When I was a public defender, I played a lot of schoolyard basketball. There was some similarity between the two activities. Both brought me in contact with “the street” and people and cultures I would not have otherwise encountered. As part of the defense work, I naturally learned something about the lives of those I represented. I met lots of seemingly hopeless people, but I also met lots of people in trouble who were worth helping, and sometimes I helped them. In some sort of weird way that I can’t fully describe, I felt at least some connection with almost every client I met. This was one-way traffic, however. It was a strictly lawyer-client relationship, and my personal life was separate.
Only on two occasions did a client intrude on my private life. A troubled, young man—he was born almost deaf, which was not discovered until he was four and only then did he hear conversation–was charged with armed robberies. After I had been representing him for months, he asked, “Are you Jewish?” I asked why he wanted to know. He replied, “Because Jews make the best lawyers.” I said in a way that I hoped was humorous and would end the inquiries, “No, I’m not Jewish; I already have enough problems.”
I also represented a different young man with a history of mental illness. He admitted purposely driving a car into a street corner crowd because “black people were there.” My home number was listed in the telephone book (remember telephone books?) and he started calling at all hours asking me questions but really wanting to expound his racial theories. I found this personally disturbing on a number of levels. It took me quite a while, but I finally got him to stop although I don’t remember my method.
A similar personal distance took place on the basketball court. About twenty or thirty guys came regularly to play basketball at the schoolyards where I played. I got to recognize them and knew them by first or nickname. Beyond that I knew little about them except for those who lived within a block or so of me. Even then I only knew where they lived, just as they knew where my apartment was. I got to know a handful slightly better and did some favors for them or their parents. I was served a thank-you dinner by one of those families after some favors, but even so, I knew little beyond their basketball games. I might hear something personal—grandparents were in North Carolina, for example—but we did not have what you might call “meaningful conversations.” I did not ask them what they did or about their wives or girlfriends or whether they had come to Brooklyn from elsewhere, and they did not ask me. We were friendly on a limited level that guys playing basketball regularly achieve.
While there were similarities in my public defense and basketball lives, they rarely intersected. Sidney, an infrequent player, somehow found out I was an attorney (one of the few players who discovered that), and wanted to talk about his pending manslaughter case, but those occasions were rare, and he would talk to just about anyone about his plight. I might hear about a neighborhood kid who had been arrested but not because I was a public defender. It was just general neighborhood chatter not specifically directed to me. Only once did basketball enter the courthouse with me. And I embarrassed myself in a way that still bothers me.
It was one of the many times that my work brought me behind the arraignment courtroom where the recently arrested were waiting for their first court appearance. I recognized a kid behind the bars with whom I had played basketball. He was not one of the regulars where I played, but an occasional participant. I did not have much of an impression of Mike except for two particular times that we were on a court together. The first time he was with a friend and shooting baskets accompanied by much laughter and horseplay. I started shooting baskets alongside them. After a few minutes, Rodney, an effeminate teenager, came onto the court and said that he wanted to play. I teamed with Rodney, and it took only a few moments to see that he didn’t know the game at all. Mike and his friend were good-natured, but soon they were mostly laughing about and at Rodney. It was not really mean-spirited, but it irked me, and I played as hard as I could to see if I could get Rodney to score a basket, which never happened.
This episode did not give me a bad impression of Mike and his friend. Their behavior was well within the norms for a Brooklyn basketball court. Indeed, it was better than what could have been expected. “Fag” was an epithet regularly thrown around, usually among friends, but every so often directed at someone with animus. Mike and his friend, however, never used that word in Rodney’s presence and that made me feel better about them.
The second time I remembered was an intense two-on-two game. Mike and I were teamed. The guy guarding me was new to the courts; I didn’t know him. He was manhandling me—pushing, elbowing, and kneeing much more than was considered acceptable on that court or any game I had been in. I usually was the only white guy playing, and it was almost never a problem, but in this game, I felt a racial dynamic at work. If I had not been white, this mugging would not have been occurring. As was my usual practice, I kept quiet about the style of play, but Mike didn’t and said that this was not acceptable basketball. We should either play or quit. The other guy said nothing but only smirked and gave me another forearm in the back when we resumed. Mike left and so did I, each of us going in a separate direction.
And now a few weeks later, here was Mike in the holding cell. I was almost excited by my recognition, and I indicated to the prisoner that I knew him. He looked down and claimed he did not know me. I started to give the location where we had played and what he had done for me, and then I realized that I was doing something I had vowed never to do. In neither the legal courts nor on the basketball court did I ever pretend to be “street.” Although my language was salty, I never used “ghetto” slang or the handshakes and greetings that did not belong to me.
And yet here I was, embarrassing Mike as I pressed him about basketball, something that had nothing to do with his arrest. He had just experienced the trauma of being arrested and was entitled to anonymity, and here I was trying to be cool. I was trying to show that, unlike other lawyers, I knew kids from the street, and the other defendants and lawyers in the room should know I was “different.” I was showing off, and it had nothing to do with helping the kid in trouble. I was embarrassing myself, and it made Mike uncomfortable. This incident stays with me because I would like to think that it was the only time I did something that made a client feel ill at ease simply to make myself feel special. I did not like the feeling back then when I realized what I was doing, and I don’t like it now.
That experience contrasted with the only other time I ran into one of basketball crowd in the criminal courts. He was one of a group of three or four or sometimes five who drove up to the schoolyard from out of the neighborhood. They were older than many of the teenagers who played, nice guys and good players, and I enjoyed playing with them. I did not know what they did, but I would have guessed that they had solid jobs and careers. That they were different from many who came to the yard became clear to me when a kid broke a bottle not far from the court. Marshall stopped the game and went over to that kid, saying “This is your park, and it is mine. Why would you want to wreck it? Don’t ever do that again.” Marshall came back to the game, and the kid slunk off. (Marshall was usually the best player, and I was a bit behind him. That meant I was usually paired against him. One time I made a call against Marshall, which I immediately knew was wrong, but the game went on. When it concluded, I sat next to Marshall under the basket and apologized. He smiled at me and said, “It happens.”)
I had known them for a year or more when I bumped into the person I only knew as Knox in a courthouse corridor. I then found out that he was a housing cop. When he learned that I was an attorney, he said without elaboration, sort of to himself, “I always knew you were something.” That made me feel good, and, this time, it came at the expense of no one.