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Rucker Park, the basketball mecca, takes on new life

As a child, Michele Roberts would occasionally find herself in Holcombe Rucker Park when her older brothers, who were supposed to keep her at home in the South Bronx, took her to Harlem instead.

Roberts couldn’t see over the heads of those piling up the park margins side by side. But she soaked up the excitement and energy of the crowd, the laughter of the bellies, the cries of the lungs, in what amounted to a big block party on West 155th Street and what was then known as the name of Eighth Avenue, with basketball as its eternal soundtrack.

“If you probably grew up in New York City, but certainly in the 60s and 70s when I was growing up, you couldn’t help but understand what the Rucker meant for New York basketball,” said Roberts. , 63, now executive director. of the NBA Players Union.

Over the generations, the asphalt pitch has honed its reputation as a siren call and name-making mecca for future NBA legends like Wilt Chamberlain, Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul -Jabbar) and Julius Erving, nicknamed the Claw at the park long before he was known as Dr J. They mingled with playing field legends whose colorful nicknames matched their oversized games: Earl ” the Goat “Manigault, Herman” the Helicopter “Knowings,” Jumpin ‘”Jackie Jackson and Pee Petit Kirkland.

“If you’re a hooper, your dream was to play in this park,” said Corey Williams, who goes by the Homicide nickname and has turned impressive performances at the Rucker and other playing fields into a long professional career. international. “Everyone wanted it. “

Roberts visited Rucker Park after returning to New York when she became executive director of the Players Union in 2014.

She wondered if her memories had tricked her into a sunny nostalgia. Rucker Park, in his opinion, looked decrepit, with the cracked and uneven asphalt and the messy bleachers.

“The idea that the park is in disrepair breaks my heart,” she said.

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

In August, the players’ union announced that it had joined the city’s parks and recreation department, among others, to give the field a substantial facelift that would cost $ 520,000 and to create a recreation station for Rucker. Park and Jackie Robinson nearby. Recreation center.

The teams worked in the field from August, leveling the asphalt and installing black bleachers, a state-of-the-art scorecard and custom NBA baskets donated by Spalding. The new black and gold court features a mural designed by ASAP Ferg, an artist from Harlem, and produced by Set Free Richardson, an artist and filmmaker.

The court officially reopened on Saturday with a groundbreaking ceremony, youth basketball clinics and games. Williams, now a commentator for the Australian National Basketball League, served as the MC for the reopening, which was attended by Erving, Kirkland, Nate Archibald and a number of others who had forged their reputations on the court.

“It’s something that needs to be preserved,” Williams said. “You treat Rucker Park like you treat Central Park, the Empire State Building, Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty. Red tourist buses come to Harlem and go to this park. It is emblematic. It is a landmark in New York. It is a must. It is the Madison Square Garden of street basketball courts in the world.

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

Not too long ago, players like Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson and Vince Carter made the pilgrimage to West 155th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard in a court of small size, but of great cultural and historical significance.

“It paved the way for so many people,” said Williams. “It got people out of trouble. The crime stopped for four hours, four days a week in this area. It’s no secret that it’s across the street from one of New York’s most dangerous housing projects, the Polo Grounds. But when these games started, everyone stopped.

Roberts said the renovation will also extend the legacy of those who made the park and courtyard famous.

“Basketball players, kids who aspire to be in the NBA or just love the game who may live close to the park and may not fully appreciate its history, and if so then we hope that this project will bring history to life, “she said.” We’re going to tell the story. “

Holcombe Rucker, a playground manager, started a youth basketball league and summer tournament almost 70 years ago to keep kids away from temptation, though others have it. warned not to consider a sport designed for winter.

Rucker mentored kids, building a program from scratch, always keeping his busy schedule in his pocket. As his tournament grew in popularity and the Rucker League turned into a summer pro-am, Rucker managed his relationships to secure hundreds of college scholarships for teens he considered students before athletes.

He died of cancer in 1965 before he was 40. The park was renamed in his honor in 1974 as the Holcombe Rucker Playground. He is commonly referred to as Rucker Park or simply Rucker.

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

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

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

Greg Marius, a former hip-hop artist, revitalized the atmosphere by launching the Enterers Basketball Classic in 1982. Soon he invited pros, livening up the experience with the addition of spectacular calls, hip soundtracks. booming-shop and corporate sponsors.

Marius died at age 59 in 2017. In June, Mayor Bill de Blasio named Rucker Park basketball court the Greg Marius Court.

Greg’s sister Stacey Marius said her brother “had this vision to bring his love for hip-hop and basketball and bring them together and host tournaments, but in a place where it was was a high level tournament that everyone could enjoy “.

Some believed that some of the purity Rucker had sought had suffered in the marketing of the park. But the stars have returned, and not just on the court. Former President Bill Clinton once stopped to watch the action. Hip-hop luminaries like Fat Joe and Diddy have supported teams.

“You come to this park, and during the tournament you might be able to see any star,” said Gus Wells, general manager of Entertainers 155, which manages the street ball tournament. “You will see NBA players playing there. You will see a celebrity sitting in the audience there. And most importantly, it’s free. You can’t get this for free practically anywhere else like this.

NBA players have learned over decades that they can’t own the field just by reputation. Bryant, the former Los Angeles Lakers superstar who died last year, received both cheers and taunts from a lively crowd when he appeared in 2002.

Tim Gittens, a Harlem native, earned his nickname – Headache – at the park and is now an assistant coach for the Dallas Wings of the WNBA.

“All these guys came in there because it was basically mano a mano,” he said, “with you against someone, without being told how to perform a set, but your best skill. against my best skill, and your knowledge against my knowledge, on this level playing field where the crowd can also become an adversary.

He added: “You were pushed to a different level of play because you didn’t want to fail in front of all these people, and you want them to see you play because it gave you so much more energy and more energy. life, and then your legend grew.

Wells recalled the time when Carter, who recently retired after a 22-year career in the NBA, faced Adrian Walton, better known as the Whole Lotta Game. “He was shocked that an 18-year-old gave it to him like that,” Wells said. “He must have tied his sneakers a little tighter.”

Former NBA All-Star Baron Davis made sure to get a few shots on the field the day before his game at Rucker Park, Gittens said.

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

“You would think it was a video for a movie, because every time he went down they made sure he had the ball, and he was shooting it just over the 3 point line. “Wells said. “It wasn’t like he was gone. It was automatic.

Jamar Jones, whose nickname is Papa, expected to play on the refurbished court after it reopened on Saturday. He saw players like Bryant, Durant and Klay Thompson perform there.

For Jones, a 16-year-old Harlem resident, this is still just his welcome park, the one where he has always played. The renovation has meaning for him beyond the simple return of celebrities and NBA players.

He is eager to refine his game on functional ground.

“It was pretty tough because one side of the ground was uneven so if you were running downhill one side would be deeper than the other,” Jones said. “It would be difficult to shoot if you went around the corner.”

He added: “So I’m excited.”

Wells hopes the renewed interest in Rucker Park will restore the court’s appeal.

In recent years, Wells said, some summer tournaments that previously took place on Harlem court have started to take place elsewhere.

“It’s not just the renovation,” Wells said. “These are all the relationships that will hopefully come back and support the brands and tournaments that are going on, and that will help bring back the mystique of what it was and what it is.” She needs the relationships and connections with other brands and the support. He must have the support that we had before.

This mystique may have disappeared. But Rucker Park has always been the home of true ballers who forge their identity, as Williams put it.

“We don’t care who you are,” he said. “We don’t care what you do. We don’t care where you come from. We don’t care about your accolades and credibility in the NBA, it’s just us today in the park. This is why this park is special. We are not coming to give you roses. You have to earn it. Many players came to this park and got booed. Believe me. Many of them.”

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