West Palm Madness

A battle for a basketball court displays differences

Eighteen of them crowd together under the basket at the south end of the court. Most stand menacingly with their hands on their hips, in tank tops that show well-defined muscles. The loudest of them is Rick Smith, an African-American debt collector from here in West Palm Beach who isn't shy about making a claim for this court. "You said 15 minutes," Smith shouts, shifting his weight between his feet. He's sporting black Nike shorts that match his high-tops, two gold loop earrings, and a cleanly shaved head. "I think your 15 minutes is up."

Surrounding this group of 18 men, on every side and in every direction, are perhaps 300 others whose skin isn't that different in color. What keeps these two groups apart? One is black. The other is Hispanic.

Impatient now, Smith walks farther onto the court, disrupting the game between Los Veteranos and Los Niños. He explains his aggression by pointing to a neighborhood up the street. "I grew up right around here, on Tamarind," he says, pacing under the hoop as the Hispanic men fight for the ball at the other end. "I've been playing here all my life. I'm 30, so I guess I've been playing here 16 years or something. So have most of us. This is our court."

The ilegales de baloncesto fight for the ball, then give up the court.
Colby Katz
The ilegales de baloncesto fight for the ball, then give up the court.

On a picnic table parked courtside, Hispanic men jot down the score in a spiral notebook and keep the game clock on a wristwatch. They usually play a pair of 15-minute periods with a two-minute break. But as the group of black men masses at the end of the court, the arbitos -- or referees -- order the teams to skip halftime. "Keep playing," they shout in Spanish. "Stay on the court or they will take it." Afraid a jump ball might show the black men what they're up to, a referee hands the ball to a player, and the game continues.

"I don't know how they keep 15 minutes," Smith barks loudly, "but I'd say their time is up."

This dispute on a recent Sunday night over a piece of territory drawn out in lines under basketball hoops has been simmering for weeks. It began three months ago when a group of Spanish-speaking men organized a tournament in West Palm's Howard Park, where basketball courts sit in the shade of banyan trees. The baloncesto -- or basketball -- games have become so popular that they now draw players from as far as Miami and Port St. Lucie. As many as 12 teams of five or six men each show up, bringing with them hundreds of spectators.

The competition, which begins at 4 p.m., is tournament-style, single-elimination, and there's a jackpot. Each team puts in $40, and the two squads that compete in the championship game split the cash.

Wenceslao Albarran, a native of Mexico who now lives in Pompano Beach, is one of the founders. At age 41, he's older than many players, but he's tall here, at around five-foot-nine, and has developed a mean jump shot. Combinado, the team he assembled of solid ball handlers and shooters, is frequently in the championship. For games, he wears a yellow tank top embroidered with his nickname -- Wenses -- and the number two. "Many people know about this game now," says Albarran, owner of a small brick-laying company. "We sometimes get a hundred men here to play."

But the popularity has led to the simmering dispute. Because more teams are competing, the games now continue late into the night. That overlaps with the time the black men typically use this court; they arrive around 7 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and most important, Sundays.

When the black men pull up, they typically order the Latinos to play on the park's second court, which isn't lighted and has hoops bent and banged up with age.

The African-Americans don't join the tournament because no one has invited them. It's emblematic of the sometimes uneasy relationship in South Florida of these two minority groups. And such conflicts will likely become more common. Immigrants, largely from Guatemala and Mexico, are flooding Palm Beach County. The number of Hispanics here doubled in the 1990s, to 140,000. Meanwhile, the population of blacks in the county grew at half that rate, to 156,000. By 2010, Latinos are expected to overtake blacks to become the county's largest minority group, and in 2025, they will be the majority.

Even the location of this court is symbolic of South Florida race relations: It sits in the mostly white neighborhoods of Grandview Heights and Flamingo Park. The Spanish-mission-style homes here were built in the 1930s by whites who fled to the suburbs in the 1970s after selling mainly to poor black families. Whites returned to gentrify these neighborhoods in the past decade, and now these homes on the city's only hillside regularly sell for more than a half million. Still, only two whites are at the basketball court on this Sunday night, one the wife of a Mexican, and the other the girlfriend of a black man.

And so, after skipping halftime, the fourth game of the tournament continues with Los Niños well ahead of the Veteranos. On the sidelines, dozens of cheering spectators -- wives, children, and the men waiting to play -- debate whether to stand up to the black men.

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