The “Hidden Figure” of the West Fourth Street Courts

MD cleans the courts at The Cage.

MD cleans the courts at The Cage (Credit: Isak Hullert)

On a wet, dreary Sunday in early November, two people picked up garbage and leaves from a basketball court at West Fourth Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. One of them, a woman tidily dressed in a blue uniform, is an employee of the Parks Department. The other, a man dressed in ragged street clothes and a backpack, is a volunteer known as “MD.”

The two cleaned piles of garbage left from the pick-up basketball games held the day before on this small rectangular piece of land, colloquially known as The Cage, an iconic New York City basketball court that has been immortalized in Sports Illustrated articles, EA Sports video games like NBA Street V3, documentary films Doin’ It In The Park: Pick-Up Basketball, NYC and NYC Point Gods, and a New York Liberty television commercial directed by Spike Lee.

Located just above the West 4th Street Subway stop, across from the movie theater, the IFC Center, formerly known as The Waverly, the legendary basketball court is shoehorned into the heart of Greenwich Village.

If the courts are well known in New York City lore, MD, the volunteer cleaner, is an elusive figure, whom residents of the West Village describe as an unsung hero. People in the neighborhood, who do not even know his full name, often speak of him in reverential tones. They say he comes and cleans but then, just as suddenly, disappears.

Watching MD at work is nearly as exhilarating as the game that took place the day before. He is lightning quick and seemingly more efficient than the Parks employee who gets paid to maintain the city’s green areas and public spaces. MD, however, comes to this part of the city, every day, on his own volition. With a black garbage bag in one hand and a trash picker in the other, MD gracefully roams around the courts in a steady tempo, unbothered by the chaotic scene on the bustling corner in the West Village.

“I’m just here to clean and sweep leaves,” he said, not wanting to answer more questions, instead, quickly returned to his duties.

The Cage, a major tourist attraction in New York City, is known for drawing hundreds of thousands of tourists and locals every year who come to witness some of the most physical, high-paced, and pure streetball on the planet. New York City – widely recognized as the “Mecca” of basketball – has a storied streetball culture, and The Cage is near hallowed ground in basketball firmament.

The West Fourth Street Courts are dubbed The Cage because of the 20-foot-tall chain-linked fence that encircles the playground, giving it a grimy, cutthroat feel. Longtime frequenters have compared it to “like playing inside of a zoo,” where Darwinian survival of the fittest principles reign supreme; if you lose, you’re unlikely to get another shot.

Several NBA stars have cut their teeth on this little patch of pavement, and some of the game’s biggest names have graced the court over the years, including Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Julius Erving, and Carmelo Anthony.

During the summer months, the main court is the site of one of the most important amateur basketball tournaments in the United States – the West Fourth Street Summer Pro-Classic League. This tournament, now in its 42nd year, is the longest, continuously operating tournament in New York City. Players flock from across the city to compete in paid tournaments hoping to earn their stripes at perhaps the most popular sports venue in Lower Manhattan. But in the offseason, smaller, unorganized scrimmages and pick-up games take center stage and capture the attention of local New Yorkers and out of town visitors.

MD typically shows up the day after such games and cleans and sweeps up leaves, keeping the venerated court in its most pristine state, said Pari Dulac, a resident of the village since 1985.

Arnaldo Segarra, a former aide to Mayor David Dinkins and one of The Cage’s main organizers, has been coming to the courts since 1967 and is an important figure in the pantheon of the West Fourth Street Courts. The founder and league commissioner during the summer months is Kenny Graham, but Segerra serves as “honorary commissioner” of the summer leagues. There’s a bench next to the courts with his name engraved on.

Citing former Mayor Dinkins’ favorite description of New York City, Segarra describes MD as one of “the great mosaic’s hidden figures,” and adds “this decent man, however, is unlike anything I have seen before. He’s special.”

In Segarra’s view, there is an aura of mystique surrounding MD.

“What strikes me about him is his politeness and non-verbal communication. He just appears suddenly, especially during the winter months, and is incredibly polite and goes on his way,” Segarra said. “He doesn’t say much, he doesn’t expect anything from anyone. But I always make sure to give him some cash.”

Segarra believes MD plays a critical role in the life cycle of one of the city’s important treasures.

“His volunteer cleaning is very helpful to the community. He helps maintain a New York City institution that is one of the best playground basketball sites in the country,” Segarra said.

The Cage is multifunctional in his view, serving leagues of high schoolers, men, and women, and a place of refuge for people from all walks of life, across the city, to enjoy.

“Everyone is welcome. It’s like a community center that brings everyone together, both neighborhood residents, ball players from around the city, and bypassing tourists,” Segarra said.

Segarra said MD has taken on the role as unofficial custodian of The Cage, where many visitors find refuge and support like a family home.

“The courts may be world famous, but to us, it’s a little gem, a little park that functions as a kind of familial sanctuary,” Segarra said.

Susan Ginsburg, a resident of West Village, said the neighborhood knows MD well and cherishes him.

“I came upon him when he was sweeping the streets. He moves around and is always cleaning, if he’s not busy feeding pigeons around Joe’s Pizza,” located just south of the courts, Ginsburg said.

MD used to be remarkably well equipped when he was cleaning. “He was decked out to clean, with a leaf blower hanging over his shoulder, plastic bags on his back and broom in his hand,” Ginsburg said. But he hasn’t been using the larger equipment as much recently.

MD has told Ginsburg that his modus operandi is, “Keep it clean for the kids. I work for the kids,” Ginsburg said.

And he doesn’t do sidewalks, only curbs and the street. The reason for this is he doesn’t want to do restaurant sidewalks and get free meals. He wants to be paid. “He doesn’t want handouts. There is some pride there, I think,” Ginsburg said.

Although MD may appear slightly threadbare at first glance, he is razor sharp and focused on the job he has given himself. And he cares about appearance, Ginsburg stressed. One time she asked if he needed any clothes, to which he responded, “No, I need rubber gloves, masks, and deodorant.” But when Ginsburg asked him to go with her to a CVS, MD refused to step foot inside, seemingly feeling out of place, according to Ginsburg.

“People in the community can tell when someone is a hardcore and is involved in the neighborhood and when someone is a little off,” Ginsburg said. “MD is hardcore. He’s a treasure.”

Ginsburg continued, “People like MD are exactly the ones who should be given a minimum wage, decent housing, and receive assistance from the city.”

Dulac, who has known MD for six years and helps him as much as she can, once asked him how long he had been without long-term housing.

She remembers that he told her, “I’m not homeless, I’m a wanderer.”

Other neighbors were eager to share their stories about MD, this unknown neighborhood figure, who seems to be most at peace when he is cleaning.

Several residents knew MD and interacted with him regularly, supplying him with clothes and helping him store his equipment. Yet, they still knew very little about his past or present life.

Chase, a generous neighborhood resident, let MD live in his empty, rent-stabilized apartment for five years but ended up having to ask him to move out in October, because some neighbors complained about loud music and cleaning late at night. Chase was heartbroken and offered MD some money but he declined and walked out. Now, MD cleans during the day and spends his nights in the subway, avoiding homeless shelters, because he thinks they are riddled with violence and substance abuse.

Residents repeatedly described him as a selfless person, with a big heart, who’s deeply committed to giving back to the community.

The next time MD appeared at the courts, he wore a yellow construction vest, held a broom in his hand, and wore a large backpack on his back.

When asked how he was doing, MD stopped sweeping and looked up. “I’m alright. Just staying warm and trying to be everywhere where people need help.” MD said.

About the author(s)

Isak Hüllert, a native of Denmark, is a student at Columbia Journalism School hoping to specialize in political reporting and long-form writing.