The Nomads’ Guide To Pick-Up Basketball: Corporal Burns Park, Cambridge

Photo by Anna Moreno

Address: Memorial Drive, Cambridge MA 02139

Back in the day, Corporal Burns Park, along the Charles River on Memorial Drive in Cambridge, was considered the premier spot for pickup hoops in Boston. Alumni of the court include Patrick Ewing, Rumeal Robinson and a gaggle of local college players.

During the summer months it wasn’t uncommon to find DI guys from nearby BU, BC and Harvard running through townies.

Note: there’s an urban legend about five high school wrestling coaches taking down Harvard’s starting five in a game to 15 in the early 2000’s.

My heyday at Corporal Burns was in the summer of 2009: North Korea conducted a nuclear test, swine flu broke out, the guy who looks like he has really bad body odor was reelected president of Iran – stuff was happening in the world.

I had just finished my sophomore year of college, so naturally I was far more consumed with the Jersey Shore and Jeremih’s debut single “Birthday Sex.” Millions of people spent that summer mourning serial creep-show Michael Jackson; by comparison, I still came out looking pretty good.

Days were filled with VH1, nights with Streetball.

Games started in the late afternoon, just after re-runs of Brooke Knows Best, and often ran until the lights shut off in the wee hours of the morning.

My hometown buddies, George, Joe, Bobby and myself, composed the nucleus of perhaps the greatest pick-up basketball team in the history of athletics. Never have four un-athletic white people complimented each other so well. We were like an NBA team winning the finals while starting Jason Kapono, Luis Scola, Brian Cardinal and Andres Nocioni. I took care of the post, Bobby was drain-o from behind the arc, George is the ultimate garbage player and Joe is the take it to the rack with your elbows out S.O.B.

Nocioni, Kapono & Cardinal

It didn’t matter who our fifth was; I would have taken our chances with a well-placed trashcan. We weren’t going through B squads either. I’m not saying we beat DI teams, but we went David on some serious Goliaths.

Oddly, during late night basketball jaunts, we’d see swarms of Asian kids from Harvard descending upon the playground.

To be clear, I don’t mean Asian American; I mean from Asia.

The bizarre thing about these kids was they clearly came to play basketball, but they weren’t really playing basketball. It was more reminiscent of a full on Battle Royale: a 39 player deep, three balls at once, half court only, co-ed rugby scrum. Not to mention they were never interested in playing with people outside of their own group. Which I guess explains why they were at a basketball court at 3 o’clock in the morning.

This isn’t the only court I’ve seen this phenomenon at either. Down the street at both MIT and Harvard’s athletic complexes, it’s not uncommon to find droves of Asians playing basketball-melee long after the regulars have gone home.

Besides the sheer volume of winning, what sticks out most in my mind about Corporal Burns that summer is the odd racial segregation between courts: The black guys played on the court closer to the river, the white guys on the court next to the mini roller hockey enclosure.

Now, I’m not saying that Boston isn’t a relatively progressive city, but what I am saying is that the local Central Square, Roxbury and Dorchester kids played on one court, while the Harvard students, young professionals and college kids home for summer break played on the other – two groups peacefully coexisting, while simultaneously ignoring one another.

Hey, it could be much worse: Google “busing in Boston” or “assaulted with a flag pole in the 70’s.”

On the surface, liberal attitudes permeate through the Peoples Republic of  Cambridge, but what’s up with the demographics of a CP classroom versus an AP classroom? Or, how about the social stratification of the Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School cafeteria?

Conversely, it does speak to the level of progressiveness of the city the four of us grew up in that we nonchalantly rotated between the “White Court” and the “Black Court” –We don’t care what race you are; just be prepared to get whomped on the blacktop.

There were a few moments when the intersection of socio-economic groups caused tension. We were beating one team who you would have probably expected to destroy us on the “Black Court” when things started to get chippy. The game got overly physical, words exchanged and a fistfight nearly broke out.

I don’t think those particular guys liked losing to five white boys who looked like they just came from calculus class.

But incidents like that were rare and, on the whole, when we moved between courts there were no problems.

It’s just ironic that such an “inclusive city” would have such an odd divide; the gap between courts was almost like an unspoken rule that everyone subconsciously knew existed.

How did my summer end?

Well, in August, Tully Banta Cain, then a linebacker on the New England Patriots came down to the court to run some ball – which had to be a breach of contract.

Interestingly, he came to ball wearing cargo shorts, and a short-sleeve button up shirt.

We ended up guarding each other. Somehow, while he was under the basket, I slipped away from him and floated out to the perimeter. Catching the ball behind the arc, I was ready to drill an open three.

Or so I thought.

It turns out NFL linebackers have incredible closing speed. At 6’2” and 250 pounds, he exploded from under the hoop on me faster then I have ever seen anyone move, contesting my shot while I was in the air. And by contest my shot, I mean he torpedoed himself into me, spearing me into the concrete.

Was I in pain? How do you think getting hit by an NFL linebacker feels?

Two steroid shots and a back surgery later, I am left wondering why didn’t I sue?

Final Word: After getting cut by the Patriots in 2011, Banta-Cain has gone on to make really, really, terrible pop-rap: