I first visit the Sage Park basketball court on a cool January evening. Under the lights, an intense, but friendly, five-on-five game is well underway. Some guys wear sweatshirts, some aren’t even in shoes, one wears a Space Jam T-shirt and more than a few are talking trash. I quickly learn that the biggest talker, a 20-something-year-old in a lime-green hoodie, is also the best on the court. I find a spot on the sideline and lean back against the cold chain-link.
Like anyone who has ever been stopped by a red light at the busy intersection of Dauphin Street and Sage Avenue, I have often been distracted by the pickup games at this public court. Thanks to the installation of lights last summer, the night games have added an almost theatrical element to a once-dark intersection. It’s only natural to want to meet the actors.
When the game ends and players begin shuffling toward the parking lot, I try striking up a conversation with anyone who will listen. At the mention of a magazine article, the Talker says over his shoulder, “Y’all need to put me on the cover.” And just like that, the court is nearly emptied. The curtain on the night’s performance has dropped.
Three days later, when I visit the court for a second time, I arrive before sundown in the hopes of watching how the action evolves over several hours. I walk up on what must have been a valiant battle — two teammates are lying on their backs in exhaustion and defeat while their two friends congratulate each other. All four are students at Spring Hill College and say Sage Park is “a good place to come when the gym is taken up.”
The rest of the crowd are clearly schoolkids enjoying an after-school shootaround. One student wearing a backpack tells me he and his friend go to Booker T. Washington Middle School.
“You a recruiter?” he asks, noticing my notebook. That’s a first.
Phones and headphones are put to the side, and a spirited game of 21 begins. One youngster with glasses, sent to the free-throw line, kisses the ball before sinking his shot. As the sun sets across Dauphin, long shadows stretch across the court and the temperature plummets. Darkness being the cue, the students eventually gather their things and dangerously dart across Dauphin. Although most passing cars have switched on their headlights, the automated lights over the court remain lifeless.
At that time, a man wearing an Alabama sweatshirt, sandals and short dreads occupies one half of the court, shooting around with a miniature version of himself. Jerome, I learn, is a welder at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula. He often comes to Sage with his 6-year-old son, dribbling around with him until enough adults arrive to start a pickup game. Jerome once played basketball at Williamson High, which is a common story at Sage. Before I leave, I will have met former basketballers from Blount, McGill-Toolen, LeFlore and B.C. Rain.
At 5:35 p.m., the court is suddenly flooded with light. The show is back on. At some point, Jerome has returned to his car to put on his basketball shoes, and now he joins a pickup game with three new arrivals. His energetic son starts climbing the fence.
What begins as a two-on-two game turns into a three-on-three, then a four-on-four. There’s an unpredictability to the whole night that’s captivating. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you look like, where you went to high school. If you came to play, and the numbers are even, the game will fold you in.
While tonight’s pickup game is clearly just for fun, one unnamed court regular tells me there’s money to be made out here during the summer. As proof, he pulls out his phone to show me a video of himself, pulling up to sink a game-winning shot from nearly half court. An intensely focused crowd of more than 100 — mostly young men — erupts and storms the court. That shot, he claims, won his team $5,000.
“We stopped going out to the club, and we’d come out here instead,” he told me. “This is like another job. People were making real money out here.”
Although slightly skeptical of the dollar amount, I had heard rumblings about the gambling that takes place at the court. I had also heard that the lights now automatically shut off at 10 p.m., likely an attempt to suppress late-night wagering. It’ll be interesting to see, once summer rolls around, the effectiveness of the new light policy.
Three hours into my visit, I realize the entire scene is picturesque in a strange way; the bright lights, the movement, the passing cars, even the glow of the nearby Wells Fargo and Shell station signs. It’s a healthy reminder that beauty has a way of smacking you in the face in the moments you don’t expect to find it. Across the court, Jerome drives, steps back and hits a mid-range jumper, and I hear a small voice call out from the parking lot, “Good shot, Dad!”