I was in line at this place called "Ben's Chili Bowl," which was packed because it's like 1 a.m. and god knows that's when people like to eat fries smothered in meat and melted cheese, and there's a handwritten sign behind the counter. It says:
People Who Eat Here Free:
Barack Obama (but he paid!)
This is U St., the hip black neighborhood that birthed Duke Ellington and rivaled Harlem for its cultural dominance. But the assortment of folks that are overflowing out of this diner joint are a multi-colored mix of people at all points in their night. Everyone has resigned to the fact that eventually The Place to Be is always where they make the food delicious and cheap and messy.
While I was in line for my order of chili cheese fries, I saw a stack of a newspaper I have yet to see yet in DC. The Washington Informer is the African-American paper of this city, whose majority population is of course seemingly ignored by the Post. But the Informer certainly isn't the black New York Times. Page One has an article about how Obama is standing up to those who oppose his health care reform bill. How he's silencing critics and laying the smack down. If only. Next to the papers was a poster that immediately caught my eye:
First Annual DC Basketball Charity Game, Georgetown's McDonough Gymnasium, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Sam Cassell, Michael Beasley, Jeff Green, and more!, $20, preceded by the Washington AAU team vs. Baltimore AAU.
I got to the fourth word before I thought to myself, "I'm there."
When they were building the DC Metro system, the people of the Georgetown neighborhood decided they didn't want a subway line running through it. They certainly didn't want their little slice of historic urban chic to be muddled by riff-raff. So, instead I had to take a bus to get to that part of town (how inconvenient!). The "strip" where I got off is Wisconsin Ave., an endless queue of high-end retail, and restaurants with $18 entrées. Between this and the University are several iconic blocks of residential housing. Cute little townhouse after cute little townhouse. Supposedly there are lots of congressman that live here part-time, but because the neighborhood is so expensive some have begun to share rooms with other congressmen. They say politics makes strange bedfellows, we just call that College.
This was my first time back at GU since April 2006. When I was a junior in high school, this campus served as the first stop on a seven-school tour of East Coast higher education. What sticks in my mind the most is the architecture, which is like nothing in California: old, gothic, stately, powerful, and really old.
On a Summer Sunday afternoon, the grounds were pretty empty, except for a trickle of people heading over to the gymnasium on the far side of campus. McDonough gymnasium is the recreational basketball court for the University. The team now plays its real games at the Verizon Center in Downtown DC, but this is still hollowed ground. On the opposite wall, are framed NBA jerseys of all the Hoyas to make it to the Association and the list is stunning: Ewing (Knicks #33), Iverson (76ers #3), Mourning (Hornets #33), Mutumbo (Nuggets #55). This is most certainly Hoya Country, but no one in the crowd looks remotely like a Catholic School Preppie. Almost everyone in the stands, like all the players on the court and the players with their names on the wall, is black. At a school whose student body is just 6.7% African-American, it is mostly people from the other side of the city (54.4% black overall) that came out today to see some basketball.
The first of the two exhibition match-ups was the AAU game. The kids were all around 15 or 16 years old, an age where no one is at the same stage of physical growth. Some were tall and muscular, but still walked around the court like they were renting someone else's body. Some were dwarfed in size by their teammates, but often made themselves the center of attention by motoring under and around the giants. Pretty soon it became apparent that one kid ("Josh" as one screaming woman behind me made quite obvious) had stolen the show. Beating his opponents on the dribble at the perimeter and dodging the outstretched arms of forwards with twisting flourishes, he was scoring almost at will. Then, on one play, he finished with a powerful and-one dunk. The crowd erupted for about five minutes with more hollering than applause, but still impressed nonetheless. At first Josh tried to keep his poker face, the perfect scowl of an athlete in the heat of competition, but eventually a wide smile broke free across his face as he soaked in the waves of adoration coming from the 360-degree audience.
Soon, a tall, lanky man strolled across the gym, doling out hugs and handshakes to anyone who'd ask and attracting the gaze of nearly everyone. This is Kevin Durant: NBA Rookie of the Year, consensus NCAA Player of the Year, and DC-area native. Of course, by this point word had gotten around through the stands that most of the other superstars had "conflicting engagements." This was Miami Heat forward Michael Beasley's excuse. But no one really seemed to care now that KD was in the building.
The main event itself had a bit of a rough start. This is exhibition summer basketball, so naturally that means that any defense that might have accidently found its way into the arena has evaporated through the air vents. Some people were yelling about how they wanted their 20 bucks back. The teams were made up of mostly local names: "Baby Shaq" from the And1 Streetball Tour, Syracuse's Donte Green. But best of all was the kid from the AAU game, obviously its MVP. Now, just as the crowd's frustration was reaching its peak, this kid Josh got down in a true defensive stance, knees bent, arms out. John Thompson III, the Hoyas renowned head coach, who sat at the far end of the gym, would have been proud. When his opponent made a move to the left, Josh stuck his hand in between the crossover and knocked the ball loose. Recovering the ball, he threw a lob down court to none other than NBA All-Star Kevin Durant, waiting in the open key to throw down a terrific Tomahawk Dunk. Not many 16-year olds get those kind of assists.
The highlight of the game was when Durant (who, for all his pomp and circumstance, played in the same outfit I wore during JV high school ball) and his now-teammate with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Georgetown's own, Jeff Green got into a full-on duel. The other players would clear out and let them go at it one-on-one. Dunk. Dunk. Trey. Trey. The crowd had forgotten its anger and relaxed to enjoy that rare sweet sound of 250 combined points in the heart of basketball's off-season.