West Palm Madness

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...
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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."

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.

"There would be a fight," says Ranulfo Albarran, Wenceslao's brother. He's sitting with his legs beneath him at courtside. "If we did not give them the court, there would be a fight."

Next to him is Milton Muller, a native of Nicaragua who's the tallest Hispanic man on the court at about five-foot-11. "They should just make a team and compete, you know?" Muller says. "If they win, they could keep playing, and who knows, maybe they'd win it all and take home some money."

"There are more of us," Ranulfo Albarran says. "We could win if we fought them, but nobody here wants that."

One possible explanation for their hesitation becomes clear when you look at the scorecard. Waiting to play is a team from Lake Worth called Los Ilegales. Many of these men are illegal aliens. Some swam rivers, walked through deserts, or paid thousands of dollars to smugglers for the chance at South Florida's menial jobs. All this makes the players careful to avoid the cops, and anyone who starts a fight on the court is barred from playing again. "If there was trouble," Muller explains, "a lot of these guys wouldn't be around next week, if you know what I'm saying."

One such illegal stands nearby. Ramón is a member of the team founded by the Albarran brothers. In 1996, he and his wife braved a weeklong journey across the expansive Sonoran Desert into Southern California. They loaded a backpack with a jug of water, jalapeños, and one change of clothes, and took turns carrying their 1-year-old son. "There are a lot of possibilities here in America, but in Mexico, there were none," says Ramón, who is wearing a University of Miami T-shirt and has long, graying hair. Working as a carpenter now, Ramón has applied for citizenship. His second son was born here four years ago, and the baby he carried across the desert now speaks perfect English. Like many others here, if Ramón fought these black men and were picked up by the cops, that weeklong walk and all that he's done here would be lost. "I don't want to get into trouble," he says just outside the basketball court. He points to his sons to explain. "You know, my family."

Of course, they could ask the city to fix up the other court. The bent rims could be repaired, the fading lines redrawn, and the lights turned on for both courts. But then, the city's Parks and Recreation Department wouldn't allow these tournaments. It's illegal to bet at city parks.

As the Niños-vs. -Veteranos game nears its end at just after 7 p.m., the group of black men has become even more aggressive, getting in the way when the ball comes to the end where they stand. One of the black men, Jay Johnson, who wears a black leather visor backward on his shaved head, explains their impatience. "We try to give them time to finish their game or whatever," says Johnson, a 40-year-old maintenance worker with the school board. Speaking slowly and cautiously, Johnson stands quietly behind the crowd of black men. But he's lost his patience. "Now they're pushing their luck. They keep playing and playing."

With time running out, the Niños dribble the ball at the south end of the court to run down the clock. The Veteranos, down 19-15, need to act quickly. Mostly Mexican immigrants, the Veteranos are taller than the Guatemalans who make up the Niños team. But the Guatemalans are renowned here as nimble ball handlers adept at fast breaks. One of the older Veteranos knocks the ball from a Niños player and hears a teammate running toward the north-end hoop shouting, "¡Sigue, sigue!"

As his teammate runs for the basket, the Veteranos player with the ball, wearing jeans and a pair of brown leather shoes, lobs it deep. The other man catches it, dribbles twice and jumps for the lay-up. But like many of the players here, his energy and fortitude are much stronger than his shooting ability. The ball bounces haplessly off the rim and into the hands of a Niños player, who passes it down court. The Boys, as they call themselves in English, dribble to the south end until the arbitos whistle the game's end.

Before the players can file off, the arbitos on the picnic bench call for the next two teams. "Juegas!" they shout in Spanish, ordering the men to play quickly. "Play or they will take it!"

But the black men notice the delay. They pile onto the court and take practice shots before picking teams.

On the picnic bench, the arbitos and the men waiting to play watch wordlessly. There are hundreds of them, teams of landscapers and drywall hangers sitting in circles, carpenters and construction workers leaning against the chainlink fence, all waiting for their shot at winning the championship. There's a lot they could say in protest. "It is tense," Wenceslao Albarran says. "There are many men who want to fight. I don't know -- someday they will, maybe."

Instead, the arbitos pick up the picnic table and carry it to the other court, which is bathed in darkness. They play until after 11 p.m., until the team featuring the Albarran brothers wins the championship. Here on the darkened court, the arbitos can't see whether deep shots count for tres puntos and can't spot fouls among the silhouetted players. But for one more Sunday, los ilegales de baloncesto avoided a fight that could cost them a lot more than a basketball court.

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