The Legend

Where the games are good, everybody knows the story of Dwayne Rogers, and everybody wonders: Why is he still an amateur?

"Just imagine," he says, "me in Indonesia."
Anyone could see it was an absurd idea.

Action Box Company is a long, severe brick building with signs that say careless, drug-using employees are unwelcome, and the customer is always right.

After the Flights overwhelmed SRO Sports by 33 points, Dwayne arrived at the factory at 5:30 a.m. Lining the walls around him were stacks of cardboard 30 feet high. In front of him was the machine that cuts the cardboard lengthwise. His job requires him to carry the cardboard and set the blades, and some days, he and his partner cut 10,000 pieces, with a 15-minute break every three hours.

"But man, when I hit that clock," he says, "it's like a new life."
His time has been divided this way, between hard living and easy playing, for as long as he can remember. On the court, Dwayne runs and jumps and chatters with the energy of a child. Everywhere else, he appears sleepy and indifferent, as though he is waiting, sitting on the bench. He would seem morose in these periods, except for the fact of his smile.

"People ask me, 'Why you always be smiling?' " he says. "I'd rather be happy than sad, know what I'm saying? If something's wrong with me, you'll never know."

Dwayne grew up without a father, the sixth of seven children born to a housekeeper. Then and now, Trinity Gardens was the kind of neighborhood, his friend Anthony explains, "where people would jump you and take everything you had." From the age of about five, Dwayne began escaping to the basketball court.

The court had everything life did not: justice and recognition, grace and sudden joy. Dwayne lived there in the summers and after school. He learned to dribble and shoot and jump better than nearly everyone else. Eventually, he taught his moves to a whole community. The basketball he played was a matter of reacting, "like when a car gets in your way," he said, "and you do something to get out of the way." That was his game and how he lived his life.

The team at Francis Scott Key Junior High might have taught him something, if the school hadn't gotten in the way. Dwayne got Anthony to quit the band for the team, and they were going to do things for that school, they really were, until Dwayne was attacked by a vicious math teacher. Dwayne had always talked while she was talking, and she didn't like that. "Woman had problems, man," he still recalls. "It was her way or no way." Unable to accept that in a teacher, Dwayne was unable to play basketball for the school.

The lesson he learned was that school and basketball don't mix, that the one only ruins the other. At Kashmere High, when he showed up for tryouts, he was dumbfounded the first day when the coach told him to roll on the floor and to run just for the sake of running. Dwayne left and never returned, not even when the coach came to ask him.

The coach at Jefferson Davis High came, too. With no tryout at all, he offered Dwayne the starting guard position. Dwayne decided it was too far from home and friends, and he clung to what he knew.

The future yawned before Dwayne; he yawned back. High-school ball is the traditional route to college ball, which is the usual path to the NBA. Good as he was, Dwayne had never considered the NBA, and he had no need for college. The plan for his life was simply to do as his mother and brothers had done -- "just get me a job and work, try to make it."

His friends were abusing substances of all kinds, but without any desire to alter his life, Dwayne was also bored by drugs. ("Keep me a natural high," he says.) Basketball was the single thing that moved him. He was a playground player born and bred, and he and Anthony roamed together. At five feet seven inches tall, Anthony was quicker than most, and he could dunk "any way you wanted." Dwayne wasn't much taller and had been slamming since he was 14. He was an artist of improv -- unerring, powerful and fast. Anthony called him "So Smooth" for the way he played, and for his own nickname, after his hero George Gervin, Anthony called himself "Ice."

They played two-on-two for money in the Trinity Gardens Park. It began when they declined a game against two much taller strangers and were asked, why -- were they scared? Smooth and Ice began hanging from the rims after that, and three games later, one of the players was telling a bystander, "Man, these two little dudes just whipped us for $100."

"Man," said the spectator, laughing, "Dwayne's about the best around."
They never won that much again, because word traveled. When they heard about a park in the Fifth Ward where people were playing one-on-one for $500 a game, they went there, bluffing the money, sure that Dwayne could not be beaten. Everyone believed it; no one would try.

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