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Playground legends are legends for a number of reasons.
Here are a few.

by Lut Williams

I was stunned the other day on a trip to my hometown of Danville, Virginia to learn of the death of one James Orlando “Shag” Barksdale. An old friend told me of his passing.

“Shag” was, among other things, what we call in the ‘hood, “a playground legend.” In our youth, we used to claim Shag had the “keys” to the playground. That means whenever we showed up to shoot hoops at the Westmoreland playground, Shag was usually
already there. He seemed to come alive when we showed up.

For those who spent countless hours on that playground honing their games, many times in sweltering summer heat, drenched in street clothes from playing halfcourt one-on-ones, two-ontwos, three-on-threes, H-O-R-S-E and sometimes full-court games, Shag was the man. He kind of taught us the game.

He challenged and drove us to play better, learn the nuances of the game. He helped teach what it means to be selfless on the court – that basketball is a team game.hoops

He was the glad giver in the give-and-go, the tough rebounder and fighter in the trenches, the one who’d hit the tough shot with the game on the line. And he and we celebrated our playground conquests with vigor.

He was a point guard when he wanted and we needed him to be, a knock down shooter who seemed to never miss the big shot but would hustle and get you another possession when he sometimes did. He could guard and jostle with the biggest guy on the other team and frustrate him to death. He rebounded in traffic, took and exchanged elbows with whomever.

Did I mention that he had a funny, ‘flicted (that’s short for afflicted), two-handed shot, a cross between a push and a throw, that went in. And he was five-foot, eight. He burned with a competitive fire quite typical of playground hoops in the South. It was win or go home. Win or shut up. Win or take your humble seat on the sideline. And then shut up.

Probably what I liked most about Shag was how he made me and others feel. He’d call me ‘Walt’ or ‘Clyde’ as I tried to emulate the legendary Walt “Clyde” Frazier of the New York Knicks after watching the Knicks on Sunday’s telecasts of NBA games on ABC.
He gave Bay-Bay, our Howard Graves, the nickname ‘Baylor’ for his abilty to hang in the air and score like NBA legend Elgin Baylor. ‘Nudy,’ our Eugene Jackson, would be dubbed “Pearl” or “Pistol” for his ability to spin and twirl like Earl “The Pearl” Monroe or do
seeming tricks with the ball like “Pistol” Pete Maravich. We were budding NBA stars, right there in little old Danville, because of guys like Shag.

While I’ve always known that Shag was quite older than me, I never really knew how old he was, or his real name until I read his obituary. From most of what I know, Shag may have dropped out of high school. Why, I don’t really know. Like many playground
legends, he never made the high school team. We’d often ask, after witnessing some aspect of his playground wizardry, how come?
And we’d ask again just how old he was and how with such refined skils and love for the game could he have been kept off our high school team.

And he seemingly never answered.

What was so stunning in hearing of his death is that I never really got a chance, at now 61 years old, to thank him and let him know what he meant to me, and how much I and others appreciated those special moments on Westmoreland’s playground. When I
heard of his passing, I wanted to rush to the funeral home to pay my respects to his family and say a final heartfelt goodbye. Below, in some of his obituary, you’ll see why I couldn’t. But I am one of those friends mentioned.

Shag was like an older brother who takes you under his wing and shows you the way. Losing Shag was like losing one of your best friends.

So, here’s to all the Shags in the world. There’s probably at least one in every town.
If you played sandlot basketball, I’m pretty sure you’ve got yours.

Shag is ours.

James Orlando “Shag” Barksdale, 69, of 704 Berryman Avenue died Sunday, October 4, 2015 at Carilion Roanoke Hospital in Roanoke, VA. Born July 15, 1946, in Danville, VA he was the son of the late Rev. James B. Barksdale and the late Nettie Howerton Barksdale.

The family will receive friends at the residence of 128 Summit Road, Danville, VA.

A private memorial service will be held at a later date.

 

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