An Ode to 50
(Part 1 of Teaching Black Males the Importance of Discovering Identity)
Here, and by here, I mean in Baldamore, the only Baltimore I’ve ever known, tradition is everything. And here, if I am to illustrate a glare of real Baldamore nostalgia and tradition (part of which is why this is a three-part series), I would like to get straight to the point.
- Baltimore is a rebellious city. We don’t claim and are highly offended when we are included in the geographic DMV. We don’t even think we are a part of Maryland. Click Here. We created Club Mix not, New Jersey. The only crab cakes that matter in the world are made in Baltimore — a restaurant or our muva’s kitchen. This leads me to my next point: We play 50 here before we would ever play 21 or HORSE. This also leads me to conclude that the creation of 50 speaks of confidence that’s only found in Baltimore. We do what we want here. How we want. When we want.
- 50 is f***in genius yo. Think about it. Not only are you hooping but you are pretty much perfecting your “5” times tables. 50 is a every man for himself street basketball game that Baltimore youngins like myself grew up on. It’s a game in which one player, let’s say out of 10 on the court (and 10 because we love 50 as a means of warming up before picking teams) eliminates everyone by accumulating 50 points. The points in 50 are scored as 5 pointers instead of 2 or 1. The player to score 50 points then must break ice―the action of sinking a jump shot from behind an exaggerated 3 point line usually marked at half court (which now that I think about it is a chip-shot to today’s shooting frenzy hoopers). Finally, the player to score 50 and break ice must eliminate all competition one on one through a king of the court exhibition: calling out your most feared or least athletic opponents left in the game.
- In any Baldamore hood, 50 is your precursor to organized basketball. It’s your crawl before you walk indoctrination. I learned how to play 50 around my way on chewed-up milk crates, crookedly nailed to light posts in drug-infested allies. From those same humble milk crates, and I imagine everyone else of my era had a similar experience. I eventually graduated to playing organized basketball in middle and high school.
- The thing that Baltimoreans love about 50 is that it’s a gritty invitation for all hoopers. You can play 50 at outdoor courts with bent rims and no nets or at old rec centers with no a/c. Which more than anything speaks to its accessibility. When many of our parents were so broke that they couldn’t fund our AAU hoop dreams — the fees, the gear, the traveling, the sneakers, 50 was all we had.
- When you think of Baltimore, and I mean Baldamore again — all of its landscapes, all of its attractions, cultural statements — from club music to the chicken box; you have to throw 50 somewhere in the mix.
- “Ain’t no rules in 50” a statement but the truth usually shouted as a self-referee-ing reminder when in play. Now of course you had your hoopers that took that rule literally — you know the ones to travel, double dribble, or even tackle like it was football. These players, because they were never considered actual hoopers, usually got put out first or even beat up. That’s 50 for you. It isn’t complicated but it’s competitive and when you are competing in a game it should be taken seriously. So yeah it’s no rules but you better play with some heart.
- You can be the best hooper around your way or even be on a 2016 Golden State Warriors shooting streak while playing 50, but at any given moment, anybody, and I mean anybody can eliminate you from the game. And elimination in 50 is the worst, especially when you have to wait on the sideline with others who have been put out of the game. What’s interesting about 50 is that there are myriads of ways to be eliminated and if you are a clever player you will utilize each method to eliminate anyone. Which leads me to taps. F***in taps. I hated taps yo. Taps was a lot of MF’s saving grace. Without taps, a lot of 50 games would be over in a matter of minutes. For starters, taps is a put-back continuation rebound off a missed jump shot. If the jump shooter misses a shot, then an opportunistic rebounder could steal your points or ice if your put back went in. Taps to 50 is what s**t-talking is to a dice game or what a hand of Draws 4’s is to a UNO game.
- The Baltimore basketball scene is an elite fraternity rich in history. Baltimore basketball rings bells in every basketball scene in this country. To bluntly put it, the best hoopers have and still come out of Baltimore. From the powerhouse Dunbar Poets — Muggsy Bogues, David Wingate, Reggie Lewis, Sam Cassel to standouts of the early 2000s like Carmelo Anthony, Rudy Gay, and Juan Dixon. And this is not even scratching today’s surface of emerging Baltimore talent which includes the 2019 Poly Tech team. What the Baltimore basketball scene continues to teach us all, especially us with hoop dreams that never came to be, is that basketball in the end is not meant for everyone. The more you play the game we all love, the harder competition becomes, especially if you are not properly trained, coached, and invested in. And that is why 50, unlike organized basketball, was a lot of our saving grace. This of course doesn’t mean we gave up on our hoop dreams, but 50 was the complete confidence booster for many of us. In my era, we knew that only a few athletes from our hood had promising basketball careers. And those few were golden gems. Drug dealers protected and took care of them. However, 50 to us regular kids was a way for us to somehow make a name for ourselves, even amongst those standout ballers. It was our chance to briefly warn any competition on perfectly polished hardwood floors or concrete, that we too offered something to the game.
If you have been following me on my brief essay writing tour then this perhaps is where I drop hints of my age and inklings as to why for the rest of the year I’m proclaiming myself The Young OG. Not that any of that matters now or is even a secret, but here I reminisce briefly on a basketball tradition that’s near to me. And I imagine if you grew up Black or Brown in Baltimore City during the early 2000s, then you are fond of 50’s tradition also. A tradition in my opinion that must be immortalized or at least nationally recognized ASAP. Especially with us living in a highlight-driven, social media-influenced culture — one in which childhood legends and pastimes die often and are becoming extinct earlier than expected.
I didn’t even know kids still went outside until the other day. I was on my evening jog and I overheard a group of young hoopers at the basketball court laughing and bonding as only young hoopers would. “Here dummy take my phone and record my jelly package”, a 6-foot youngin said to his homies ecstatic and in a full sprint while impersonating a Cleveland Cavaliers Kyrie Irving. He hit every lay-up too. Contorting his body so much I had to stop and applaud. In my day, and I feel old saying this, we didn’t have jelly layups or a phone at our disposal to even record.
Here, though no proper burial, because legends never die, and a legendary playground pastime like 50 will never die either, I note the importance of passing down this tradition or at least what this tradition gives rise to. A tradition that nods to the survival and creativity of those in my city.
50 in my opinion and I’m sure other ex 50-playing Baltimoreans can agree with this, encompasses the true Black experience — accepting the lesser and transforming it into something grand, something ritualistic. It’s fun. Creative. It’s also our unofficial warm-up like a lay-up line. It’s the go-to game we play before ten bodies are on the court. And perhaps more than anything it’s ours. Our alibi. The game that awards us with confidence to even be on the court. And it is confidence, basketball aside, that empowers Black males.
What should be understood here when I’m speaking on a Baldamore tradition like 50, is the importance of grooming Black males, particularly Black boys’ confidence as early as possible. Confidence anywhere breeds success everywhere. Black boys deserve confidence in every facet of society just as much as they do on the court or playing fields. We love the 8–10 football coach because he took care of his inner-city players. He brought discipline and balance into his players’ lives and that same discipline ultimately produced confidence within those players. Ultimately, that same confidence was what kept many of those same players away from the streets or negative paths.
You see confidence is a strength that is created out of routine. And we need more Black men to understand this. Confidence is an offspring of you constantly affirming yourself regardless of any positive or negative circumstance. We must be intentional about our confidence because strength for all Black males begins at the intersection of confidence. Click here (00:40–00:54 mark).
A few weeks ago Kwame Brown, yes Kwame Le’ Goat Brown, who I’m dubbing “If fed up was a person” in the flesh, spoke on the importance of confidence in Black fathers and how that confidence protects and manifests itself through Black sons. Video can be watched here. Forward to the 2:25 to get the just of his rant. Some rants get annoying after a while and I get that because Kwame’s definitely does. But if you don’t know, Kwame Brown is the former number one draft pick selected by The Washington Wizards in 2001. He is mostly known for constantly being ridiculed by NBA players and for having the burden of playing with teammates like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. He is infamously known for being called a “bum” by commentators like Steven A. Smith to name one in particular. Subconsciously, when you hear the name Kwame Brown, you instantly think of a ballplayer who did not live up to number one draft pick status. And I’m not here to call that man a bum because he is airing n****s out left and right and I honestly want no problems. (Although again, I know for a fact I can win a game of 50 against him.) But Le’ Goat may have said the most real thing when speaking on Lavar Ball and Dell Curry as basketball dads. He said and I quote, “a father is a protector, and see me going to the NBA as a young man, I didn’t have that protector. I didn’t have that somebody that could say, “hold on b**** this my son”, end quote. There, of course, are no time machines to take us back to 2001 or throughout Kwame Brown’s career to prove how a father figure what’ve impacted his play. What, however, is evident in a young Kwame Browns’ game is that he lacked confidence oftentimes. And without confidence as a basketball player, you are pretty much a punching bag. What we need to understand, and this is true outside of sports, is the urgency for healthy confidence.
Healthy confidence for Black boys is assurance. It’s grace. It’s the first step in discovering identity. It’s a provision for messing up. And for Black men, it’s the same, except you are responsible for your confident state of being, no one else. It’s how you maintain your health. How you groom yourself. How you heal yourself. How you discipline and love yourself. How you learn new things. What you eat. What you wear. How you walk and talk. Who you hang with. What you avoid. What morals you cling to. But most importantly, healthy confidence is how you emerge yourself fully in your process (however that may look) and how you dare to pursue your passion(s). Healthy confidence is how you demand a higher version of yourself. It’s what keeps you from folding. It’s how you stay solid. What we need to teach Black boys and certainly what we need to teach ourselves as Black males, is that true strength is created from your ability to persevere and then adapt and finally execute. A strenuous process made possible through your courage. True strength is a sum of true confidence and confidence is not merely cockiness. Confidence is much more powerful. What sometimes gets lost in the equation of Black manhood is how we define confidence on the surface level and how sometimes we mislabel confidence. Confidence is not founded on how much money you have or your body count of beautiful girls or the designer clothes you wear or even the car you drive. Those status symbols are all byproducts of the inner workings of confidence within you. And that is not to say those status symbols don’t give you leverage, because honestly in this competitive culture, those statuses may indeed set you ahead of others. But of all of those statuses mentioned, every one of them can become temporal, meaning at any given second they can be here today and gone tomorrow. It is your confidence that empowers you to obtain any of those things and more. What we must learn as Black males is that we build everything from the ground up, oftentimes with nothing. Most times not even with an ounce of hope. Nothing. That could be anything from a T-shirt line to an LLC to art to a meaningful career. Which is to say, if our dreams are the seeds of what we plant in the universe, then our confidence is how we water those dreams to blossom.
When I talk about confidence here, again, I need Black males to understand it as the creative superpower that it truly is. I imagine the founding fathers of 50 in all their glory. One in a Starter T-shirt. Another one sporting an old pair of Reebok Kamikazes. Everyone in a janky alley. An early 90’s summertime sky cloaked above them as they kicked aside empty baggies and tainted needles while they are adjusting an old milk crate nailed to a light post — which in all its glory was also a makeshift memorial — a place where sneakers of the dead hung like a cloud of redemption. I imagine they had no idea that within their possession was not only a basketball but also a confidence to create a Baltimore basketball tradition. I imagine the excitement of the word “Fifty!!!” being blurted out as the ball perfectly slipped through that crate when one of the founding fathers got to 50 points and won the game. I imagine this is to say Black males deserve the ability to dream and to be confident in that dreaming. And I imagine that I am right, because 50 is, almost without argument, a Baltimore staple as is The Wire or the chicken box or Club Music or Ova East or Ova West or anything that makes Baldamore Baltimore.
Sadly for me, there is no more basketball glory. And give or take, the last time I hooped hooped was probably in a pickup game at Druid Hill Park during the Summer of 2019. I think I dropped a cool 10 if we were counting by 2, I don’t remember. I do know that I’m honestly fine and have certainly come to peace with the stark reality that I may never set my heart to pick up the rock again. Sad, I know, but all good things must end. I’d like to think of my recent basketball hiatus not so much as a Jay-Z or Michael Jordan retirement — one in which you stage only to return to your glory, but more as a logical grace period of realizing that I’m maturing and so is my thinking and my hobbies and my confidence.
If I am to be completely honest, I probably wouldn’t be of much value in a pick-up game anyways. Besides running up and down the court, setting screens like a prime Shaq, or dishing out Draymond Green-like assists, the average young hooper would have his way with me. And I’m cool with that. Long gone are the days when I caught posters off a between-the-legs tomahawk 360 alley-oop.
Ps: I could never dunk and probably haven’t touched the rim since I was 17.
Nonetheless, what should be humbly yet sternly understood here, and I believe I am missing to say this in any of my above disclaimers, is that it: I will still bust your ass on the court my guy. Especially if we are matched up against one another. And especially if the game is on the line. Because one thing I’ve learned about myself, basketball aside, is that I’ll find a way to even the score. 50 taught me that and I put that on my confidence. The end and Shalom.