Let’s assume you’re into basketball and finally find your way to New York City. Of course, you’re gonna visit the Garden – and watch the Knicks. The problem: in the past few years, the Bockers were probably as far away from high-quality basketball as Andre Drummond is from being a half-decent free-throw shooter. You might also think about watching a game at Brooklyn’s Barclay’s Center. Same problem. Since their plan to quick success has failed, the Nets are about as bad as the Knicks. I know, it’s still the NBA. Yet there is one place in the empire state where you’ll find basketball in its purest form. A place where you’ll find the heart and soul of New York City (Red Cafe/Pete Rock pause) basketball.
If that’s what you want, go straight to 155th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. Right across the former Polo Grounds, at the base of Coogan’s Bluff you’ll find a street court. THE street court. Welcome to Rucker Park! And even if today exaggerations are used quicker than Kobe Bryant could pull the trigger during his final game as a Laker, it is safe to say, that you’ve just reached the world’s most famous street-basketball court. A court where legends were made. A court that attracts everyone from streetball legend to NBA superstar, from „ordinary“ spectator to entertainment superstar.
A court where history is made. And speaking of history – why not jump on the DeLorean and ride back in time to, let’s say, the Harlem of 1947. Life wasn’t easy back then. Especially in Harlem. Youngsters were in constant danger of getting in trouble. That’s why a local playground supervisor and basketball coach came up with an idea. Why not keep kids off the streets by starting an outdoor basketball youth league during the summer? Something that, by the way, had not existed then. Not in New York City. Not in the United States. Not anywhere else in the world.
That didn’t stop the basketball coach though. Wanting to give kids something to do during summer time, to provide structure, instill discipline and – most of all – keep them off the streets, he started his league – and it worked. The influence on the community was tremendous. People started coming out to the court. They wanted to watch early streetball legends like Isaac “The Rab” Walthour play. The basketball coach had just laid out the blueprint for every organized outdoor summer basketball tournament that should follow. Some might call him “The Godfather”. I’ll stick to the name his parents haven given him: Holcombe Rucker.
Unfortunately, Rucker died of cancer in 1965. His legacy remained – and grew. That’s why they call the world’s most famous outdoor court the way they do. That’s why Rucker Park is Rucker Park, the place where style beats fundamentals, where excitement has found a permanent home. You don’t believe that? Then let’s hop back on the DeLorean.
1971. People love their Rucker Park. With their incredible play and trash talking, players like Joe “The Destroyer” Hammond, then NBA rookie Nate “Tiny” Archibald or Richard “Pee Wee” Kirkland dominate the court. Yet people loved to talk about a then relatively unknown player. A guy who had just finished his stint at the University of Massachusetts averaging 26.3 points and 20.2 Rebounds per game. “Wait ’till Julius comes along”, they used to say.
And in 1971 Julius came along big. It was the ultimate Rucker clash. Julius against “The Destroyer,”, a wreckless scorer who, a couple of years later, set a new record scoring 73 points at the Rucker. Anyway, “The Destroyer” only showed up for the second half, but when he did, Julius and Hammond went at it. Both. But the things Julius did made the crowd go nuts. He dunked on people as no one had done before. Of course the announcers started giving him Nicknames. “Look, there’s the Claw”, they said. “Black Moses goes up for the slam”, they added.
Julius didn’t like that. At some point he went over to the announcer and insisted on being called the way his best friend at school had called him in response of naming him “The Professor”. “If you wanna call me anything, call me the Doctor!” Julius “Dr. J” Erving, ladies and gentlemen.
Usually names ARE GIVEN at the Rucker, Dr. J named himself. He did something the park’s biggest legends didn’t do – no matter how influential they were. From And1 Mixtape legend Rafer “Skip to my Lou” Alston, to Connie “The Hawk” Hawkins. From “Jumpin” Jackie Jackson to Herman “Helicopter” Hawkins, Earl “The Goat” Manigault, Kareem “Best Kept Secret” Reid, Corie “Homicide” Williams or Larry “Bone Collector” Williams, they all got their names from one of those charismatic announcers. Heck, thanks to their incredible abilities with the basketball they basically got re-baptized.
By the way, that’s something they share with some of the biggest names our beloved sport knows. No matter how famous you are, how much you have achieved prior to your first appearance in the Rucker, you’ll get a name. Example, anybody? Doors open. DeLorean. 2002. Entrance, Kobe Bryant.
The Lord of the Rings
Having just won his third championship, the Bean made his appearance. And people couldn’t wait. Kobe at the Rucker? For real? For real! Everyone was hyped. People even stood on bridges to get a glimpse of Kobe. And the Mamba wasn’t there to disappoint anybody. He put together a highlight reel and ended up with 15 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists. Doesn’t sound overwhelming to you? Well, due to rain the game had to be shortened. Yet, Kobe had left an impression and left Rucker with a new nickname. Being the first player ever to play at the Rucker after having one an NBA championship, from that day on, at least at Rucker, the Mamba was called „The Lord of the Rings“.
The respect was mutual, though. „There’s no atmosphere like Rucker“, is what he said after his little outdoor session. And he’s probably right. To strengthen our argument, we have to use the DeLorean once more. 2011 is the year. Rucker the place. A skinny guy with a backpack arrives at the park. Being told that his game will only start in a couple of hours, he decides to stay and watch the other guys play. He only asks for one thing: soulfood. And of course he gets some soulfood. Because, you know, the skinny guy is quite well known.
The Guy with the Backpack
He plays for the Oklahoma City Thunder, his mom is the real MVP, he’s a deadly scorer. He is… Kevin Durant. KD showed up at the Rucker to give the people what they want. A performance for the ages. After having finished his delicious meal, Durant went to work. Triple from almost have court? Nothing but net! Pull-up three? Dagger! KD put on a shooting clinic as it had never been seen before. He finished with 66 points and made the crowd go wild. They stormed the court, they hugged their hero, they paid tribute and respect. Only at Rucker!
We can only guess how it would have been, had this one game really been played. That one game that would have been the 2003 EBC final. For the 2003 EBC Jay Z and Fat Joe had both put together a team. No ordinary teams though. Of course, they were star studded with the likes of Jamal Crawford or Kenyon Martin. So both teams stormed through the tournament, building up tension for the final clash.
The Game that never happened
As final day came close, rumors started spitting. Shaq. LeBron. Melo. Yao Ming. Tracy McGrady. They all were said to be playing that day. 15.000 to 20.000 people were waiting at the park to see the game. A game that would have brought the biggest stars to the Rucker. Yep, would have. Because when the busses had already shown up at the park, New York’s 2003 blackout happened. Security and police was needed elsewhere, the game had to be postponed. It never happened. At least not the way it had been expected.
On one hand it’s sad on the other big stars are not what Rucker is about. It’s about passion, about atmosphere, about all those streetball legends that earned their nickname through incredible play. Or as Dr. J once put it: „If you come on, you try to stay on for the duration of the day.“ It’s basketball in its purest form. Let’s assume you’re into basketball and finally make your way to New York City. Don’t miss out on Rucker!