If you drove by, you would probably miss it. If you walked by, you wouldn't think twice. But if you played there, you'd never forget it.
I moved to Los Angeles in August 2000 as an aspiring writer-actor-comedian so my first task, naturally, was to find the local park for pick-up basketball. I ended up spending hundreds of hours there procrastinating from writer's block, unemployment and asking my parents for more money.
I discovered the tiny park while driving through my new neighborhood of West Hollywood. I was a young unemployed dreamer looking for something fun to do while I searched for work and wrote the great American screenplay. The park was tucked a few blocks north of the hip shopping area on Melrose Avenue and just minutes away from The Groundlings, the well known improv group that produced famous celebs like Will Ferrell, Pee-wee Herman and Paul Cooley.
On first sight, Poinsettia Park was home to a half dozen tennis courts and that's about it. But as you walked through the path, the hoops emerged. They were not breathtaking. It was certainly not Staples Center. The backboards were a dull white, the netted hoops were old and starting to rust, and the court consisted of uneven gravel. Handball courts were close by and once in a while an errant bouncy ball would interfere with the game. Two benches surrounded each side of the court, and in the distance was a Port-O-Potty that may or may not have housed one of the regulars. But for what it lacked in beauty, it made up for in charm.
My first time at the courts was a Wednesday at noon. It was a typical Los Angeles day filled with blue skies and bright sun. Most people were working, but not here. There was a heated argument between two men. One was white, tan really, with blonde hair and a "hang ten" California surfer look. The other man was reminiscent of Antoine Walker, with a little gut, broad shoulders, dark skin, and a smoothly shaved head. I would learn that the tan man was known as Hookshot Ken for his unstoppable Kareem sky hook. He was a lawyer who ran his own practice and arranged his hours so he could ball during the week. And the bald man was simply known as Stuff, the guy who called the shots, the mayor of Poinsettia pick-up. His profession was unknown. They took part in one of their legendary arguments, one eventually shouted loudest, and it was back to basketball.
I called "next" not really knowing if I'd be heard. But I was. And I played. For five years.
When I step on the court, I am naturally judged. Being short and white does not usually mean skilled basketball player, but at Poinsettia I always felt welcomed. We all were. It was the one place where such an eclectic cast of characters could come together as one. It was a place where unemployed actors, drug dealers, bouncers, comedians, lawyers and engineers could come together as a team. No one judged. No one assumed. Everyone just played. Basketball made life simple. It was about cutting, screening, shooting, rebounding, defending and hustling. These ideals trumped race, ethnicity, status, everything.
I stood out, not really because of my skills (although I had my moments and could hold my own), but because of my heart. I dove on the gravel, took on guys twice my size, and never gave up no matter the score. I was the tough little guy. In fact, Bullet, an ex-con with a killer jump shot and rap sheet, openly feared playing against little old me. I was the guy you loved as a teammate and hated as an opponent. And the one who acknowledged me most was Stuff.
Stuff called me daily leaving original rap lyric messages requesting that I play. "Come on down Paul, let's play some basketball" was just one of several rhymes. The longest rap message lasted nearly three minutes. And it worked. I played "some basketball" every time he called. After games, I gave him the occasional ride to his neighborhood, he told me stories of his childhood, and even though he'd been behind bars, and I'd only drank in bars, we connected. I'd try to impress him by playing the latest Ice Cube song only for him to change the station to Phil Collins. "This is my song," he shouted as One More Night blared on the radio. He even revealed the origin of his nickname that was coined by his Mother. He would eat all the "stuff" put in front of him as a kid, and it stuck. We talked about family, living in LA, and mostly we talked about basketball.
Stuff and Hookshot Ken were just two of the many colorful characters at Poinsettia during my time. My partner in crime was Sean, a buddy from Boston, with an automatic corner set shot. Both of us encouraged each other to stay unemployed so we could play as much basketball as possible. Stuff brought his cousin Jacque, an aspiring music producer who played like and resembled Jarrett Jack.
There was Zeus, who was the spitting image of Busta Rhymes. He had multicolored dreads, and could spit out "foul" like Busta could spit out rhymes. Mel repped Brooklyn, Eric-Detroit, TJ-New Orleans, and Nick-LA. Ivan and Ronnie were the high school kids. Bryan Greenberg (who would later star in "Prime" with Uma Thurman and "How to Make It in America" on HBO) and Nick were the promising actors. Sam, a summer camp buddy who I randomly reunited with at Poinsettia, was "Jesus" for his lavish beard. There was even a creepy guy who consistently watched from his lawn chair as he downed Miller Lites. We called him "The Scout."
A UCLA player once graced us with his presence. He did not make it to the big leagues, but he did teach me the art of the fast break, and how to throw an alley-oop dunk off the backboard. Sadly, I missed the time Adam Sandler and his buddies stopped by for some hoops. I had an interview that day for the very popular Touched by an Angel. What was I thinking?
I never had anything stolen, fights were extremely rare and unacceptable, and the few times I forgot my basketball at the court, one of the guys brought it back for me the next day. It was just one of those places.
In the summer of 2005, I played my last game at Poinsettia. I was moving to New York City for graduate school, and I couldn't leave without saying goodbye. It was a poignant moment for me, and I brought a case of Gatorade for the group as a thank you. I had spent more time with these guys in five years than anyone else. They were my basketball family. And I didn't even know their last names.
For the past ten years, I've lived in New York City, and I still haven't found a court like Poinsettia. Some come close, but it's not the same. And once in a while something or someone reminds me of my time there.
And recently, that someone was Kevin Hart. In 2014, he was in a movie called Ride Along. To promote the film, he shot a viral video called I Wish I was a Baller with Ice Cube, Carmelo Anthony, Andre Iguodala, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul. Kevin Hart and his posse played hoops at the place I'll never forget. The courts and hoops had been renovated, but it was definitely ... Poinsettia Park.
It was a sign. I needed to go back. I needed to return. This summer I reunited with Sean and we met up at Poinsettia Park. I got butterflies and wondered who would be there.
Sadly, there was no Hookshot Ken. There was no Stuff. Instead, there was a new crew of characters. There was a new game. It was bittersweet, but it was still Poinsettia. These new players were young and athletic, or maybe I had just become older. I struggled at first and thought maybe my time was done. But in my last game, I found the fountain of youth and drained a game winning three-pointer from the corner. I let out a scream, and my teammates mobbed me. I didn't know them. They didn't know me. But for one shining moment, I had my Poinsettia family again.