High noon comes to Queens as locals hustle south along 167th Street to bear witness to a rite of spring. It is 70 degrees and sunny, but devotees of the I.S. 8 Classic, a long-running prep basketball showcase that dates back decades, gather indoors. Four men pop open beach chairs by the baseline inside a tinderbox at Intermediate School 8. A hundred more onlookers squeeze into four rows of wooden bleachers. No one is allowed to sit in the bottom row, a house rule that commissioner Pete Edwards monitors closely. Today’s tilt features a hodgepodge of high school talent. Beacon Elite, led by bouncy wing C.J. Kelly, squares with Northeast Basketball Club and Jawann Daniels, an elbows-out hopper from Harlem, in the final. Edwards’ chidings echo through the taut space via the microphone in his right hand. A pair of two-way, thousand-watt speakers flank him.
“Bring your game,” Edwards says, “not your name.”
Insolence is a virtue at I.S. 8. It is the gymnasium where Fly Williams dip-walked into late with a woman on each arm when ABA stars negotiated the lanes during offseason runs. It is the site where LeBron James shot 1 for 12 from the field on his first New York City venture, a high school mettle test that he remembers with great clarity to this day. It is where Khalid El-Amin, a Muslim living in Minnesota, flew in to level Elton Brand’s Riverside Church before jumping on the table and shouting, “This is my house!” It is the locker room where power broker Gary Charles, known as Short Riley and all of 5-foot-5 with a fedora on, kicked Juice coach Tiny Morton over a personnel dispute. It is where seven-foot-tall trophies were once handed out and champions drove away with gilded figurines popping out of open sunroofs or angled through side windows, caution lights flashing as they left. It is an unlikely landmark, a junior high school play space 13 miles east of Rucker Park and West Fourth St. Edwards watches former participants on the game’s brightest stages now. Four Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals — James, Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson — played on site. Prospects parade through blue double doors; cars choke the side streets. Edwards keeps the flame and goads the guards.
“Pressure busts pipes here,” Edwards says. “Imposters are exposed.”
Physicality is in the forecast. “No yellow tape, no foul,” is the refereeing policy, per Edwards. There is no electronic scoreboard affixed to the wall or propped up on the scorer’s table. Points are tallied manually on a two-ring, flip-a-page binder. Time is tracked by Edwards on a handheld clock. The rims are tinny and rusting; nets are brand new. The backboards are polycarbonate and perforated, a treatment typically reserved for schoolyards. Fountains spew warm water; paint on the wall is peeling. Floorboards are worn in spots. Edwards, 56, is the fixture at midcourt. He is 6-foot-1, well muscled up top, jut-jawed and clean-shaven. A former neighborhood youth corps worker who set up folding chairs as a teenager before the bleachers came, he looks at the game through a point guard’s prism. When passes lose crispness, he interjects. He places a premium on ball movement and decisiveness, imploring all ball handlers to “Hop the rock!” Tempo picks up; he notes temerity. His eyes alight.
“A lot of cats not looking like they want the ball right now,” he says. “Don’t go hiding!”
Long is the lineage of alley oops and full-court traps, hard fouls and flying fists. Record books are filled with names like Lamar Odom and Lloyd Daniels. Rabble-rousers like Raheem Wiggins, coach of the Sean Bell All Stars, banter back and forth about the best to come through; madcaps make side bets on players’ futures. One fan in the stands dons a black T-shirt emblazoned with a photo that features Daniels dressed in his Andrew Jackson High uniform, forever a NBA flameout remembered simply as “Sweet Pea.” Daniels, now a youth coach, brings teams up from the Jersey Shore occasionally, but Edwards is the breathing bridge between the Pro-Am memories and the modern prep event. His voice is the one heard above the din. His audience comes via the E train, the Q85 bus, black SUVs, beat-up Fords, flights from JFK or, as former Knicks forward Zach Randolph once did, by a Bentley that is double parked at the door. Fans scout for a pre-college position on basketball’s bandwagons. Past visitors include Kemba Walker, Tim Thomas and Kyle Lowry. Knicks forward Joakim Noah considers it the toughest setting that he has played in. Kyle Anderson and Danny Green of the Spurs took the court; Glen (Big Baby) Davis was flown in from Baton Rouge. Peyton Siva took a red eye from Seattle for a game. Michael Beasley showed up at halftime for his whistle-stop; he managed 20 points and 10 boards before sleeping on coach Tiny Morton’s floor. Kobe Bryant came once, only to watch as he readied for the NBA draft. The latest to earn a college scholarship is Kelly from Queens High School of Teaching. He knocks down a three.
“Headed to Norfolk State,” Edwards says as the ball rips through the net cords. “For free!”
There is no admission fee for fans, but rule breakers pay a high price. Nick Richards, a 6-foot-11 McDonald’s All American who is headed to Kentucky, can attest. He played for Northeast Basketball Club in May, shooting an air ball on a three and flushing home a dunk the next possession. His picture was taken in front of the black tourney banner by the far baseline. He posed with four-star point guard Tremont Waters. It turned out that Richards violated the golden rule, though. Prior to each tipoff, Edwards or his deputies announce, “This is 19 and under. You cannot turn 20 this year. You cannot turn 20 this year. That means all 12 months.” Richards was born November 29, 1997. He will turn 20 this year. Edwards shakes his head. Parents have approached him with fake birth certificates to gain entrance to the tournament field. Richards is no longer on the roster as the title games flows forth.
“I told his mother, ‘Don’t send him back out here,’” Edwards says. “It is a high school league, not a college sophomore league.”
* * *
Tom Konchalski, a talent evaluator and technophobe who lives off Queens Boulevard in Forest Hills, is known as The Glider for his penchant to appear omnipresent sans the aid of a driver’s license. To get to I.S. 8, he takes the Q4 bus to Merrick Blvd. and makes his way past auto-salvage shops and scrap-metal heaps to the school building. He always sits among the graybeards in what he calls the A.A.R.P. section atop the bleachers. His notes are written in Bic pen on yellow legal pad paper. He charts points and rebounds, assists and turnovers. On this championship Saturday, he removes a page marked 5952 from his black leather binder. Four surnames are scribbled across the top: Fraser, Sumpter, Telfair and James. Three are New Yorkers — Jason Fraser of Amityville, Curtis Sumpter of Bishop Loughlin and Sebastian Telfair of Lincoln High. The out-of-towner is LeBron James, then a high school junior.
“That’s the most crowded I’ve seen the gym,” says Konchalski, who has been a regular since 1995.
Konchalski keeps the most complete account of James’s two-night stand. The Akron, Ohio, native flew into Kennedy Airport on April 26, 2002. It was a Friday, and James was scheduled to be photographed with Telfair the next day. The shoot was for a joint SLAM magazine cover. James teamed up with Telfair, who played for Brooklyn Bridge at I.S. 8. Word spread that James would be in South Jamaica; he was picked up at the arrivals terminal and driven three miles straight to I.S. 8. Pat Doherty, then a 5-foot-11 sophomore from Scranton, Pa., played for the Skyhawks, the opposition. He tried to take the measure of James and Telfair during layup lines.
Fans were coming in the main door, the back door and through the locker rooms. Crowds encroached; Edwards readied to critique. Onlookers stood across midcourt.
“I literally couldn’t see LeBron or Telfair from our layup line,” Doherty says.
James needed time to adjust. His teammates included Ramel Bradley, who was heading to Kentucky, and Chris Taft, bound for Pittsburgh. Telfair was the city’s top point guard despite being a sophomore. James missed 11 of 12 shots and went 0 for 4 from three. He scored two points, handed out six assists and committed five turnovers. His mother, Gloria, sat on the floor by the scorer’s table. She wore a T-shirt emblazoned with her son’s face on it. LeBron skipped passes off the tiled walls. Doherty later headed to Holy Cross in the Patriot League. He outscored James, 5-2.
“Hostile,” James says as he leans back on a courtside chair at the Garden prior to a recent game against the Knicks. “The fans were all over the court.”
A rebound is in the books, as well. Konchalski returned to see James the next night. Tipoff was at 7 p.m. James and Telfair were pitted against the New York Panthers, the league’s dominant force. Fraser, Sumpter and Allan Ray, all headed to Villanova together, started the game. Charlie Villanueva, then at Blair Academy and later a UConn star, was in the front court. Taquan Dean, headed to Louisville, was a guard. Danny Green was a substitute. The contest was the marquee part of a doubleheader. So many people rushed in that Konchalski, who is 6-foot-6 and slim, wound up standing five people back from the baseline and charting shots from there.
“That night was a fire hazard in here. I mean it was a fire hazard,” Edwards says. “If I didn’t get in early, I wouldn’t have gotten in, and I run the place.”
Charles, the Panthers’ coach, was dressed in a cream suit and brown fedora.
“I get to the bench and it is a zoo,” he says. “Our bench was being occupied, and it’s not people you want to say, ‘Hey, can you get away from the bench?’ if you know what I mean. LeBron had to be like, ‘How we gonna get out of here?’”
Kevin Owens is the father of Taquan Dean. He recalls a trash-talk exchange.
“The Panthers was all in LeBron’s ass,” Owens says. “First of all, he wasn’t balling. I remember saying to his mother, ‘I guess he ain’t played in no sh– like this before!’ She said he plays in stuff like this all the time. I said, ‘Not. Like. This. Where? Akron?’”
James responded by jetting out quickly against the Panthers. He donned No. 15 and wore a white headband that matched Telfair’s. James connected with an alley oop that went three-quarters of the court in the air. His team was up by 24 points in the second quarter, but the Panthers cut that to 12 by halftime. James and Brooklyn Bridge still led by 11 at the start of the fourth quarter, but the Panthers outscored them 37-18 thereon to win by eight points. Guard Tim Doyle, who went to St. John’s and transferred to Northwestern, scored over James and flexed to his father, Daniel, in the stands. James finished with 13 points and 7 turnovers. He did not attempt a free throw either night. Brooklyn Bridge coach Tiny Morton approached Charles.
“Damn,” Morton said, “we could have made a lot of money off of this.”
Reviews came quickly. Kenny Smith, a former Archbishop Molloy star who is now a TNT broadcaster, heard from Queens friends.
“That was the first time I heard about LeBron,” Smith says. “They weren’t impressed. They were not impressed at all.”
Morton laughs as he looks back.
“New York was wrong again,” he says.
James is considerably more comfortable on New York hardwood now. In his 13-year career, he has twice scored 50 points or more at the Garden. He is averaging 28.5 points per game against the Knicks. He winces at the memory of his I.S. 8 experience. He points out that he learned it takes time for super teams to coalesce.
“No matter what level you on you have to have some chemistry,” James says as he readies to leave the Garden. “It can’t just happen in one game.”
* * *
“Violence has inhabited our past and present but it will not deter our futures,” reads a navy blue banner that hangs on the back wall of the gym. The words are attributed to Natasha Bennett, Class of 2004, at The New Preparatory Middle School for Technology and the Performance Arts on site. It is a reminder of a triple shooting that took place on the sidewalk outside the school shortly before 8 p.m. on February 24, 2004. Yusef Bey, 22, fired four shots from a .357-caliber handgun in retaliation for the killing of his brother, Shahada, five months prior. A pair of Bey’s bullets struck Terrence Burke and killed him. Burke was standing with Anthony Houston, who later pleaded guilty to manslaughter in Shahada’s slaying. Houston took a bullet to his hip and was pistol whipped. A bystander took a bullet in his calf. Prosecutors noted children were playing a pick-up basketball game in the schoolyard at the time.
“The gym is hallowed ground,” Charles says. “Whatever beef you have, take it somewhere else. You weren’t going to have it in the gym.”
Edwards is a bulwark well versed in the evolution of his old neighborhood’s violence. He was raised on 111th Avenue by his father, Fred, an electrical engineer who served 21 years in the U.S. Navy, and his mother, Thelma Williams, who worked with special needs students at P.S. 213 in Bayside. Edwards joined his mother at her school after one year at P.S. 140 in South Jamaica. He learned to shoot on a basket affixed to a pole at the house. He bettered his ball handling by dribbling to and from the grocery store, a loaf of bread in one hand and the ball in the other, adjusting his angles to keep balanced on the uneven pavement. I.S. 8 offered a level floor. He took a night shift with the youth corps when he was 14 and sat at the scorer’s table. Edwards looked on as New York Nets of the ABA like Al Skinner and Tim Bassett waged battles with World B. Free and Fly Williams, an ungovernable talent out of Brownsville. Edwards recalls a game when Williams, forever jawing with opponents and referees, showed up early for once. Annoyed by chatter he heard about his game, Williams warmed up prior to tipoff. He scored 30 points by halftime and walked out of the gym with the game ball. Edwards stood in awe of the gall and developed his own gumption. He eventually teamed with Williams and enjoyed a career leading New York Tech to the 1980 NCAA Division II title game before losing to Virginia Union. Edwards excelled with the Roadrunners, earning a nickname — “The Secret” — on the city’s summer circuit for unsettling defenders with subtle crossovers.
“We put him on the team as a little boy, when he was a young kid on the bench with us,” Williams says on a recent afternoon. “I was like, ‘Give the little guy a run, we up 50.’”
Edwards credits Williams for giving him confidence as a player. He also credits James Ryans with recruiting him back to the I.S. 8 gym as an administrator. Ryans, a pharmacist and coach of the Roadrunners, had filed a request for funds from the city’s youth board to start an after-school program in 1984. By the time the budget was approved, Ryans had joined a CBA coaching staff in Fort Wayne, Ind. Ryans and Phillip Kelly begged Edwards, working with the New York City Housing Authority by then, to run the show in Ryans’ stead. This was a period when Supreme Team, a gang of Jamaica youths, reigned among pipe heads and profiteers.
“They said they needed someone with a college degree,” Edwards says. “I said, ‘You need someone who can play ball and fight.’ I had respect in the neighborhood because I could play basketball. I was trying to curb all of the guns and drugs.”
He recalls the early rhythm. Let out of work with housing at 4:30 p.m., he made it to the gym by 5:15 p.m. He opened the doors three nights a week at first. He oversaw unlimited leagues, but grew disenchanted with frequent disputes among hustlers on the sidelines. One battle between a group of Brownsville roughnecks and a Queens unit resulted in a game being called early in order to avoid further skirmishes. McDonald’s was an early sponsor with the Twilight League, but Edwards pulled money out of his pocket to assist when necessary. Point guard Shaheen Holloway played in that league. Later, there were matchups like God Shammgod and Holloway versus Stephon Marbury of Coney Island. Edwards marvels at the lift on Marbury’s jumper, the rawness of Ron Artest and Odom’s southpaw smoothness.
“I seen all of them, man,” he says. “Right now, this stuff I see is not basketball to me. This, ‘I get 30, you get 30.’ That’s not how it was. You had old time coaches. If you did not play defense, I don’t care who you were, you weren’t going to play.”
Edwards holds all comers accountable with a demanding approach and imaginative vocabulary. Air balls to others are “oxygen balls” to him. Jumpers are “springers.” If a ball handler loses possession, Edwards unlooses, “You left something!” He relishes crunch time, noting that the court represents a crucible for each new crop. He recognizes that the pool of talent is shallow compared to past eras. Once flush with 68 teams, the tourney is down to 20 in recent seasons. It is sponsored by Nike but not sanctioned by the NCAA. Coaches cannot recruit there. No matter the matchup, Edwards encourages a meritocracy on municipal hardwood.
“I want the kids to get a glimpse of these tougher neighborhoods,” he says. “Some of these kids think life is really grand for everyone. No, it’s not. These guys didn’t come from rosy backgrounds.”
There are reminders of divergent paths players take once they depart I.S. 8. The most recent involves Fly Williams. He is 64 years old and currently being held inside the West Facility on Rikers Island after police executed “Operation Flying High.” Williams was one of 13 men and women arrested after police collected drugs and guns in raids. Prosecutors charged him under New York’s drug kingpin statute in Kings County, fingering him for weapon possession and heading a heroin enterprise in Brownsville. Rikers is less than 10 miles from I.S. 8. Edwards wonders.
“He was unstoppable with no sleep, no rest, no nutrition, nothing,” he says. “Imagine if he had gotten some of that.”
* * *
“I used to tell people all the time, ‘I just go by the rules,’” Gary Charles says as he cranes his neck to admire the five I.S. 8 trophies he stores in the office at his home in Baldwin, N.Y. He is a foot and a half shorter than his prizes. One fedora rests atop each of them. Trophies double as hat racks for the man who has won the most I.S. 8 league championships. He lost his first game in the gym by 30 points; his career record includes 19 titles. Photographs with Panthers like Odom and Speedy Claxton are affixed to his office wall. Charles stands in between the stars. The setting is post-championship at I.S. 8. “I stretch the rules. If you change the rules, I will adapt.”
Charles, 57, considers titles won and rosters assembled. There were three straight championships with Wally Szczerbiak, a Long Island product. Charles changed the outlook of the league when he went national with a sneaker-money sponsorship. He says he cribbed the idea of importing players from Ernie Lorch, the overseer of the Riverside Church, from another local event. Charles, then bankrolled by Adidas on the AAU circuit, recognized an opportunity. He arranged for point guard Khalid El-Amin’s flight to Queens from Minneapolis in 1997. On the opposite side of the court was Peekskill’s Elton Brand and Erick Barkley, a ball-hawking guard. The Panthers outlasted Riverside for the title. El-Amin, an east coast rap enthusiast, relished the New York stage and leapt on the table. Brand questions it all.
“They had some ringers over there,” Brand says. “I’m in Westchester, I have to go an hour. From Minnesota? Really? I know he didn’t go to school the next day.”
El-Amin insists it was all on the level.
“I did go to school,” he says. “My parents wouldn’t let me play if I didn’t.”
Charles remembers El-Amin not being allowed to bring the trophy past security at JFK. The next year, El-Amin, then a freshman at UConn, spotted Charles, who was standing at his seat — 83C — near the St. John’s bench at the Garden.
“Where’s my trophy?” El-Amin said.
“I got your damn trophy,” Charles said. “When you gonna come pick it up?”
Charles, a former Wall Street businessman, is best known for his network of runners willing to drive all over. Sterling Nunnally, a regular chauffeur, picked up imported players at the airports, dropped them off at the gym and brought them back. A common scene featured a prominent player rushing in at tipoff and one of the gofers following suit after finding a parking spot. Big Baby Davis was one such arrival; Ty Lawson came by train. Mo Johnson, another deputy, recalls picking up locals like the 6-foot-11 Villanueva. Johnson had to drop the top down in his white Dodge Shadow convertible. Villanueva later returned at the wheel of an Aston Martin as a professional.
“You don’t know how damn hard it is to get these trophies home,” Johnson says. “Hard to fit Charlie and the trophy both at the same time.”
Nate Blue, who also advised Villanueva, later coached a team. He brought down Shabazz Napier from New England.
“I gave him $15 for the bus and $10 for himself,” Blue says. “He was good to go. You ain’t gotta kill yourself flying guys in. You have to know what kind of player to bring out here. If he’s a point guard, he has to be a zigzag point guard, creative. Ricky Rubio could do well here.”
The field is not the only thing that is being downsized. Edwards dropped the 7-foot trophies a few years back. The new ones are a little over two feet tall. Charles remains the same height, but his Panthers haven’t entered in a few years. Gone are the Panthers, the Gauchos, the Playaz and Riverside Church. Playaz president Jimmy Salmon laments leaving the tournament, noting that he liked to bring freshmen to “get their heads knocked in a little.” He mentions that increased tolls at the George Washington Bridge and the price of putting up visiting players proved to be a drain. That era is over, but Charles still holds onto trophies from players who flew in and couldn’t fit the trophies with their return flight luggage. Such is the victor’s burden.
“You can’t miss these things,” Charles says. “My wife was like, ‘Enough already, Gary!’”
* * *
A final whistle blows; Northeast Basketball Club bows to Beacon Elite. Players pose for photographs with toned-down trophies; fans file out. Speakers are unplugged. Scorebooks are closed. Bleachers are pushed into the wall. Basketballs are placed on a rack with metal bars that are rusty and bent. Warnings remain on four plywood backboards that hang over the sidelines. Sunlight reflects off of them.
“No dunking, hanging on rim, net or support beams,” the signs read.
Old heads and newcomers mingle on court. Keni McRae, a 69-year-old former referee, blew his first whistle in 1966. He threw up the first ball at West Fourth Street 40 years ago, and boasts two decades of I.S. 8 playoff games under his belt. He was in the gym when Rudy Lee ran the unlimited league. He walks with a cane made of ebony wood from Ghana now and comes to I.S. 8 via the city’s Access-A-Ride system due to a degenerative spinal condition. His black T-shirt bears a photograph of Kobe Bryant, then a rookie, guarding Michael Jordan, on the front. McRae lives in Brownsville and talks about a time when schoolyards were his Shangri-La.
“Queens was the softer borough for a long time,” he says. “This place pushed them over the top.”
McRae looks on as Edwards passes a ball back and forth with his daughter. Her name is Laila. She is in the fourth grade. She puts up an oxygen ball. Her father follows with a few crossovers before squaring up for a shot. It is good. He still plays some, only with a friend, though. They go one on one, full court for 30-40 minutes.
“As long as we can last,” he says.
Edwards eyes the space. He remembers iron rims that needed to be bent back into place after ABA players threw down thunderous dunks. He recently retired from the housing authority as a deputy director after 31 years, and now works with a private company on Sedgwick Avenue. Moonlighting as a basketball administrator means striking a balance between vocation and vacation in July and August. He will oversee an I.S. 8 satellite tournament in the playground on Prospect Place for the summer. He considers ways to rekindle passions in the mother ship.
“Someday,” he says. “I’m going back to the seven-foot trophies. I won’t tell anyone. They’ll just be there for the winners.”