“The first game you got in on this court right here and played like a bum, you was a bum.” – Richard ‘Pee-Wee’ Kirkland, from NBATV’s The Doctor
From its humble beginnings as a playground for New York City’s P.S. 156, Holcombe Rucker Park has become the singular epicenter of layman basketball, particularly streetball and its derivatives, as well as a proving ground for rising stars and established legends alike. Located at the corner of 155th St. and 3rd Ave. in East Harlem, Rucker Park grew from one man’s vision of getting kids off the streets when it was opened on February 23, 1956. When Holcombe Rucker established a basketball league for the neighborhood children when he worked as a playground director in the Parks & Recreation Department for the city, he could not have anticipated the symbolism which the park attached to it would eventually carry. Perhaps no single place on earth is more closely identified with a sport than Rucker Park is with basketball, and for good reason. The people there are more passionate about basketball than most political revolutionaries, and without the unnecessary violence. Mostly.
Rucker Park breeds the kinds of tall tales and blacktop fables people hear about from the first time they pick up basketballs. Dr. J isn’t Dr. J without his legendary antics at the Rucker. Everyone wants to go to Harlem, show up the local boys and have people screaming from the surrounding rooftops at a barrage of showstopping slam dunks and pull-up jumpers from half-court. While anyone can theoretically play on the hallowed ground, only the chosen few step up to showcase their skills. Failure at the Rucker is never an option, and excessive style in crossovers and finishing at the basket allows players to graduate from the Rucker magna cum laude.
When I was afforded the opportunity to go to the holy land for a set of two Entertainer’s Basketball Classic games one night in August, I could not refuse. Via Twitter, the all-powerful communicator of truths, lies, rumors and everything in between, I had seen that the night would potentially be something special. Very early rumblings indicated that Kevin Durant, who had famously put up 66 points in his last appearance at the Rucker, may be in attendance with his former Oklahoma City Thunder running mate James Harden. It would be an injustice to myself and to my love of the game of basketball. I rounded up one of my friends, Connor, and headed for the D train, which would drop us off right across the street from the most famous park in basketball.
Rucker Park’s security has become increasingly stringent, with pat-downs and bag searches making a the entrance to a celebrity basketball tournament feel like a trip to LaGuardia. After thoroughly uncomfortable (but perhaps entirely necessary) searches, Connor and I made our way into the park, where a group of fans had already assembled in preparation for the games that night, which would start around 7. While talk of a James Harden appearance floundered, continued rumors of Kevin Durant fueled the slow burning fire in the stands, even as several sets of 1-on-1 games acted out by generally unqualified pedestrians played out before us. A man in a Ruben Diaz Jr. shirt (BRONX REPRESENT!) spun basketballs simultaneously on his finger and on the top of a flagpole. One of the announcers at Rucker Park, Hannibal – Da Most Electrifying, did manage to liven the festivities up early by bestowing nicknames on the participants, a Harlem tradition. In doing so, a balding white man from Canada became simply “Toronto,” while a teenager, probably from the suburbs, became “Slippers” because he was wearing flip-flops.
When Slippers beat Toronto in a painfully lengthy 2-1 game, Hannibal made an appeal to the crowd: “We need a ball player from Harlem.” What he got was a kid from Chicago, who beat Slippers, and then two very young kids from Harlem (When asked where in Harlem, one of them said, “Right across the street” and pointed to the apartment complex opposite the courts) who played the most inspired of the 1-on-1 games.
Finally, the EBC games began, carrying with it the tagline, “Got game, earn a name.” By this point, the stands were full, and the hype was reaching a tipping point. In the first game, Sean Bell Allstars played against Black Ink, but no stars were to be found in either team. Rumors of an R. Kelly appearance added anticipation, already piquing due to continued KD speculation. The first game provided a snapshot of what makes Rucker Park an incredible basketball experience. The teams featured players with exceptional handles who played just as much for crowd adulation as for their own competitive spirits. The tallest player on the court earned the nickname “Tip-Toe” for his lack of acceleration in any direction, but his knack for rebounding and shot-blocking ability turned him into an almost cult hero for the fans. By the second half, every time he touched the ball, Tip-Toe was greeted with chants of his nickname and shouts beckoning him to slam dunk. We watched Tip-Toe make a layup and attribute it to solid, fundamental basketball until we realized he posted up from just inside the three-point line. His wingspan stretched for days, and his enthusiasm for defensive schemes and aggressive work around the rim on both ends more than made up for his immobility.
With several rough plays throughout both games, and there were many, calls for referee interference were usually met with a humorously mortifying mantra from Hannibal or his verbal partner, The Mayor: “No harm, no foul, no blood…no whistle.” In response to a horribly inaccurate jump shot, the Mayor creatively taunted a Sean Bell guard: “Uh-oh, jump shot, oxygen ball!” A shot which slapped the backboard and rolled around the rim before falling out of the basket caused Hannibal to reprimand the attempt, dropping any hint of subtlety: “Ooh, in and out, just like a relationship!”
When the Mayor confirmed R. Kelly’s eventual appearance a little before halftime, Hannibal laid down the ground rules. “Ladies, you’ll be screaming,” he said, “And if any of you fellas scream, I’m gonna punch you in the mouth.” After much delay, a green jumpsuit-clad Kelly walked into the park with his posse in tow just as Fat Joe sauntered in on the opposite side. They exchanged pleasantries and posed for pictures at center court during halftime, even putting off the start of the second half. Sitting behind Black Ink’s bench, we could hear the displeasure of many players in the proceedings, as they just wanted to play basketball. Surely, the people wanted to see it.
Much to the chagrin of Tip-Toe, Black Ink fell to the then-undefeated Sean Bell Allstars by a count of 90-70, as a monstrous second half from Tip-Toe’s counterpart, a player who had not yet earned a nickname and went only by Kyle, led a charge with several key defensive stops and transition points. By the end of the game, Kyle’s cult following had grown to an equally impressive stature, and his reserved manner on the court only drove spectators more frenzied with admiration. Trinidad Jame$ even showed up, unheralded but to great applause. And still, rumors of Kevin Durant flowed.
As we waited, I could feel my legs shaking. The weight of my Steve Novak Knicks t-shirt (as if I could make myself any more apparent) pinned me to my tremendously inadequate concrete seat, and Connor and I discussed the possibilities of what lay before us. It looked less likely with every minute that ticked off the clock, but if Kevin Durant showed up, this night would join the impressive lexicon of Rucker Park folklore. Maybe he would drop 66 again. Maybe more. Hell, even one half of KD basketball is better than two halves of (almost?) anyone else on the planet.
The announcers continued to generate hype, but they never got it to a point at which the people would be disappointed. For all the incredible events that happen at Rucker Park on a seemingly nightly basis, it seems like the people simply come out for good basketball. Skill in the game they love trumps all, no matter how famous or renowned a player is. The people of Rucker Park love to see a Harlem player go 10-22 with 5 rebounds and no assists just as much as they love an NBA player taking his apple from the Tree of Basketball. Unconditional love of the game, regardless of everything else, is what matters most at Rucker Park.
When former New York Knick and current Golden State Warrior David Lee walked onto the court, accompanied by twenty of his closest friends as well as his celebratory teammate Kent Bazemore, the crowd went wild. In lieu of Kevin Durant, these guys would have to do. Donning the uniforms of Hillsong, who would play the late game against a team called Posse, Lee (“Double-Double”) and Bazemore (“BAAAAAAAAAAAZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZEEEEE”) ignited the crowd with incredible alley-oops and jump shots from neighboring postal codes during warm-ups.
It continued into the game, which started slowly but ruptured into a scoring bonanza just before halftime. Bazemore and Lee together combined for upwards of ten alley-oops, justifying the spotlight stolen from Hillsong regulars. The game became a formality; it turned into a platform for the professionals to show just how much higher the professional standard of play is, even with officiating which accommodates the freewheeling, punishing streetball style. Lee’s high-flying antics and Bazemore’s exceptionally easy drives made it apparent that, although Rucker Park is still a test, the NBA preserves the highest forms of basketball.
As we walked out of Holcombe Rucker Park, perfectly satisfied in the blacktop displays we had just seen but still slightly wistful without Kevin Durant, a man did pull-ups on a crossing signal as Connor and I reflected on how the night went. We saw people of varying age try each other. We saw announcers grant coveted monikers to players who would never be anything else to the subjects of a righteous and pure kingdom. Above all, we saw good basketball on a warm summer night at Rucker Park. And really, who could ask for anything more?