"A K" Calls "Game"



If you call "game" in playground basketball you better have it.

Especially if a you're the only white guy on the court. And a newbie. And your last name is Stoneking.

"I've heard it all," says Isaac Stoneking.

He moved to Memphis last summer to work for Fidelity Investments, and he lives next door to me. We met for the first time on a day when it was about 100 degrees. He asked me where he could get a basketball game. I told him I drove past a couple of outdoor courts at Poplar and Manassas every day on my way to work. But I didn't think he'd go. I've hardly ever seen a white guy on the courts.

He got in his old silver Cadillac and drove down there that afternoon, ready to play. The regulars sized him up and eventually somebody picked him for their team. He's played there several times since. And while he has also gotten into regular indoor games closer to his office in East Memphis, he keeps going back to the outdoor courts at Morris Park, where his nickname is "A K," as in AK-47, the handle bestowed on playground gunners, black or white, far and wide.

Isaac grew up in Arkansas and played high school and AAU basketball but didn't get any college offers. After a while, he went into the Navy, where his shots started going in and his overall game got better.

"I played on the best teams with the best players I ever played with. There's a lot of wasted talent in the Navy."

The games were structured because the Navy can throw you out if you blow up too much and don't follow rules. Playground basketball in Memphis has looser rules, but rules just the same. Be careful where you park your car. And don't leave your stuff lying around. Take a little trash talk but not too much. Calling "game" gets you the right to play the winner but you better be good, or you'll never get picked by anyone else, which is the other way to get into a game.

He's seen some interesting things. A crazy woman with a broken wine bottle who threatened everyone until a teenage girl nearby pulled a knife and backed her down. A guy who lost a game, got mad, picked up a beer bottle and threw it against the goal, where it shattered and sprayed bits of glass a few feet away from him. But no guns and no bad fights.

When Isaac came to visit Memphis, a cop at Overton Park told him the city is a loser and to move somewhere else if he could. He took the job and came anyway. He got an apartment in Midtown. He asked his neighbor where he could play basketball and ignored his warning. Sometimes the hardest test in a sport comes before the game begins.

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