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Staying in the game

Wight Martindale Jr. '60 has been a regular at the Cage at West 4th Street for 20 years. Photo by Nick Ruechel.

As a regular visitor to the legendary West 4th Street basketball court in Greenwich Village for the past two decades, Wight Martindale Jr. '60 has learned that stepping on the court while a hotly contested game is in progress is the hoops equivalent of stepping off a curb in mid-town Manhattan without looking both ways first.

The court at West 4th Street is affectionately called the Cage because of its compact size. A regulation NBA or college basketball court is 94 feet by 50 feet, while the West 4th Street court is 66 feet by 45 feet, offers no seats, and has sidelines bounded by a chain-link fence. Put 10 players and a couple of refs in these already cramped quarters and there's simply no room for anyone else -- a lesson that Martindale learned 20 years ago.

Back in 1985, Martindale was working as an institutional bond salesman for Lehman Brothers on Wall Street. So he showed up one sweltering July afternoon in full business attire (suit, tie, white shirt, Oxford wing tips -- the works) at the Cage, a place that has a nickname itself and where seemingly everyone associated with it has one, too.

It didn't take long for Martindale to earn his nickname. During his maiden voyage to the Cage, Martindale stepped onto the court accidentally a couple of times. Kenny Graham, the director of the West 4th Street Pro-Am Classic, was announcing the game through a megaphone, and quickly let him know the ground rules by saying: "Hey suit, get back off the court." The fans cackled and Martindale was known from then on at the Cage as "Suit."

Over the years, "Suit" became a fixture at the Cage, mesmerized by the level of play there (the court has hosted such standouts as 1970s playground legend Fly Williams, NBA tough guy Anthony Mason, and current Los Angeles Lakers guard William "Smush" Parker) and fascinated by the cast of characters he's met. The Wall Street moneyman even became a director of the tournament, helping to raise funds to keep it going.

Martindale has now been around the Cage so long, he's acquired a second nickname: "Golden Pond." (At 67, he bears a slight resemblance to Henry Fonda, who starred in the screen version of On Golden Pond.) The insights about basketball and street life that he's gained over the past two decades at the Cage can be found in his critically acclaimed first book, Inside the Cage: A Season at West 4th Street's Legendary Tournament. The book, released by Simon Spotlight Entertainment, a division of New York publishing powerhouse Simon & Schuster, chronicles the 2002 season of the West 4th Street Pro-Am Classic, a summer league that draws African-American players from Harlem, the Bronx, and Brooklyn to a Greenwich Village neighborhood where fewer than 10 percent of the residents are African-American.

Click on the book cover to read an excerpt.

Sports Illustrated called the book one of the five must-read sports books of this past summer. Former U.S. Senator and New York Knicks star Bill Bradley, who now hosts a radio show on Sirius Satellite Radio, gushed about Martindale's work when he interviewed him.

Peter Gent, author of North Dallas Forty and a former All-American basketball player at Michigan State University, said of the book: "It has the ring of authenticity and the stamp of authority."

But the praise that means the most to Martindale comes from fellow Cage enthusiasts. "One guy who hangs out at the Cage told me that he only reads the comics, but that he read my book in two nights," Martindale says. "That means a lot to me."

Kevin Dunleavy, a former Cage player himself and the brother of former NBA player and current professional coach Mike Dunleavy, called Martindale from his high-powered job at Merrill Lynch in New York to rave about the book.

"I'll never forget Kevin's call. He said: 'Wighty, I've got to tell you, I'm almost in tears over this book. I enjoyed it so much. I remember all of those guys. It brought back memories that meant a lot to me. It's a wonderful job. I'm glad you did it.'"

So is Martindale. The entire project took five years -- two years to write the book, two years hustling to self-publish it before selling it to Simon & Schuster, and an additional 12 months to clean up the final version. For Martindale, it was a labor of love. Inside the Cage can be found in the sports section of most major bookstores, alongside the growing number of nostalgia books about deceased sports icons such as Wilt Chamberlain, Mickey Mantle, and Vince Lombardi.

Complex Man, Complex Book

Martindale argues that the culture at the Cage has gotten better as the culture in the NBA has gotten worse. Photo by Nick Ruechel.

But like the man who wrote it, the book is much more complex than most sports fare these days, tackling meaty issues such as popular misconceptions about inner-city black males and the importance of play in society, as well as giving readers great insight into the men on and off the court and the neighborhoods they come from.

"White America has such a cliched and, I think, bad view of black males," Martindale says. "But, the dirty little secret that I learned from spending 20 summers at the Cage is that African-American males have the same aspirations as the rest of America ... They want to make a good living, they want to take care of their families, they want their kids to be educated, they want to pay their bills on time."

Another primary theme of Martindale's book is that the Cage stands as a beacon of hope compared to the National Basketball Association, which he contends has declined culturally over the past 10 years with a player (Latrell Sprewell) trying to choke his then-coach (P.J. Carlesimo); with guys making as much as $15 million a year complaining about not making enough to provide for their families; with the give-me-the-ball, give-me-the-ball attitude of many of the game's stars; and with the total disregard many NBA stars exhibit toward behaving the right way in their private lives.

"As the NBA culture has gotten worse and worse, the culture of inner-city playgrounds has gotten better and better," Martindale asserts. "In the late 1980s and early '90s, you could not walk into Brownsville. Don't go there during the day. Don't go there at night. Same with Bedford-Stuyvesant right nearby. About 40 percent of the residents are still on public assistance, but the residents are cleaning up the neighborhoods themselves and a guy like Greg Jackson, a former pro player with the New York Knicks and Phoenix Suns, is running the Brownsville Recreation Center.

"[Brownsville native] Mike Tyson gets 20 times as much publicity, but Greg Jackson is much more important to the future of Brownsville. Over one-third of the population in Brownsville is under 18 years old, and Greg runs the re most generous donors the school has ever known.

Harry and Elizabeth Fairchild Martindale funded endeavors including the E.W. Fairchild Chair in American Studies, named in memory of Mrs. Martindale's father; the E.W. Fairchild Visiting Writer; the E.W. Fairchild Fellowship in American Literature; and the E.W. Fairchild Library Fund. In 1980, in the College of Business and Economics, they funded the Fairchild-Martindale Center for the Study of Private Enterprise and spearheaded the establishment of the Wight Martindale Sr. Memorial Scholarship.

"My uncle and his wife, Elizabeth, whose family started Fairchild Publications and were quite successful, sat down and made the decision to give away all the money that didn't need to be passed down to family to various places," says Martindale on a recent visit to campus, looking up at the portrait of his late aunt and uncle that hangs in the E.W. Fairchild-Martindale Library and Computing Center.

"And they decided to give a great deal of that money to a place that meant a lot to our family, Lehigh University. My father and uncle were fraternity brothers here back in the late 1920s. I went here. My son, Wight, was an English major here and now works at Deutsche Bank. He married Betsy Manning, also a Lehigh graduate. So, the family connection to this university is great."

Then Martindale's nimble mind begins to race and a smile breaks over his face. "Me? I made a good living, but I don't have a library [donation] in me," he quips. "So I'm giving this university, a place that I care a great deal about, the best thing that I can and that's content.

"Giving kids great content and challenging them to reach to learn is something that every university can use. It was nice of Lehigh to invite me back here to teach and I'm going to give them everything that I've got when I'm in the classroom."

--Bill Doherty

Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Fall 2005

Posted on Friday, October 14, 2005

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