Inside the Cage: A Season at West 4th Street's Legendary Tournament

Inside the Cage: A Season at West 4th Street's Legendary Tournament

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by Wight Martindale Jr.

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The most popular outdoor basketball court in New York City is half the regulation size, offers no seating, and has sidelines bounded by a chain-link fence. But the summer league on West 4th Street in Greenwich Village has developed its share of stars and has become known throughout the world for another reason: Here the only thing that matters is the game.

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The most popular outdoor basketball court in New York City is half the regulation size, offers no seating, and has sidelines bounded by a chain-link fence. But the summer league on West 4th Street in Greenwich Village has developed its share of stars and has become known throughout the world for another reason: Here the only thing that matters is the game.

Inside the Cage follows the West 4th Street's summer league through a single season, chronicling its legendary history along the way. From 1970s playground legend Fly Williams to NBA veteran Anthony Mason and L.A. Lakers guard Smush Parker, three generations of players have mastered their game at West 4th Street. And the Cage itself -- located in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in America and frequented by men from the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Harlem -- proves that talent can flourish even in the most unlikely places.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Wedged into a corner of the intersection at West 4th Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan's Greenwich Village is a tiny basketball court surrounded by a 20-foot-high fence, known as the Cage. Although ramshackle in appearance, it's one of the world's best-known courts, attracting international scouts to scope out the talent who play there each summer in the intense, emotional West 4th Street Tournament. Martindale chronicles the competition's history and its 25th season (in 2002). It's an exciting though hardly dispassionate tale, as the former Wall Street moneyman is also one of the tournament's managing directors. While the book spends a good amount of time profiling the hotshots who come to play, it's far more engaging when discussing the stalwart old-timers-like Moneybags, the homeless scorekeeper, and the instant-nickname-bestowing announcer, Dee Foreman-who run the often rambunctious games. Chief among them is the event's founder, Kenny Graham, a limo driver with an entrepreneurial streak, a pillar of the community and the book's most fascinating character. Though Martindale has a preachy attitude and a penchant for inappropriate literary references, he is a vivid portraitist, bringing readers inside the pulsing heart of this urban phenomenon. Agent, Sterling Lord. (June) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
"A summer at one of basketball's celebrated blacktops, where the characters are as captivating as the game." — Sports Illustrated

"Employing colorful anecdotes and more than a few cautionary tales, Martindale introduces the characters — from the NBA dreamers to the drug dealer turned coach to the scraggly scorekeeper called Moneybags — who carry the story, and a good one it is." —

"With muscled prose and a deft touch, Wight Martindale takes us into the heart of the Cage, the West 4th Street courts where basketball dreams and reputations are won and lost one trip down the floor at a time, where stirring human dramas play out beyond the roar of the big-time. Just a wonderful, heartfelt book." — Adrian Wojnarowski, author of the New York Times bestselling The Miracle of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley and Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty

"Inside the Cage is fascinating. It has the ring of authenticity and the stamp of authority. Anyone interested in any sports or in the sociology of the city [who reads it] will be moved and entertained. Officials of the National Basketball Association could learn a great deal [about personality management] from reading this book." — Peter Gent, author of North Dallas Forty and former all-American basketball player at Michigan State University

"West 4th Street has been a terrific place to develop many, many youngsters. [The] true sportsmanship displayed there is terrific. Playground basketball has been the backbone of our game throughout the years. Hopefully, Inside the Cage will generate greater playground play." — Mike Krzyzewski, Duke Basketball Head Coach and New York Times bestselling author

"The depth of reporting, along with Martindale's obvious love for the tournament, makes Inside the Cage an enjoyable read. For Kenny Graham and the players of West 4th Street, it provides some well-earned recognition. They'd keep playing without it, but it's about time someone gave them their due." — John Matson, Dime Magazine

"Fascinating." — Adam Zagoria, Passaic County Herald News

"A well-written tome on the very competitive basketball played at the [West 4th Street] playground." — Lloyd Carroll, Queens Chronicle

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Preface: West 4th Street

and the Ron Artest Affair

No good book is truly original; nothing worthwhile is created from the imagination alone, with no precedent and no tradition. Inside the Cage is one of many accounts of basketball and the inner-city experience, and as such, it is about urban life as much as it is about basketball. Its most obvious predecessor is a book called Heaven Is a Playground, written twenty-five years ago by a young sportswriter, Rick Telander. Telander focused on street scout Rodney Parker and the Brooklyn kids he was trying to get into college so they could play their way out of the ghetto.

This story, like Telander's, follows a single year of playground basketball in New York City.

In this book, Heaven Is a Playground is revisited twenty-five years later. Even some of the same characters, Rodney Parker and Fly Williams, for example, appear here. But this is a story told by an older man about other older men, so it looks at the people who have stayed involved with summer basketball here for three decades and turned a pleasant run into an enduring New York social institution.

The book explores the most broad and fundamental principles of the street game, and it attempts to understand what lies beneath the game's most blatant features -- the leaping, the shouting, the tricks, and the physical confrontations -- and what is not so obvious: the culture that has been created within the park.

The story has two central characters. The most important person is Kenny Graham, the man who started the West 4th Street Pro-Classic back in the 1970s and who continues to run it today. The second character is the Cageitself, a tiny park between West 3rd Street and West 4th Street on Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village. Kenny's benevolent dictatorship here, combined with the natural discipline enforced by the configuration of the Cage, has produced some great basketball and even better people.

This account does not romanticize eccentric black athletes who can jump to the moon but cannot function in normal society. Instead, it demonstrates that institutions created in the ghetto by the people who live there do the community more good than something imposed by a remote bureaucracy. Inside the Cage is about having fun, sticking with a good thing, and making it better.

Thus, this book should be a welcome antidote to the Ron Artest affair of November 19, 2004. After Artest went into the stands in Detroit to punch out courtside spectators -- one of whom had thrown beer on him while he lay on the scorer's table, taunting Detroit fans -- Commissioner David Stern said that this was the single worst event he had seen in twenty-one years of running the NBA, and he banned Artest from playing for the rest of the year. The entire episode was played and replayed on television, in slow motion and super-slow motion, until America couldn't stand it any longer.

The violence in city playground games can be even worse. But in the Cage at West 4th Street, it is not. While the culture of the National Basketball Association appears to have been deteriorating over the past two decades, the culture of many inner-city parks has been improving. Why is this so? And why do we not know more about it? Why are inner-city black men better able to take care of themselves than the superorganized and superrich NBA?

Money alone does not solve the problem, and it may even make matters worse. The rage and frustration of men living in what they perceive as a hopeless, oppressive environment has been well documented -- in movies like Straight Out of Brooklyn, by Matty Rich, and in books like Native Son, by Richard Wright. This rage still exists, and it is likely that Ron Artest feels it, despite his annual salary of $6.2 million. Yet because so many big businesses -- and unions -- have so much invested in the success of the NBA (each separate team is a big business itself), the problem there will be finessed and negotiated; it will be viewed as a business problem that requires a consensus-based business solution. Unfortunately this approach seldom fixes anything.

At West 4th Street, impulsive violence is understood, even sympathized with. But still, it is not accepted. Players who cause trouble are simply not invited back. More likely, they are identified and dealt with before they can do any harm. That's how problems get fixed in real life, and that is what Inside the Cage is about. Real life.

Text copyright © 2005 by Wight Martindale, Jr.

Introduction: The Cage

Nobody at West 4th Street in New York City is famous.

No one is rich.

No one is important.

Or influential.

Or politically connected.

But a summer basketball tournament has been going on down here for over twenty-five years, and the same guy who started the tournament is still running it. His name is Kenny Graham. He is fifty years old and he drives a limo for a living. He spends almost half the year in Rio de Janeiro and speaks excellent Portuguese. New York City and the Department of Parks and Recreation give him no assistance with his program. They probably never will.

But his summer tournament is known to basketball insiders around the world. Professional scouts come here from Europe. PlayStation, the giant computer game producer, features the West 4th Street Cage in its hottest video basketball games. Nike is selling a BattleGrounds line of clothing and footwear featuring the Cage logo. The recent book Hoops Nation (1998), by Chris Ballard, evaluated over one thousand public courts for the quality of their pickup games. The Cage was ranked first, the best there is. This is no ordinary playground.

Greenwich Village is a melting pot of New York cultures, the home of New York University and the New School, as well as the heart of New York's gay community. Partly due to its proximity to Wall Street, real estate values have risen steadily. Retail businesses flourish, and there is no vacant land. Refurbished one-bedroom cooperative apartments start at $300,000, and the zoning board makes it difficult to erect residential buildings. Everything seems to have landmark status.

The Village's population has increased every decade, and now it stands at about 95,000. While Village residents like to claim that their community is broadly inclusive, fewer than 10 percent of those who live here are black or Hispanic, with only 5 percent of the population on public assistance. Its elementary school population is small, since only 8 percent of the population is under eighteen years old. St. Vincent's Hospital, on Twelfth Street, is one of the city's best.

Two of New York's most elegant gourmet food stores, Balducci's and Dean & Deluca, got their start in the Village. The community board here is organized, active, and powerful. It has spun off nearly two dozen subcommittees to keep the city aware of its needs. Tony Dapolito, proprietor of Vesuvio's Bakery Shop on Prince Street, has been chairman of the Parks and Recreation Committee in the Village "for forty-five or fifty years, I can't remember which," he says. (The neighbors tell me that the bakery is a known New York Mafia location. I don't press Tony, who is eighty-two, on the issue.) This collective involvement ensures that public services remain first-rate. The area is politically liberal, but police protection is everywhere.

Village residents are tolerant of the West 4th Street tournament, but every year is a challenge. Local residents seldom play here, so the tournament doesn't serve residents directly. Gangs, black and Latin, often congregate around the basketball court after dark. At times the police have had to close off the side streets that cross Sixth Avenue to make cruising difficult. Although the tournament adds color to the Village, it can be too much Brooklyn reality for the fashionable Villagers. Still, because the basketball tradition is over thirty years old, a move to shut down the tournament would have ugly racial overtones, which the Village doesn't want. The relationship between the tournament and the community is delicate, but care by both parties -- Kenny Graham and the locals -- has kept the tournament going. Kenny Graham did not create the Cage, but no one has put it to better use.

The site itself is unique. The improbability of its placement (in the middle of Greenwich Village) is one of its charms.

At its roots the Cage is a child of the New York subway system, and subways have been its sustaining lifeblood for nearly fifty years. The city's Department of Transportation purchased the land where the park is located in the 1920s when the city decided to extend the Sixth Avenue subway line south of 14th Street to the Holland Tunnel. Until 1935, when the Department of Transportation first gave the parks department a permit to run the playground, it was simply the land over the Independent line's new West 4th Street station.

From 1935 until 1953 it remained an unremarkable vest-pocket park in the Village, covering 0.42 acres. It had swings and slides for children and a bocce court for men. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s it was unpaved. When the parks department took official title to the park in 1953, no basketball court existed, and the park's principal recreation continued to be handball, horseshoes, and relaxation on the park benches. There was no Cage. The parks department was planning to build a wading pool for kids.

In 1954 the parks department made an effort to increase the playground's size by acquiring all the land between 3rd and 4th streets going east toward MacDougal Street. This acquisition would have more than doubled the size of the park, but it meant condemning a number of occupied buildings. Naturally the buildings' merchants and residents complained.

Tony Dapolito, chairman of the Village Parks and Recreation Committee, had another reason for opposing expansion of the West 4th Street playground. He realized that if it did not occur, he could

get another new park -- a substitute if you will -- built in his own neighborhood in SoHo. That's exactly what happened. The expansion was defeated, and the shape of West 4th Street has not changed since. Small restaurants and shops line West 3rd Street, and the famous Blue Note jazz club is just a few doors away from the park.

According to Kenny (no detailed park records exist), basketball entered in a small way when a single backboard and basket were put up in the mid-1950s. The surface was unpaved, and only neighborhood residents used the court. Then in the late 1950s, the parks department erected two permanent baskets and laid down a crude, gritty, asphalt surface. Since the court ran right up to the sidewalk on Sixth Avenue, a twenty-foot fence had to be constructed. The Cage was born.

Cage configurations are not unusual in big cities. Often a cage is the only way to design a court located on a busy street, where the ball has to be kept away from passing pedestrians. What is unusual about the West 4th Street court is that it got and kept its name from the subway station over which it was constructed. Players naturally provide nicknames to popular courts, and in the Village it's "The Cage at West 4th Street."

The subway lines that stop here make this location important. The F line forms a U-shaped pattern connecting Jamaica, Queens, with midtown Manhattan, then moving down Sixth Avenue, stopping at West 4th Street, and finally crossing over to Brooklyn, going all the way out to Coney Island. The D line begins up north in the Bronx, moves down past Fordham University, and passes by Yankee Stadium on its route to Brooklyn, going through the Village along the way. The A, C, and E trains come down from Harlem and the Upper West Side along Eighth Avenue, continuing all the way to Wall Street on the

E branch. The A train swerves east, heading to Borough Hall in Brooklyn and out to the Aqueduct Race Track and the beaches at Rockaway Park. All these systems stop at West 4th Street.

The Christopher Street station for the number 1 and number 9 Seventh Avenue local trains is located one block to the west, linking the Bronx, Washington Heights, and Harlem to Brooklyn and to the Cage. A few blocks north of the park, on 14th Street, the L line runs west to east across Manhattan before reaching its destination in Brooklyn, passing through New Lots Avenue and Brownsville. The subway connects almost every corner of the three-hundred-square-mile city to West 4th Street, making it possible for players from just about any neighborhood to show up and play basketball.

Bigger and better courts than those at West 4th Street are located two blocks down Sixth Avenue at Houston Street, but they don't get nearly as much play and attention as the Cage does. There is no subway stop down there, and fewer people pass by to watch.

The courts at West 4th Street have been resurfaced only twice since the late 1950s, and officially the city has never paid much attention to what goes on there. David Dinkins was the only mayor to visit the park, and he did so only once. Until recently the parks department's official records gave the site no name other than "playground," but in 1996 it was finally recognized for what it is: "West 4th Street Courts."

The Cage is the only outdoor court in New York City that brings the best black basketball players into a white neighborhood where they can perform before a racially mixed crowd. Here both groups can mix freely, yet an unspoken tension is still in the air; they do not really speak the same language. The blacks suspect that they are guests and that they are not wanted. The whites are attracted by the players' strength and agility, but they are constantly on the lookout for black violence, which terrifies them. When a hotly contested game is being played, the tension is electric, and this heightens the excitement of the game for everyone. It is Kenny's job to keep it all under control.

Rivalries between teams here can be as intense as the soccer rivalries in Europe, and the threat of chaos, of everything breaking down, is always present. Sometimes games do get violent and nasty. But Kenny is part of the street culture; he is not above it, so he understands that he can keep respect for his tournament only if he earns respect for himself. If he were not as tough as his players, con men and hoodlums would have taken over this tournament years ago.

Outbursts of violence are frequent because the court is so small. Years ago, on a sweltering hot July afternoon, Prime Time, a top team back then, was fighting to hold a tiny lead in a bitterly contested game. Kenny was watching quietly, seated in his director's chair behind the scorer's table, just a few feet behind the south basket. The crowd was roaring with every shot.

For both teams the defense had become intensely physical; rebounding was an act of war. When a particularly aggressive Prime Time player, an enforcer in a game like this, went crashing into the boards and sent an opposing player sprawling into the fence, the referee quickly blew his whistle and signaled for a flagrant foul, two shots. When the offending player burst out in rage, the ref added a technical foul, one additional shot plus possession of the ball, and he ejected the player from the game.

The enforcer, who was six foot four inches tall with a sculpted 230-pound body and a shaved head, went ballistic. He swore at the refs, and pushed and cursed at anyone near him. Players on both teams began to shove one another. The ejected player wouldn't leave the court, and he kicked over the scorer's table. He threw a paper cup full of water into the crowd. He then heaved the basketball over the fence and into the middle of Sixth Avenue, where it bounced off the hood of a passing car, disrupting traffic.

At considerable personal risk, Kenny confronted the enraged player and told him that he had to calm down, that his behavior was degrading to himself and to the league. "We are a black basketball league playing in a white neighborhood," he began. "We can be shut down in a minute. You've played here a long time, and you know what I'm talking about."

The two of them were nose to nose.

"Let me ask you," Kenny continued. "Is this the way you repay me for what I am doing for you?"

Neither man backed down, but the ranting subsided and the player eventually left the court without further violence. The crowd calmed down, the game continued, and order was restored. After the game, Kenny told the player that he would be suspended for the following season. He is back now, and he's still a tough player but is a well- respected citizen of the league.

Without this kind of support from Kenny, the referees could not operate. "There are some thugs in this league," Kenny says with a sigh, "but we try to stay on top of them and their coaches so that they play under control."

Inner-city basketball is a serious business. Respect, even more than victory, is always on the line. The men who play here don't live in white clapboard houses with soft green lawns and a two-car garage. They live in huge apartment complexes surrounded by concrete and blacktop, and they spend much of their lives on the streets. Without respect, street life is intolerable.

Iron Mike Montague is one of those players drawn to the Cage from far away. Mike lives uptown in Harlem, but he has been playing here for forty years. He is particularly adept at helping Kenny manage the occasional troublemaker. Although it is rare to have a gun incident at the park, a few years ago one of Kenny's staff members showed up with a loaded pistol in his athletic bag. Apparently he had a score to settle. In a boastful moment, he gave one of the kids in the park a glance at the weapon. In seconds Kenny knew about it and he called Iron Mike over and whispered in his ear. When the staff member stood up to change his shirt, Iron Mike quietly sat down in a chair next to the troubled man.

Unobtrusively Iron Mike slid the bag with the gun in it under his chair. The movement of the bag was no more than eighteen inches. The two men's eyes met, and Mike gave the disturbed staffer a half smile and a knowing nod. No one in his right mind tangles with Iron Mike -- at least not when he is looking at you. The game commenced. Mike never moved and neither did the bag. Kenny engaged the staffer in discussion; he sent him on important errands; he asked his opinion about other staffers. He gave him attention and treated him with respect. Two hours later, at dusk, when the game was over and most of the players had dispersed, Mike gently handed the staffer his bag. Everything was cool. The staff member is a trusted regular, and he has not stepped out of line since that day. At the time, little was said. A more reflective chat with the staffer would come later, but disaster was averted. No one was embarrassed and no one was put on the spot.

It is amazing that the Cage needs so little security. The operators at Rucker Park uptown use metal detectors, a uniformed security team, and police officers to keep the fans under control. The only time the police have been involved at the Cage is when a player is hurt and the police come because they get through to the EMT team more quickly.

Kenny is not perfect, and saints do not populate the park. Every guy does not go home to his wife every night, and the women who come here regularly are not all librarians and schoolteachers. Some men live off women. Others profit from disability and welfare scams. Some people here do not file tax returns. Lending them money might be a bad idea. I can't imagine Jimmy Stewart as a character in a movie about West 4th Street. But it works; the Cage has developed a successful culture of its own.

Over the years good basketball at West 4th Street has created a coterie of basketball purists who understand basketball and want to see it played well. If games have no team play or no defense, or if they degenerate into shoving matches, these fans lose interest and go elsewhere. If the game is good, there is no better place to be.

Mike Williams, cofounder of the tournament with Kenny in 1977, was a park player and a referee, and he retains great affection for West 4th Street fans. "All sorts of people would come to watch games in the early days," he recalls. "They'd have their spots along the fence. Some people had regular locations. If they weren't there, if they missed a few days, you'd think that something was wrong. You'd become concerned. Often I would say to a person, 'I didn't see you last week. You all right?' People who you thought never knew you would stop you on the street and say hello. I was a boy from the Lower East Side and this was not my neighborhood, so it was heartwarming. Total strangers wanted to speak with you. You always felt right at home there."

Hassan Duncombe, one of the league's great power players of the 1990s and a star at the University of Pennsylvania, could easily look down on games dominated by skittering guard play, but he doesn't. "West 4th Street is better than any other tournament I've ever played in," he says, "and I've played in the Sonny Hill league in Philadelphia and most of the New York and New Jersey summer tournaments. The big difference at West 4th is the relationship with the fans. They are so close; they really become a part of the game. I consider some of them friends of mine."

Because of the court's small size, the action of the game is compact and intense. A regulation court is ninety-four feet by fifty feet, but the West 4th Street court is only sixty-six feet by forty-five feet, and this width is measured from fence to fence. The marked sidelines, which are generally ignored, make the width of the court only thirty-eight feet, too narrow for ten large bodies. The distance from the foul lines to center court is fifteen feet. This means that the short trip up and down the court produces a game with more shooting and more offense with less legwork.

Big people moving quickly in a small area are bound to bump into one another, so the West 4th Street games remain the city's roughest. Lambert Shell, a star here for over a decade, has always played a physical game, so he likes the court. "I'm getting older and I like a small court," he says. "And frankly, I like to hit guys. That's part of my game." Referees must distinguish between the inevitable contact of play and fouling. This is not easy. No court demands more of officials.

Buddy Keaton, who runs his own referee camp and has been calling games at West 4th Street for twenty years, understands the disciplines of the Cage well. "It is a very tough assignment, and many refs don't want to work there. You must earn the respect of the players and coaches. Plus there must be leadership and support from the league. Kenny is a very strong person, and that helps. Working here makes you a better ref and a better person. If you can work here, you can work anywhere."

The same principle applies to the players.

Any small court naturally favors the defense. With ten mobile players on the court, it is easier to double-team the man with the ball, easier to knock the ball out of someone's hands, and easier to intercept passes. The college game of passing the ball around the perimeter quickly, then reversing it, hoping to find the open man, is unnatural for a small court. Defensive players don't have to move much, so they are not easily caught out of position. Furthermore, because the players

are such great athletes and move so well off the dribble, it makes less sense to set a screen or a pick for another player; all you do is bring another defender to him. The offense is more likely to clear out for a perimeter player, or dump the ball into the center down low, and then let the man with the ball work for the shot. The small court produces a simpler, more athletic game.

West 4th Street places a premium on good ball handling. "The small court makes you do all the right things," explains Tony Hargraves, the leader of Prime Time during its championship years. "This court improves your game. It is a place where you cannot continue to make mistakes," he explains. "Anthony Mason is a prime example. West 4th Street polished his game. His strength was important to him, but the park competition also taught him that he had to move much more quickly. It improved his ball handling. Mason is one of the best ball-handling big men in the NBA, and the Cage was a major contributor."

It is no wonder basketball purists love the kind of game that the Cage produces. People on the fence can see everything. They catch the subtlety of the footwork and find fear in a player's eyes. At times they can be closer to the players than the men they are playing against. Quickness is more important than power, because powerful men can be double-teamed. Spectators feel the intensity of competitive basketball. Players get to show 'em what they've got.

The early history of the Cage was notable for its pickup games. It attracted some of the best players anywhere, including the Power Memorial High School sensation Lew Alcindor, now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Pickup games have drawn famous basketball enthusiasts like Bill Cosby and Denzel Washington. Denzel is the only prominent alumnus of West 4th Street to give money back to Kenny for the program. Most successful players, though they speak well of the tournament, do not return to support it.

Iron Mike remembers when the park was discovered by the players uptown. "The first migration of players began in the early 1960s," he recalls. "Players started coming down from the Battleground on 151st Street and Amsterdam Avenue and the Pit on 151st Street and Seventh Avenue. Word got around that you could get a good run at West 4th Street, and it took you out of the neighborhood."

At the same time, players from all over Brooklyn -- Bedford-Stuyvesant, Tillary Park, the Hole in Brownsville, and the Fort Greene projects -- found their way to West 4th Street. Kenny points out, "There weren't very many tournaments in those days. Everything was a pickup game. So good players were drawn to anything organized."

Unlike every other summer tournament in the city, the same man has remained in control, and this makes Kenny's tournament different. For example, corporate sponsors now run most big tournaments, and money comes with a price of its own. Ray Diaz runs the Nike Pro City tournament, but Nike owns the league. Nike rents the facility, and Nike can hire whomever it wishes. But Kenny's tournament is called Ken Graham's West 4th Street Pro-Classic. It is his, and he will not let sponsors change the way he runs his games. Not even Nike. Nor do Internet and video sponsors orchestrate the tournament to accommodate their filming. No one is allowed inside the Cage's playing area to film. That goes for the TV networks as well. Kenny never seeks publicity, and he pays no attention to how others run their tournaments.

This independent spirit and autocratic management method is not supposed to work. Kenny does not build a consensus or ask others for advice. He calls himself the commissioner, but controls everything and does what he wants. Any management textbook would tell you this method can't succeed over the long haul, but few writers of textbooks spend much time on city streets. And none of them know Kenny Graham.

It might be said that everyone who came to West 4th Street in the 1970s shared a more unified view of life. Martin Luther King Jr. was successful in the 1950s and 1960s because his audience, black and white, shared a common culture. The issues divided people, but the society was whole. This was true even in the segregated South, which was thoroughly Christian. Segregation was shown to be an error because the central ethical assumptions of both blacks and whites were similar. Lester Maddox looked bad because he was hypocritical, and his Bible-toting supporters were shown to violate their own rules. But there was none of today's separatist rhetoric, no "you owe me" entitlement thinking or divisive legal finagling. Now, proclaiming the same message, King would probably fail. He would not be understood. In the 1970s the Cage enjoyed the same broad-based camaraderie. The dilution of this spirit, even though it may have been lessened at West 4th Street, has made Kenny's job more wearing.

The Cage is a symbol for everyone. It is a New York thing. As Buddy Keaton says, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. Your past means nothing. Inside the Cage, men get a fresh start every day.

Nike's new BattleGrounds merchandise line has gotten at least one thing right: West 4th Street is a battleground. All battlegrounds are sacred places. That is why we remember them so well, and that is why we revisit them. Battlegrounds are where fates are determined, lives are changed, and often, people rise to new levels. People can be perfected here. The Cage at West 4th Street is hallowed ground -- for all the right reasons.

Text copyright © 2005 by Wight Martindale, Jr.

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