Address: Pleasant Street, Cambridge, MA 02139
I played pickup basketball with Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev once; only time I ever guarded a consensus monster.
I never really knew Tamerlan, but I was certainly aware of him. One of my best friends from middle school became good friends with him in high school, so I’d see him around Cambridge every once and a while, and by reputation I knew he boxed.
But, like I said, I never really knew him.
We played at Alberico Park; a bandbox of a court in the Coast neighborhood of Cambridge.
Coast has a very odd dichotomy. On the one hand, it is filled with upper-middle class, semi-successful artists (think ceramic pot makers and background vocalists from the theme song of some short-lived 80s sitcom). On the other hand, lower income public housing lines its peripheries.
Coast is both a hotbed of underground hip-hop heads and enthusiasts of The Wire, as well as wannabe rappers and kids whom rep “Coast Mob”, pretending Cambridge and Baltimore are interchangeable.
The artists espouse a strong belief in participatory trophies — creating a bad case of millennial hubris for many belonging to the neighborhoods’ younger generation.
Suffice it to say, basketball is not what Coast is known for. Back in the day — sometimes, and I stress sometimes — Dana Park, down the street from Alberico, had decent run. Presumably, most of the neighborhood kids with the right combination of game and sense would leave the neighborhood for the better comp found at Area Four or Corporal Burns on the river.
Long, lean and strong, at Alberico Park, Tamerlan was easily the most athletic dude out there. The rough concrete and small dimensions of the court were made for someone of his physical gifts – the ideal setting for the scrappiest player to dominate.
Tamerlan, despite how he often seems remembered as a boxer, was not a scrappy player.
You learn a lot about person playing pickup basketball: how confident are they; how do they make decisions and how quickly; how aware of themselves and others are they; how tough or stubborn are they; what is their level of interpersonal skill; how well do they problem solve; are they lazy; can they function outside of their comfort zone?
Tamerlan had no natural feel for basketball. The nuances of the game were beyond him, at least at the time. This was back around ‘07 or ‘08. I heard some people talk about playing with him in 2011, and how good he was, but that was not my experience at all.
The reason that playing with him stands out in my memory eight years later is because of how much of a sucker for an up fake he was. Every time I got the ball, I’d turn towards the basket, give him a quick pump and he’d be in the air — easy money, over-and-over-again. He wasn’t tenacious at all, more aloof, soft even.
Tamerlan and I were about the same size; my game was far more polished — maybe that intimidated him. He seemed like the type of player who would feast on a smaller defender, but shy away from a challenge.
Edwin Rodriguez who sparred with Tamerlan reflected on the experience to the New York Daily News:
“First we went two rounds, I beat him up pretty badly. So he stepped out. He never went down, but he stopped about two or three times in the first two rounds. We were just sparring so I wasn’t trying to knock him out.”
Recently, I went by Alberico Park for the first time in years. The basketball court is gone, replaced with a hockey surface and refurbished playground.
For some of us time moves on.
What I’ll always remember about Tamerlan is just how unremarkable he was as a basketball player.