The question comes from a cherubic young face, blue eyes framed with neat blonde hair, a boy wearing a basketball jersey four sizes too big for his preteen frame.
“Can you ball on me?” replies White Chocolate, a.k.a. 26-year-old Randy Gill, slouching behind a folding table set up near Santa in Fashion Square Mall, outside the Charlottesville Players clothing store, between the carousel and the gumball machine.
The answer, almost certainly, is no. White Chocolate is currently the most famous player in the game of streetball, which is to say that White Chocolate is the reigning champion of streetball, a genre of basketball where fame is more important than victories.
Chocolate pulled a miniature basketball from a plastic bag at his feet, scrawled his name on it with a Sharpie, and handed it to the boy, saying, “Alright shorty.”
This year Chocolate won an MTV reality show called “Who’s Got Game?” where he beat out 11 other streetballers and pocketed $100,000. The show’s website (www.mtv.com) proclaims Chocolate’s strengths as “wicked handle, emotional leader.” Of his weakness, it says: “Will his tricks school his opponents, or make a fool out of him?”
Now Chocolate is the star of the “We Got Game!” tour, a traveling team of streetball barnstormers named The Bomb Squad, who play exhibition games in different towns.
On Saturday, December 4, The Bomb Squad dropped into Charlottesville. That afternoon, Chocolate signed autographs for a steady stream of people, mostlychildren but also teenagers and a few adults. Later that evening, the Bomb Squad would play a team of local streetballers.
“They ain’t ready to play us,” Chocolate said in a matter-of-fact tone. “Are you serious? I don’t lose in the game, there, champ.”
There’s little room for modesty in streetball, where career advancement hinges on reputation. Indeed, for the streetballers and the companies that sponsor the games, it’s all about word of mouth. For companies like athletic gear manufacturer AND 1, buzz sells another pair of $75 Ballistix high-tops; Chocolate hopes his reputation will earn him an NBA tryout. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to get there,” he says.
On Saturday, though, Chocolate would first have to get past Charlottesville’s own streetball legends. They don’t pitch sneakers, yo, but they got game.
Who’s got fame?
“Streetball is basically the act of playing outside,” says Jeff Lenchiner, editor of the website Insidehoops.com, which covers professional and college basketball.
Compared to regular basketball, streetball’s rules are more lax and there’s a greater emphasis on personal style—players flaunt colorful nicknames, clever trash talk, flashy dribble moves and acrobatic dunks in the quest to be remembered.
“Streetball is usually played in urban neighborhoods that don’t have a lot of money, and people are looking to make a name for themselves however they can,” says Lenchiner. “Everybody loves to be famous. It’s great to make a name for yourself however you can, and streetball is one way to do that.”
The game’s rough and tumble culture evolved in the 1960s, when Harlem drug dealers assembled the best teams and gambled on the result of games. Top streetballers were so well paid that some reportedly turned down offers from the NBA, Lenchiner says.
In the late ’70s and through the ’80s, professional and college basketball became much more organized. Scouts began identifying potential stars by the time they were in eighth grade. Instead of playing in the streets, talented young players spent their time on Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) teams and basketball camps organized by high school and college recruiters, with the best kids funneled into top schools and on to the NBA. As the playground’s talent pool diminished, streetball’s flamboyant culture declined.
In the ’80s, New York’s hip hop community revived streetball tournaments in Harlem’s Rucker Park, known in the basketball world as the Mecca of streetball. The money came from rap record labels and clothing companies instead of drug dealers, but the goal was exactly the same—companies wanted to splash their name on a cool show, and sell their products to young buyers. The Entertainers Basketball Classic series of tournaments, with teams sponsored by the likes of Eminem and Tommy Hilfiger, is now a hallmark of summer at Rucker Park.
Like other elements of hip hop culture, streetball is aiming for the suburbs. AND 1, in particular, turned streetball into a brilliant marketing strategy.
In 1998 a high school coach brought the then-fledgling AND 1 company an amateur video of a teenager named Rafer “Skip to My Lou” Alston (now a point guard with the Toronto Raptors and one of the few streetballers to end up in the NBA) performing mind-blowing dribble moves. Thus began the AND 1 “Mix Tape” tour.
The company assembled a team of streetballers to travel the country playing local teams, selling videos of their best moves along the way. Sometimes, the best local players are invited to join the AND 1 squad. The tour has been a hit on ESPN.
“In 2002, AND 1 held these games in outdoor parks,” Lenchiner says, reflecting on the tour’s success. “In 2003, it was in Madison Square Garden, and tickets cost $30.”
While many streetballers, like White Chocolate, dream of one day playing in the NBA, Lenchiner says it rarely happens. “Generally, if you’re a good player, you get discovered early. If you’re a streetballer and you’re 22 years old, and you’re not in the NBA yet, you’re probably not going to get there. There’s just not that many NBA jobs.”
While touring streetballers get paid, the local players with whom they compete almost never do, Lenchiner says. All they get is a chance to earn a little rep for themselves.
We got game
Charlottesville’s streetballers, a team called the Charlottesville Players (named after Quinton Harrell’s clothing business), have made something of a name for themselves in the two previous games they played against The Bomb Squad before the match-up at Albemarle High School on the 4th.
The first time the Bomb Squad won, by “two or three points,” recalls Lionel “L-Train” Jackson, a wide-bodied former standout at Albemarle High School and now the Players’ powerhouse.
In the second game, however, Charlottesville streetballers beat the New York City streetball legends. In that game, The Bomb Squad blew out Charlottesville in the first half, but Charlottesville came back in the second half to win.
“Just to beat them was a great feeling,” says James Nicholas, the 33-year-old captain of the Charlottesville Players. “We had kids coming up to us and asking for our autographs. I ain’t never had that. That was real nice.”
Nicholas says Charlottesville’s basketball fundamentals won the game. “They like to get a lead on you, then showboat,” he says. “They try to bounce the ball off your head.
“We’re more about getting physical, getting the job done,” he says. “We put pressure on them, and they couldn’t do their showboating.”
Randy Gill has a different explanation for Charlottesville’s victory. “That’s ’cause Chocolate dude wasn’t in the building. This time, he’s in the building.”
Most of Charlottesville’s players were stars at Charlottesville or Albemarle high schools. Only a few played in college, however.
“All of us had a chance to go,” says Scotty Kinlaw, at 23 one of the youngest members of the Charlottesville streetball team. “But you get out of school and you want to take a break, then that break lasts too long.”
Now Charlottesville’s best ballers play at the Dell, an outdoor court on Emmet Street, across from the UVA Bookstore. In warm weather, dozens of players show up in late afternoon and ask, “Who’s got next?” They lean against the chain link fence, watching the action and waiting their turn on the court. Games usually go to about 12 points; the winning team stays on the court to play again, while the losers go back to the fence and wait for another chance to play.
If you think your game is up to it, you can also play some streetball on Sundays at the Monticello Area Community Action Agency MACAA gym on Park Street.
But you better be ready to play. If not, you might leave the court embarrassed.
Kinlaw might snake around you with a behind-the-back dribble, or, in true streetball fashion, he might balance the ball on his head, fake an overhead pass, then shoot an easy lay-up while you wonder what happened—and everyone else laughs. Former CHS high-jumper William White might dunk over you, while the L-Train might flatten you. Gary Gough or Clyde Thompson might pop a three-pointer right in your face. If you’re not careful, Nicholas will steal the ball from you, then trash-talk you as he dribbles away for a score.
Charlottesville’s ballers have been playing together since they were teenagers. That’s one of their main advantages over touring streetball teams, who might be better athletes but don’t have the same cohesion.
“We’ve all played together for a long time,” said Gough, 34, during a recent Wednesday night practice session.
“We all know each other’s game. We know who can shoot, who can make moves, who can drive to the basket. We’re going to play physical with them right off the bat.
“I’m ready for White Chocolate,” he said.
On Saturday, December 4, it looked like championship fever was in full effect at Albemarle High School. The crowd filing through the door comprised people of all ages, nearly all African-American—teenage girls in tight jeans, boys in skull caps and puffy black coats, parents gripping their childrens’ hands.
A production company called Another Sure Shot Events assembled The Bomb Squad and took them on tour. Promoter Ty Cooper travels with the team and partners with local businesses to get the word out—in Charlottesville, he worked with Harrell.
“Quinton is a pillar in the community,” says Cooper. “It’s all love.” The gym was packed with people who paid $10 or $15 per ticket, so there was plenty of love to go around.
The night began with a game between AHS and CHS alumni. WNRN’s DJ Almighty, one of the hosts of “The Boombox,” clad in a bright yellow sweatsuit with matching headband, played rap music at dance-club volume. Comedian and KISS 92.7 FM radio host Alex Scott strolled the sidelines with a microphone, teasing players, urging them to dunk and offering a running commentary on the action.
“Can anybody in the building dunk?” Scott asked when the warm-up came is over. “Anybody?”
A tall guy, late 20s, wearing a red skull cap, baggy pants and huge khaki boots came out of the stands to participate in the impromptu dunk contest. Even with his enormous footwear, he leapt toward the basket and threw down a two-handed slam. A player named Snake eventually won the contest by a reverse dunk off the baseline.
“White Chocolate is in the hoooouse!” Scott said, as the Bomb Squad stepped on the floor to warm up before the main event. Gill threw between-the-legs alley-oops to his teammates, shot three pointers and performed little dances near the sidelines. Charlottesville’s team, in contrast, warmed up with a regimen of layup drills and jump shots. The contrasting styles carried over into the game.
“Do it, Chocolate,” Scott exhorted. “Give ’em what they came to see!”
Gill obliged with whirling dribble moves, and the crowd roared when he performed the highlight of the game—bouncing the ball off a defender’s head to get himself open for a three pointer. He missed the shot, but no one seemed to care about that.
Yet the game was close. Charlottesville’s point guard Lorenzo “Boo” Smith stole the ball from Gill several times, and they hit a string of three-pointers that left the Bomb Squad with a slight lead, 66-58, at halftime.
In the second half, however, the Bomb Squad turned it on with a series of backboard-shaking dunks. Gill went on a hot streak, and with three minutes left in the game the score was 114-100, Bomb Squad. As if on cue, half the crowd got up and walked out. “Please stay off the court,” Scott said repeatedly.
The game ended with the Bomb Squad winning 120-102 over the Charlottesville Players. For Gill, the victory was measured not so much in points, but in the crowd of children gathered around him, seeking autographs as he sat on the bleachers.
For the Charlottesville Players, the loss “was a little disappointing,” Nicholas said. “We kinda gave up at the end. But overall, we played pretty well.”