Men Behaving Badly

Things are getting hairy at Basketball City. It's a recent playoff game in one of Manhattan's most popular corporate basketball leagues, and the elbows are flying. These bankers and traders, lawyers and brokers, are black and blue, many sporting "Rocky cuts" under their eyes. And now, after being smashed on the chin on a rebound, a man runs to the sideline in a rage, picks up a metal chair and chases his opponent around the court. He hurls the chair, but misses. On a bad night, not even the free throws--of furniture--find their target. He is ejected from the game--and the arena. Says his team's captain with a sigh: "I guess the heat got to him."

Welcome to New York City's white-collar roundball leagues, where staid businessmen hone their jump shots and discover their inner beasts. Bill Bradley as role model? More like Attila the Hun. You think Wall Streeters are aggressive by day? When they take off the pinstripes and put on the sweats at night, you'd think they were members of the World Wrestling Federation. The competitive spirit of the trading floors and courtrooms clearly spills over to these parquet courts. And so does some of the excess. That big fella over there doesn't look like he does debentures for a living? Actually, he's just a ringer.

And then there's the legend of Al Palagonia, once dubbed "the best salesman on Wall Street." Playing for Al's Team Palagonia meant perks galore. After games, the former broker for D.H. Blair treated players to dinners at the best steakhouses. But Al's team crossed the line. Last year a melee broke out during play. Benches cleared and someone punched the "commissioner" in the head. The police were called. Palagonia's team was banned from the league for life.

To be sure, not all the games are blood sport. Most are a chance to swap business cards and get a workout. Hundreds of teams from Wall Street firms like Goldman, Sachs and Merrill Lynch pay about $1,500 a season to enter teams. In the winter season alone, there are more than 500 teams. Winning means boosting not just an ego, but perhaps a career. "You get some recognition from the company," says Jermaine Sams, who works for an ad agency. You'd have thought recognition came from revenue and clients--but such is the hold that sports can have. It also explains the popularity of fleet-footed ringers. Seth Akabas--founding partner of one of the Lawyers Basketball League's best teams, Akabas & Cohen--admits he's the only player who works at his firm. The rules vary by professional league. You don't need a law degree, for example, to play in the lawyers league. But most players have to be involved in the legal profession, and all must be college grads. Other leagues have equally specific rules.

Firms are especially fond of scouring the support staff. Whenever his law firm hired a tall paralegal, says Cliff Chenfeld, who used to practice at Sullivan & Cromwell, "there was a palpable buzz in the office." Chenfeld says that in his playing days the firm would send a limo to pick him up for games. He didn't think the firm bigwigs knew, but "I guess the guys on the basketball team could do whatever they wanted." Then one day the cars stopped. "I got too old," he jokes.

Some lawyers, being lawyers, are less good humored than Chenfeld. Even the precise rules spelling out who is eligible don't prevent all kinds of challenges. Some players have filed thick briefs to league officials. Reads one: "Under information and belief, the petitioner asserts that the player in question has been periodically seen delivering packages by bicycle on Sixth Avenue. It is petitioner's contention that such activity does not constitute 'substantive legal work'." Lawyers--go figure.

Men Behaving Badly | News