Greenwich Village may gentrify, lose its quintessential character or even erupt in flames, but the West Fourth Street Courts — informally known as the Cage — will outlive us all.
Located right off the West Fourth – Washington Square station, dozens of onlookers wring their fingers through the gates of the Cage every day, entranced by the action on the asphalt. The non-regulation basketball games exude an aggressive physicality; there’s no referee to cut through the chaos. Shouting matches and brawls interrupt the games half of the time.
“The competition is hot,” Liz Gonzales, 29, who commutes from Westchester to the Village every day in the summer to play. “It’s very intense. There’s a lot of aggression. You have to be at the same level. That’s why they call it the Cage. A bunch of animals. You get smashed up here.”
Liz started coming to the Cage with her sister when she was young, but was sidelined to the smaller court until she hit her twenties.
“They didn’t want me here,” Liz said. “One because I was a woman. Two because I was too small. My first game on the full court, I thought I couldn’t keep up. You see the guys and they’re aggressive and they’re screaming. It’s intimidating. Everyone is intimidating when you first come here. No one wants to call you next until they see you a couple of times. Once you’re in it, it’s all the same.”
Worthy, a Cage veteran in his 60s, has been around since the 1980s, when the courts were surrounded by trees. Now, he sticks to commentating and organizing events; the players on the court these days aren’t exactly his speed.
“A lot of these guys never played before in front of a crowd,” Worthy said. “Now you come here and it’s different. I don’t play with them — they’re terrible. These guys are regular cry babies. But this is a dream to them; a crowd watching them do what they like doing.”
According to Worthy, the crowds aren’t as big as the used to be.
“People would sit in the branches to watch the games,” Worthy sighed as he crumples a brown paper bag with players’ names written on it in green permanent marker. “That’s how crowded it was. We’re going 42 years and I’ve been here for 26 of them. As the summer progresses and we get all the tourists, it gets better.”
Liz and Worthy both coach teams for the summer tournaments, which begin late May. There are multiple divisions for both men and women: middle school, high school and “pros.”
Sometimes the handball players — their court is behind the full court — come for a taste of the hostile belligerence of streetball.
72-year-old Larry started coming to the Cage 10 years ago to play handball in the middle of his commute from Long Island. It didn’t take long for him to immerse himself in the basketball community.
“Liz and I were talking this morning, like we couldn’t wait to get down here,” Larry said while adjusting his portable folding chair. “It’s like a day at the beach. It’s like a show. It’s like being at the amusement park every day. There’s so much stuff going on.”
One thing remains clear, though: once you’re a regular of the Cage, you’re a regular for life. Ex-Laker player Smush Parker, notorious for his beef with Kobe Bryant, even stopped by and shook the hands of everyone on the court and the crowd through the fence.
“You met Smush, huh?” Worthy asked me while sipping through his 7-Eleven slush, which covers his grin. “You know he used to play for the NBA? We used to babysit him. We knew him as a kid. He practically raised him, right in this court.”
That legacy remains with the new kids on the block, 13-year-old Butter from Harlem and Brooklynite MJ, 15.
“They don’t treat me different,” Butter said. “They say that if he wants to play, then we’re gonna treat him like a grown man. And that’s fine. I mean, if you come in the summer, you’ll realize how fun it is.”
At the end of the day, the Cage is a community of athletes, young and old, male and female, all of whom desperately love the competition and the crowds.
“These are like family to me,” Liz said. “I know these guys on a first name basis. We all know each other. We meet up we play ball. That’s it.”