THE night before our pilgrimage to Rucker Park, we lounged on a Lower East Side rooftop, drinking and talking and people-watching. I was in New York on vacation, time spent with my friend Pat, cousin John and aunt Kathy.
John and his friends wanted to go to the bars and stay out late. Pat and I wanted to join, but partying didn’t reside at the top of our itinerary. We longed for the next morning’s promise of basketball.
To build a trip to the greatest city in the world around a visit to a patch of manicured asphalt anchored on both ends by 10-foot tall hoops would, of course, be foolish. And really, it didn’t seem like we built our trip around playground basketball. But when Pat and I finalized our plans for New York, he mentioned basketball. He had been playing the game often in his new hometown of Washington, D.C. for the last few months and wanted to try it out in the City. I thought of the Rucker immediately.
We had no other concrete plans for the weekend visit. We thought we wanted to bike all over the five boroughs, and my aunt lives close to the Met, and Ray’s Pizza is supposed to be delicious, and, well, we wanted play basketball. So maybe we did build the trip around a game. Maybe we were/are idiots. Either way, playing at the Rucker was a must. The must.
We kept mentioning this on the rooftop as night teetered closer toward early morning. Crowds of young people below passed a decaying church on the way to bars and apartments, and the glowing Chrysler Building touched the sky in the distance. After a couple of beers, another friend of John’s arrived to join the group. He wore high-tops and gym shorts. He had played basketball earlier in the night. He was tall and lanky, and his legs looked like they held the secret of an explosive first step.
I asked him if he had played at the Rucker. He hadn’t and offered an ominous reason.
“You actually have to be good to play there.”
DESPITE the fact that I’m more suburban than Iron Kids bread, I knew about the Rucker because my granny wanted me to read something, anything, on a boring, late-summer day in the tiny burg of McPherson, Kan. We went to a book store on the town’s main strip, and a lightning yellow cover with Shaq, Kobe and the bolded letters of S-L-A-M peeked at me from a shelf of magazines. I loved basketball. All Kansans do. We watch the Jayhawks play in an old barn on the campus where the doctor who invented basketball coached and then go home and rehearse jump shots for hours on hoops hanging above driveways.
Granny bought the magazine for me. I remember reading about the Lakers’ 2000 championship, Duke’s Jason Williams, a high school diary from Eddy Curry and then getting hooked enough to subscribe. Yes, I subscribed to SLAM – kind of wish I still did. And if you’re a suburbanite who even knows what SLAM is then you’re probably already either laughing or blushing in embarrassment because you read a few copies back in the day as well. SLAM was and still is a basketball magazine, only it was more than that. SLAM was the self-proclaimed “in-your-face basketball magazine.”
The writers from SLAM drenched their stories in hip-hop. And SLAM, before And-1 Mixtapes and Hot Sauce, before Skip to My Lou made the NBA, pried me away from plush, private school gymnasiums and into the foreign world of street basketball. Into the Rucker.
The Rucker, I read, was the capital of basketball’s Holy Land. It was Madison Square Garden, only everyone could play there. If, as Rick Telander wrote, heaven is a playground, then the Rucker is the first court you see when you enter the pearly gates.
The Rucker acted as a refuge for Harlem youths and a springboard for superstars. Stephon Marbury, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kenny Anderson and Wilt Chamberlain played there, and they aren’t even the legends. The Rucker’s greatest fame isn’t granted to those who move on to a better basketball life; it’s reserved for the ones who don’t leave, men like Earl Manigault, the Goat. Manigault supposedly had a 52-inch vertical leap. He did the Double Dunk, an impossible move where he dunked, caught the ball as it went through the net while in mid-air and then dunked again. Kareem called him New York’s greatest of all time. His pro career was limited to a failed ABA preseason, and before he died his arms were punctured with holes in the places he injected heroin. But he dominated at the Rucker and that meant something.
After all, the Rucker means something to all New York players. I spoke with former Kansas basketball player Russell Robinson for a story two years ago about his upbringing in the Bronx and Harlem. He loved talking about the days where he’d buy a couple of Arizona Iced Teas for energy and head to playgrounds in the Bronx or to the Rucker for an afternoon of basketball.
So yes, I knew about the Rucker. Knew about the legends. Knew about the history. Knew that Arizona Iced Tea, at least according to Russell, was the street baller’s drink of choice. I knew you had to be good to play there.
And I knew about us. Knew that we were from Overland Park, Kan. Knew that we honed our game firing jump shots on driveways. Knew that we couldn’t jump 52 inches. Knew that our most genuine Harlem experience came when we listened to Mase’s first rap album.
But at least we enjoyed drinking Arizona Iced Tea.
THE M2 bus trekked through Manhattan, past the Park and past 110th into Harlem, and let us off next to the Harlem River. The new Yankee Stadium beckoned from across the water, baseball’s Mecca situated so close to basketball’s.
We stared for a moment and then walked toward 155th and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, to the Rucker. It was still early, and it was a Sunday, so men and women scurried around in suits and sun dresses, the wardrobe of the hardcore churchgoer. Even if we weren’t white and from Kansas, the gym shorts and t-shirts would’ve separated us from the people ambling on the sidewalks.
Before we turned the corner to the Rucker, I didn’t know what would happen. Part of me expected near-vacancy. It was early in the morning, and the sun already sizzled streets and skin. In fact, we decided to come at a relatively early time thinking we’d have a better opportunity to stick around in a game for this very reason.
The other part of me thought the opposite. This was the Rucker. I imagined lithe, young bodies dribbling, passing and dunking. I imagined the next Earl Manigault crouching on the sidelines, cradling a ball in his hands while waiting for some real competition and then posterizing the pretenders. Neither time of day nor stickiness of humidity would stop ballers at the Rucker; nor would it allow for two average-at-best outsiders to step on the court and involve themselves in its transcendent game.
Finally at 155th, we could see the Rucker. Lush trees guarded the court and a row of dilapidated project buildings towered across the street. Yellow bleachers, their hue as sharp as the SLAM cover from years ago, commanded attention on one side of the court. Plain metal ones stood on the other. Dark green tinted the playing surface, relenting for maroon lanes, and a fresh mural painted in the middle of the masterpiece depicted LeBron wearing a blue Knicks uniform next to a caption that read “Harlem Loves You LeBron.”
A man loitered on the metal bleachers, solitarily tinkering with a cell phone. He didn’t have a basketball. A father helped his son practice layups on one side of the court. The other side was empty. Our side. I made my first shot, and the swish of the ball in the net sounded like nothing I’d heard from other basketball goals before. The net was nylon, but it sounded like it was chain-link. It was perfect.
We shot for a while, enjoying our time but craving a game, a true Rucker experience. The man from the bleachers walked toward us and held out his hand for the ball. He wore a white t-shirt that sagged over his stocky body. When he made shots, he motioned at me like he didn’t think I knew to give him his change. I began chatting with him, asking about how often he plays and if he thought more people would come for a game. After telling me he thought not many people would show up today, he pointed at LeBron’s gigantic face, saying how badly he wanted him to come to New York. I said it was a good thing that the Knicks had at least signed Amare Stoudemire.
Soon, another man arrived. Pat asked them if they wanted to play two-on-two. Game on.
I am 5-foot-9, perhaps 5-foot-10, with spindly arms and an accurate jump shot. Pat is an inch taller, slightly more built and wins games because he cares more than anyone else. Our opponents were older and bigger. They weren’t muscular but they were thick. The man in the white shirt liked to shoot, and the other one liked to dribble through his legs and attempt crossovers. Neither was particularly fast. Neither appeared to have a 52-inch vertical. This was a good thing.
I did what I do best: made a few dribble moves, floated in the air long enough for my opponent to falter and then delicately released the ball, relying on my touch to save me from what should be a terrible time to shoot. Pat stayed in the post, his moves more polished than his defender’s, and scored often. We took an early lead.
About five to 10 other men filtered onto the metal bleachers, loudly recanting their Saturday nights as our game went on. They arrived one-by-one or in pairs. It seemed a spontaneous gathering. If you wanted to hang out, you walked to the oasis across from the projects, you watched basketball, you swapped stories and you jumped in when the game beckoned.
One time when my man drained a three-pointer, someone hollered from the bleachers in support. Fortunately, that didn’t happen often. The game went to 16, by ones and twos, and we won easily. Our opponents slapped our hands, and the guy guarding me said I played like Steve Nash, exasperation in his voice. It was a flattering, if egregiously untrue, compliment, but I didn’t care much anyways. As we rested on the bleachers and drank now-warm water from plastic bottles, I thought about the impossibility of the circumstance: We, two Kansas boys south of six-feet, had control of the court. We had control of the freaking Rucker.
A few minutes passed. The men who arrived during our game now wanted to play. One of them joined our side, and we would play a game of three-on-three. No one asked where we were from or why we came. We checked the ball and played.
Our teammate was ripped like a linebacker and wore a sleeveless shirt. He invited contact but didn’t embrace it. He grunted, “Get off me, nigga,” playfully but never actually called fouls. We were hopeless. Pat bended over breathlessly after baskets, and a hip injury from a few years ago stabbed my side every time I tried to shuffle my feet or make a first step. We trailed by plenty when my man dribbled to his left. He flashed by for a layup, a wave of long legs and dreadlocks.
“Is the game over?” Pat asked.
They laughed. No, it was just 15-8. One point away from elimination, one point away from a .500 record at the Rucker, an accomplishment we would have happily accepted.
Then something crazy happened. Anger shifted into success for the Harlem guy on our team. Pat’s low post moves started complimenting him perfectly. I said to hell with my hip and started driving again.
I wish I remembered the exact baskets, but I don’t. I remember the sweat, the panging heat, the voice in my head switching its tone from leisure to rage and an abstract flurry of beautiful basketball produced by a Harlem native and us not because the artists painted with deft strokes but because the perfect canvas willed us to try.
We won. We were still undefeated at the Rucker. We had controlled the court, again, but the two games were enough. The sun blazed and my hip ached. We shook hands with our opponents, waved so long to the players in the bleachers and walked toward a bodega on the corner of 155th for Arizona Iced Teas.
Right before that, before the Harlem men began the next game and before we retreated to reality I had to make my last shot. For years I have practiced the superstition, believing it is bad luck to leave any court having missed my final attempt.
I planted my legs on holy ground for the final time and aimed toward the hoop where the gods double dunk. I was Russell Robinson, I was Kareem, I was the Goat, I was the kid fascinated by the stories of the same game practiced in a different world.
The ball rippled through the net, sounding just right, the way I imagine it does for everyone.