A Street Basketball Mecca Gets a Face-Lift

As a child, Michelle Roberts occasionally found herself at Holcombe Rucker Park when her older brother, who was supposed to raise her at home in the South Bronx, would take her to Harlem instead.

Roberts could not see over the heads of those who held the side of the park side by side. But she was buoyed by the excitement and energy from the crowd, the belly laughter, the lunging scream at what was then a big block party on West 155th Street and what was then known as Eighth Avenue, eternal as basketball. soundtrack.

“If you probably grew up in New York, but certainly in the ’60s and ’70s when I grew up, you couldn’t help but understand what Rucker meant by New York basketball,” Roberts, 63, now executive director of the NBA players’ union.

Over the generations, Asphalt Court has built its reputation as a mermaid calling and name-making mecca for soon-to-be NBA legends such as Wilt Chamberlain, Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Julius Irving. respected, who went by the surname. Paw in the Park Dr. Long before they became known as Jay, they mixed with playground legends whose colorful nicknames matched their outdoor games: Earl “The Goat” Manigault, Herman “The Helicopter” Knowings, “Jumpin’ Jackie Jackson and PV Kirkland.

“If you’re a hopper, your dream was to play in that park,” said Corey Williams, who goes by the nickname Homicide and turned his impressive performances at Rucker and other playgrounds into a long international professional career. “Everybody wanted it.”

Roberts visited Rucker Park after moving back to New York, when she became executive director of the players’ union in 2014.

She wondered if her memories had tricked her into nostalgia of sunshine. Rucker Park, in his estimation, looked dilapidated, with the blacktop cracked and uneven and the bleachers disorganized.

“The notion that the park will be in any kind of predicament is a heartbreak to me,” she said.

When Roberts asked members of the players’ union executive committee if they were interested in renovating the Greg Marius Court at Rucker Park, the players asked how soon they could start.

In August, the players’ union announced that it had joined with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department to give the court a major face-lift, which would cost $520,000 and for Rucker Park and nearby Jackie Robinson. An entertainment situation will be created. entertainment center.

Crews worked the court in August, leveling the asphalt and installing black bleachers, a state-of-the-art scoreboard and NBA custom baskets donated by Spalding. The new black-and-gold court features a mural designed by an artist and Harlem native ASAP Ferg, and produced by set Frey Richardson, an artist and filmmaker.

Courts formally reopened on Saturday with ribbon-cutting ceremonies, youth basketball clinics and games. Williams, now a commentator for the Australian National Basketball League, served as MC for the reopening, which was attended by Irving, Kirkland, Nate Archibald and many others who had built their reputations on the court.

“It’s something that needs to be protected,” Williams said. “You treat Rucker Park the same way you treat Central Park, the Empire State Building, Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty. Red tour buses come to Harlem and go to that park. It’s iconic. It’s New York. A landmark in the city. It’s a staple. That’s the Madison Square Garden of street basketball courts in the world.”

The goal of the players’ union is to restore the park as community property and to attract NBA players.

not so long ago, players like Kobe Bryant, Alan Iverson and Vince Carter made the pilgrimage to West 155th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard in a courthouse that is small in area but large in cultural and historical importance.

“It has paved the way for so many people,” Williams said. “It’s got people out of trouble. Crime is closed in that area for four hours a day, four days a week. It’s no secret that it’s one of the most dangerous housing projects in New York City, the Polo Grounds. But when they get to play were staying, then everyone stopped. ”

Roberts said the renovation would also expand the legacy of those who brought fame to the park and court.

“Basketball players, kids who want to be in the NBA or just love the sport who can live around the park and not fully appreciate its history, and if so, we hope That this project will revive history,” she said. “We are telling history.”

holcombe rucker, a playground director, founded a youth basketball league and summer tournament nearly 70 years ago to keep children away from temptation, while others warned them to disregard a game designed for winter.

Rucker mentors the kids, building a schedule from the start, always keeping their busy schedule in their pocket. As his tournament grew in popularity and the Rucker League transformed into a Summer Pro-Am, Rucker managed his connections to secure hundreds of college scholarships for teenagers viewed as students before athletes.

He died of cancer in 1965 before he turned 40. The park was renamed Holcomb Rucker Playground after him in 1974. It is commonly known as Rucker Park or just Rukar.

Holcombe Rucker’s grandson Chris Rucker said that “the park is a symbol and reference point of what my grandfather did and what he accomplished over the years, so without a basketball court in good working order, the legacy would not be complete.”

“Rucker Park is as much a part of the Harlem community as the Apollo Theater,” he said.

By the 1980s, most NBA players had stopped playing at Rucker Park for fear of risking their increasingly lucrative contracts.

Greg Marius, a former hip-hop artist, revived the atmosphere in 1982 by starting the Entertainers Basketball Classic. Soon, they invited the pros back, bringing the experience to life with bum-bum play-by-play callers, booming hip-hop soundtracks, and corporate sponsorships. .

Marius Died At 59 in 2017. That June, Mayor Bill de Blasio renamed Rucker Park’s basketball court as Greg Marius Court.

Greg’s sister Stacey Marius said that her brother had this vision of “bringing their love for hip-hop and basketball and bringing them together and holding tournaments, but in a place where it was a high-profile tournament that had a lot to offer.” Everyone could enjoy.”

Some It is believed that At the time of commercialization of the park that part of Rucker’s purity had suffered. But the stars returned, and not just on the court. Former President Bill Clinton once stopped by to watch the action. Hip-hop legends like Fat Joe and Diddy backed teams.

“You come into that park, and when the tournament is going on, you can see any stars,” said Gus Wells, chief executive of Entertainers 155, which operates the street ball tournament. “You’ll see NBA players playing there. You’ll see a celebrity sitting there in the audience. And the best part is it’s free. You can’t get it for free basically anywhere else.”

NBA players learned over the decades that they cannot own the court based on reputation alone. Bryant, a former Los Angeles Lakers superstar who died the previous year, earned both cheer and ridicule from a lively crowd during his appearance in 2002.

Harlem native Tim Gittens earned his nickname — Headache — at the park and is now an assistant coach for the WNBA’s Dallas Wings.

“All these guys came down there because it was basically mano a mano,” he said, “with you against someone, not being told how to run the set, but your best against my best skills. Skill, and your knowledge against my knowledge, even on this playground where the crowd can turn hostile.

He continued, “You were pushed to a different level of play because you didn’t want to fail in front of all these people, and you wanted them to see you perform, because that gave you a lot more energy and more life.” is, and then your legend grew.”

Wells recalled the time Carter recently retired after a 22-year NBA career, playing against Adrian Walton in what became known as the Whole Lotta Game. “He was shocked that a small 18-year-old was giving it to him like that,” Wells said. “He had to tighten his sneakers a little.”

Former NBA All-Star Baron Davis made sure to get a few shots on the court the evening before playing at Rucker Park, Gittens said.

Wells recalled that in 2011, Kevin Durant made an appearance at Rucker Park during the NBA’s lockout and scored 66 points in a memorable performance.

“You’d think it was a video for a movie, because every time he came down, he made sure he got the ball, and he was getting it from beyond the 3-point line,” Wells said. . “It wasn’t that he was off. It was automatic.”

Jammer Jones, nicknamed Papa, was hoping to play on the renovated court after it reopens on Saturday. He has seen players like Bryant, Durant and Klay Thompson perform there.

For Jones, a 16-year-old resident of Harlem, it’s still his home park, which he’s played in since he can remember. Renewal means more than just the return of celebrities and NBA players to them.

He is eager to step up his game on a functional court.

“It was kind of tough, because one side of the court was uneven, so if you run downhill, one side will be darker than the other,” Jones said. “If you go into the corner it will be difficult to shoot.”

“So I’m excited,” he said.

Wells hopes that the renewed interest in Rucker Park will restore the charm of the court.

In recent years, Wells said, some of the summer tournaments that used to take place on Harlem courts have now begun to go elsewhere.

“It’s not just renewal,” Wells said. “It’s all relationships that will hopefully come back and support the brands and tournaments that are out there, and that will help bring back the mystery of what it was and what it is. It needs relationships and connections with other brands and endorsements.” It should get the support that we used to have.”

That mystery may be over. But Rucker Park has always been home to true bowlers who make their mark, as Williams said.

“We don’t care who you are,” he said. “We don’t care what you do. We don’t care where you’re from. We don’t care about your accolades and credibility in the NBA, we’re in the park today. That’s why that park is special. We’re there to give you roses.” Don’t come. You have to earn it. Many players came to that park and thrashed them. Trust me. Many of them.”

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