Rucker Park

Sign for Rucker Park at 155th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Harlem

The City of New York and the game of basketball are inextricably linked. No other sport and city in America can be so closely tied together, so inseparable. NYC contains the mecca of basketball, Madison Square Garden, has two NBA franchises (Nets and Knicks) and its high schools have produced many of the games’ greatest players (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob Cousy, Julius Erving, to name a few). But nearly every basketball legend in New York would agree that the City’s real basketball mecca is Rucker Park. To the New Yorker untrained in the basketball lexicon, the court at the corner of 155th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard at the outer border of Harlem looks like another basketball court and park in a city filled with them. But since 1954, Rucker Park has become a basketball proving ground where NBA superstars and local playground legends alike compete for bragging rights and the respect of the masses that gather at the asphalt cathedral.

Before it became the setting where Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and Allen Iverson made jaws drop with their exploits, the Rucker Tournament and Rucker Park itself started with humble beginnings. In Pete Axthelm’s book The City Game, the Rucker Tournament was “Established in 1946 by a remarkable young teacher named Holcombe Rucker.”[1] Rucker was a native son of Harlem who served in World War II and upon his return, founded the basketball league to give back to his community. [2] Axthelm states the league was “originally intended mainly to keep kids off the streets and in school by encouraging them in both studies and basketball. Rucker’s idea was to give dignity and meaning to pick up games by adding referees, local publicity, and larger audiences.”[3] What started out as local gatherings of neighborhood ballplayers in Harlem grew exponentially to a level Rucker never would have dreamed of. The tournament took place on various courts in Harlem but moved to the playground on 155th Street after 1954, when the tournament opened up to college and NBA players. [4]

According to freelance journalist Russ Bengtson’s article “A History of Rucker Park: The True Mecca of Basketball,” even in its early days in the 1960s Rucker “represented a platform for players not only from New York City, but from the tri-state area and beyond, to flex their blacktop skills.” [5] Wilt Chamberlain was the first household name to play at Rucker, but Wilt and other established NBA stars quickly learned that a trip to Rucker and the crucible that is New York City was no walk in the park. Legendary streetballers arose in the 1960s due to their dominance against NBA all-stars. Chamberlain was “repeatedly challenged by ‘Jumpin’ Jackie Jackson’, a 6’2” inch guard who could snatch quarters from the top of backboards, dunk with the best of them, and pin Wilt’s shot to the backboard.”[6] The fact that none of these exploits are filmed make them all the more mystical in the eyes of ardent hoops fans; like tales of a loch ness monster or bigfoot.

The tales of streetball legends who played at Rucker are made all the more legendary by the fact that they didn’t go pro and fell prey to the streets of New York City. The most prolific of these stars is Earl Manigault, also known as “The Goat.” According to Bengtson, Manigault was “master of the double dunk, where he dunked a ball with his right hand, caught it with his left, and dunked it again.”[7] Axthelm says of Manigault, “He was a six-foot-two-inch forward who could outleap men eight inches taller, and his moves had a boldness and fluidity that transfixed opponents and spectators alike. Freewheeling, unbelievably high jumping, and innovative, he was the image of the classic playground athlete.”[8] But despite the greatness he exhibited at the Rucker, “The Goat” ultimately ended up as a sad case and a cautionary tale. He became addicted to drugs, struggled to get clean, broke into a store in an attempt to get money to feed his habit, and served time in prison. [9]The man many say is the greatest player to ever play at Rucker Park never played college or professional basketball. [10]

During the 1960s, one of basketball’s most towering figures, literally (due to his seven-foot frame) and figuratively, Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) played at Rucker during his high school days at Power Memorial in Manhattan.[11] Connie Hawkins, “The Hawk,” was a fitting adversary to Manigault and Alcindor throughout the 1960s at Rucker. Hawkins’ story had elements of both The Goat and Kareem’s careers. He was a high school star at Boys High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, took his talents to the University of Iowa but was kicked off the team due to a gambling scandal, and spent most of the 1960s playing in fledgling basketball leagues like the ABA and on playground courts.[12] The Hawk’s career path differs from The Goat’s in that his NBA chance came in 1969 when the Phoenix Suns signed him and he played for seven years as a pro, making four all star teams in the 1970s. [13] But he and the goat are equals in terms of their folk hero status at the Rucker. In an anecdote recited to him by Pat Smith, a former Marquette hoops star and Harlem native, Axthelm describes the Hawk’s greatest Rucker exploit, a dunk on NBA legend Wilt Chamberlain. [14] “He (Hawkins) got the ball, picked up speed, and started his first move. Chamberlain came right out to stop him. The Hawk went up-he was still way out beyond the foul line-and started floating toward the basket. Wilt, taller and stronger, stayed right with him-but then The Hawk hook-dunked the ball right over Chamberlain… Nobody had ever done anything like that to Wilt. The crowd went so crazy that they had to stop the game for five minutes.”[15]

Seton Hall sociology professor Robert Podhurst, a former basketball player who played at Rucker described another memorable Hawkins exploit he witnessed. “Tom Sanders (who played for the legendary Celtics teams of the 1960s) is guarding Connie Hawkins who dribbles up the court on a semi fast break-stops his dribble above the foul line; he palms a fake dribble and passes the ball between Sanders’ legs to a teammate (who played for the Harlem Globetrotters) who in one motion caught the pass, went up and had both elbows above the rim when he dunked.” [16] Podhurst also described the crowds at Rucker in its 1960s and 1970s heyday. “Hundreds of spectators managed to cram themselves into bleacher type seats; a greater number of spectators pressed up against a fence that surrounded the court. Adventurous youth climbed a few trees and saw the games from their elevated perches.” [17]

The next superstar to grace the Rucker was Julius Erving, known as Dr. J despite not obtaining an M.D. or a P.H.D. Erving grew up in Roosevelt, a small majority black hamlet in Nassau County, but made a name for himself at Rucker. He had “a huge afro and even bigger hops” and “kids climbed trees and sat at the tops of fences” to watch him play against Joe “The Destroyer” Hammond, another Rucker legend who never made it out of the streets. [18] Erving, known for his prolific NBA career with the Philadelphia 76ers, cites the Rucker as a crucial time period in his basketball development. “It’s a time in my life that is near and dear to me… I didn’t know a lot of things, but being able to play in the summers up there was a great journey of confidence-building,”[19] Erving said in Asphalt Gods: An Oral History of The Rucker Tournament. Dr. J added that “For me, it was an empowering experience (playing at Rucker). I loved coming back to the park summer after summer.”[20]

Additionally, many members of the dynastic Knicks at the time played at Rucker, including Walt “Clyde” Frazier and Earl “The Pearl” Monroe. [21] The park experienced some lean years in the late 70s and 80s but became revitalized when it became the home of the Entertainers Basketball Classic in 1987, a fusion of rap and basketball. [22] Malloy Nesmith also known as “The Future” was the next cult hero at Rucker in the late 80s. According to God Shammgod, the man with perhaps the hardest first name to live up to in the world, who would become a Rucker star himself in the late 90s, describes the exploits of “Future” to Bengtson.[23] “He just stood there and did a split, but not touching the ground… I thought it was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” [24]

In the 1990s, Rucker Park took on another dimension, as rappers like Fat Joe and Sean Combs, better known as Diddy, fielded summer league squads at the Park and recruited the city and the NBA’s best to be on their teams.[25] Shammgod, Rafer Alston “Skip to My Lou,” Stephon Marbury, Kareem Reid, and Allen Iverson emerged as the park’s superior players in the 1990s. [26]Marbury, who starred at Lincoln High School in Coney Island, Brooklyn, played in the backcourt with Iverson, a Virginia native, at Rucker on Fat Joe’s team.[27] Both Iverson and Marbury went on to long NBA careers and many consider Iverson one of the best guards in league history. Kareem Reid, a star at St Raymond High School for Boys in the Bronx scored 50 on “The Future” to establish his Rucker legacy but only had minor success in college and pro ball.[28] Shammgod’s crossover move he pulled off at Rucker has been imitated by numerous current NBA players. [29]  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NBBLlliUBl0&feature=youtu.be&t=19 (Shammgod Crossover Vid)

What perhaps was Rucker’s zenith came in 2003, ironically with a game that never took place due to a blackout that hit the city. [30] Fat Joe and fellow rapper Jay-Z recruited copious amounts of NBA talent to face off against each other at Rucker; Lebron James and Shaquille O’Neal were on Jay-Z’s team and Marbury and Iverson formed a dynamic backcourt on Fat Joe’s team. [31] Since the fateful blackout game, the Rucker’s light has never dulled. The late Kobe Bryant paid Rucker a visit, Kevin Durant scored 66 points in one game in 2011, and a new crop of generation Z stars called “Jelly Fam” (Isaiah Washington, former Seton Hall guard Jordan Walker, Hackensack NJ’s Jahvon Quinerly) has kept the buzz around the Rucker to this day. [32] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBsLxqH-0bQ (Kevin Durant at Rucker vid)

The importance of Rucker Park goes beyond just basketball and intertwines with historical context of the experience of black New Yorkers. Rucker Park is located in a neighborhood (Harlem) that has long been an African American cultural hub in New York as well as the flashpoint for multiple race riots that elucidated the simmering discontent of black New Yorkers tired of being treated as second class citizens. The game of basketball and the summer league represent a beacon of hope and neighborhood pride for Harlemites, who can proudly say that hoops talents from all over the country (and world) come to their neighborhood to prove their worth on the court. The tales of dreams dashed are also a microcosm of many in underprivileged neighborhoods not just in New York but across America. The stories of “The Goat” and other talents devoured by the streets are a tale often told and one echoed in the Chicago basketball documentary Hoop Dreams. The history of Rucker Park is not only one of colorful basketball exploits, of spectators in trees, of hype crowds, it is also an important study in the experience of black New Yorkers and those across America who fall victim to their inner city surroundings.

 

Relatively sedate in this photo, the basketball court at Rucker Park comes alive on summer nights and has seen some of the NBA’s biggest stars past and present (Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Julius Erving) play on it.

 

[1] Axthelm, Pete. The City Game: Basketball from the Garden to the Playgrounds. (Lincoln, N.E.: Bison Books, 1999), 5.

[2] Washington, Jesse. “Holcombe Rucker for The Basketball Hall of Fame.” espn.com

[3] Axthelm, 5.

[4] Axthelm, 5,6.

[5] Bengtson, Russ. “A History of Rucker Park: The True Mecca of Basketball.” complex.com

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Axthelm, 138.

[9] Axthelm, 141-142.

[10]Axthelm, 138-140.

[11] Bengtson, Russ. “A History of Rucker Park: The True Mecca of Basketball.” complex.com.

[12] Axthelm, 6.

[13] Axthelm, 6-7.

[14] Axthelm, 7

[15] Ibid.

[16] Robert Podhurst, interview by author, via email, April 26, 2020.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Bengtson, Russ. “A History of Rucker Park: The True Mecca of Basketball.” complex.com

[19] Mallozzi, Vincent. Asphalt Gods: An Oral History of The Rucker Tournament. (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 132.

[20] Mallozzi, 133.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid. (Bengtson)

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