Basketball courts

Revisiting the basketball courts of ‘White Men Can’t Jump’

This story is part of Image issue 6, “Energy,” an exploration of what sporting style looks like in the City of Champions. See the full package here.

As legend has it on the Venice Beach courts, Michael Jordan was once taken to the hole by a local construction consultant / roofer / father of one named Sidney Deane. Afterward, deep in his feelings but mesmerized by what just happened, Jordan looked at Deane, defeated, and suggested he try the Summer Pro League. “No!” Deane cut off Jordan. It wasn’t that he didn’t have the skills or the athleticism to run. Deane worried about undermining the style of play he had cultivated on various asphalt in the city. Indeed, her sweater was structurally solid, not to say pretty; his defense was agile; his garbage speech was cutting. “Could ruin my game,” he told Jordan in a biting staccato.

22nd Street East

(Illustration by Micah Fluellen; photo by Jacob Moscovitch / Los Angeles Times)

Only those who witnessed what happened that day know what the so-called greatest of all time did next. But we do know that Deane finished the run, took a dive, and probably made a few quick stops on the way back to his wife and baby and his Vista View apartment in the jungle. Somewhere along the line he told someone the story. Deane was well aware of the power of oral tradition. Today the story of what he did to MJ in the field lives on; every day people remember her dancing, her shimmy, her flourishes. How he spoke, how he shoved, how he adjusted his shot according to the wind – his presence is felt.

White men can't jump Illustrations by Micah Fluellen / Los Angeles Times photos by Jacob Moscovitch

Watts (105th Street East and Graham Avenue)

(Illustration by Micah Fluellen / Los Angeles Times; photo by Jacob Moscovitch / Los Angeles Times)

Skid Row (between Wall Street and East 5th Street)

Skid Row (between Wall Street and East 5th Street)

(Illustration by Micah Fluellen / Los Angeles Times; photo by Jacob Moscovitch / Los Angeles Times)

Almost 30 years ago Ron Shelton told the story of Sidney Deane in “White Men Can’t Jump”. The film, now a cult classic, received its fair share of critical praise for its beautiful portrayal of a bromance between Deane (Wesley Snipes) and Billy Hoyle (Woody Harrelson). But what has always struck me is the way he masterfully uses a basketball court as a physical space where shared stories converge. The film reminds us that there are stories to be found between the off-limit lines, on the backboards, 10 feet below the ledge – all over the court.

The drama of every basketball scene is informed by the stories players bring with them – their memories, their experiences, their connections, what they woke up to that morning. On the Venice courts, where Deane and Hoyle meet, Deane gives you a glimpse into his past – from the aforementioned story of Michael Jordan to the source of his obvious affection for people, like Junior (Kadeem Hardison), with whom Deane hangs out at Sizzler in his spare time. In Watts, Deane can’t upset Hoyle without his pre-existing relationship with Robert (Cylk Cozart). When, on a field off Crenshaw, Hoyle loses his tournament winnings to Deane because he can’t execute a dunk, the emotional strength comes from Hoyle’s story of gambling addiction.

Jacob Moscovitch / Los Angeles Times;  Illustration by Micah Fluellen / Los Angeles Times

Lafayette Park

(Illustration by Micah Fluellen / Los Angeles Times; photo by Jacob Moscovitch / Los Angeles Times)

White men can't jump Illustrations by Micah Fluellen / Los Angeles Times photos by Jacob Moscovitch

(Illustration by Micah Fluellen; Jacob Moscovitch / Los Angeles Times)

What other tales exist about the sacred ground where Deane and Hoyle played? For this episode of Iconography, we researched the film’s shorts, many of which are still spaces where people have good shopping every day. We wondered how Deane and Hoyle’s legacy felt for the people of LA who use these spaces, and what it might be like to delve into this rich, textured, fictional world in the present. We brought in Micah Fluellen and Jacob Moscovitch to help us remember what “white men can’t jump” gave us: a legend the Angelenos refuse to let die.

Ian F. Blair is the editor-in-chief of Image.