home, and the crowd comes to its feet. Williams runs back down the court, all business. He barely looks up and doesn't even wave. It's a critical mistake.
Williams finishes with four points and six assists -- a good start. He kisses his father on the cheek and waves as he boards the tour bus, bound for St. Louis. John Williams beams on his way to the Greyhound station. "I think James gonna go all the way, no matter what," he says.
Seven games and as many cities later, James Williams is back home. He was eliminated in Baltimore.
With 250,000 votes recorded online, Williams received just 1 percent. His problems have come full circle. If past coaches considered him too wild and showy for organized play, the fans have pronounced him too workmanlike for Streetball.
His all-business approach was devoid of crowd interaction or a signature move. In a sport driven by the love and energy of the fans, Williams forgot to look up into the stands to collect his props and give some love back. He was not street enough for And1.
Sitting in his front yard, just off 116th Street and Shaker Boulevard, Williams remains upbeat. He saw new cities, met stars, played with the Cavaliers' Ricky Davis and Sean Stevens of the Utah Jazz at stops along the way. More important, he got to play His Game for a global audience, which, hopefully, caught the attention of a college scout or a coach from overseas. After all, the path that he's chosen isn't just an uphill battle; it's a quest of faith.
But the And1 adventure has caused further problems. By accepting gear and travel from the shoemaker, he may have killed his college eligibility, says Stackpool, his coach at Mesabi Range. And even if this gets cleared up, he still owes the school money for past tuition and faces academic probation. It's doubtful that he'll play this season. Stackpool has urged him to return to Cleveland.
Though his options seemed to have dwindled to zero, Williams still believes. "This game is all about the want," he says, rocking the ball between his legs. "You got to want people to believe in your game. And I want it, man. I want it. If God don't stop me, then I won't stop."