A Street Basketball Mecca Gets a Face-Lift

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

Roberts could not see over the heads of those who stacked the park’s sidelines shoulder-to-shoulder. But she soaked in the excitement and energy from the crowd, the laughter from the bellies, the yelling from the lungs, in what amounted to one large block party at West 155th Street and what was then known just as Eighth Avenue, with basketball as the eternal soundtrack.

“If you grew up in New York probably ever, but certainly in the ’60s and ’70s when I grew up, you could not help but understand what the Rucker meant to New York basketball,” said Roberts, 63, now the executive director of the N.B.A. players’ union.

Over generations, the asphalt court honed its reputation as a siren calling and name-making mecca for soon-to-be N.B.A. legends like Wilt Chamberlain, Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Julius Erving, who went by the nickname the Claw at the park long before he was known as Dr. J. They mixed with playground legends whose colorful nicknames matched their outsize games: Earl “the Goat” Manigault, Herman “the Helicopter” Knowings, “Jumpin’” Jackie Jackson and Pee Wee Kirkland.

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

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

She wondered if her memories had deceived her into a sunny nostalgia. Rucker Park, in her estimation, looked decrepit, with the blacktop cracked and uneven and the bleachers in disarray.

Teams play at Rucker Park during the summer before renovations.

“The notion that the park would be in any state of disrepair is a heartbreaker to me,” she said.

When Roberts asked members of the players’ union’s executive committee if they had interest in renovating the Greg Marius Court at Rucker Park, the players asked how soon they could begin.

In August, the players’ union announced it had joined with the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, among others, to give the court a substantial face-lift that would cost $520,000 and to create a recreation position for Rucker Park and the nearby Jackie Robinson Recreation Center.

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

The court formally reopened on Saturday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, youth basketball clinics and games. Williams, now a commentator for the Australian National Basketball League, served as the M.C. 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, Statue of Liberty. The red tour buses come to Harlem and go to that park. It’s iconic. It’s a landmark in New York City. It’s a staple. That 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 attract N.B.A. players.

Not long ago, players like Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson and Vince Carter made the pilgrimage to West 155th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard to a court that is tiny in area, but large in cultural and historical significance.

“It’s paved the way for so many people,” Williams said. “It’s gotten people out of trouble. Crime stopped for four hours, four days a week in that area. It’s no secret it’s across the street from one of the most dangerous housing projects in New York City, the Polo Grounds. But when those games were on, everybody stopped.”

Roberts said that the renovation would also extend the legacies of those who brought fame to the park and court.

“The basketball players, the kids that are aspiring to be in the N.B.A. or just love the game who may live in the vicinity of the park and may not fully appreciate its history, and if that’s the case, then we hope that this project will revive the history,” she said. “We’ll be telling the history.”

Holcombe Rucker, a playground director, established a youth basketball league and summer tournament nearly 70 years ago to keep children away from temptation even as others warned him to disregard a sport designed for the winter.

Crews spent about two months renovating. Michele Roberts, below, the executive director of the N.B.A. players’ union, checked in on the progress.

Rucker mentored children, building a program from scratch, always keeping his busy schedule in his pocket. As his tournament gained in popularity and the Rucker League transformed into a summer pro-am, Rucker managed his connections to secure hundreds of college scholarships for the teenagers he viewed as students before athletes.

He died of cancer in 1965 before he turned 40. The park was renamed after him as the Holcombe Rucker Playground in 1974. It’s commonly referred to as Rucker Park or just the Rucker.

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

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

By the 1980s, N.B.A. players had mostly stopped playing at Rucker Park out of fear of risking their increasingly lucrative contracts.

Greg Marius, a former hip-hop artist, revitalized the atmosphere by starting the Entertainers Basketball Classic in 1982. Soon, he invited pros back, enlivening the experience with the addition of bombastic play-by-play callers, booming hip-hop soundtracks and corporate sponsors.

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

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

Some believed that part of the purity Rucker had striven for suffered when the park was commercialized. But the stars returned, and not just on the court. Former President Bill Clinton once stopped by to watch the action. Hip-hop luminaries like Fat Joe and Diddy backed teams.

“You come in that park, and while the tournament is on, you might be able to see any star,” said Gus Wells, the chief executive of Entertainers 155, which operates the street ball tournament. “You’ll see N.B.A. players playing out there. You will see a celebrity sitting in the audience out there. And the biggest thing is it’s for free. You can’t get that for free basically nowhere else like that.”

N.B.A. players learned through the decades that they could not just own the court by reputation alone. Bryant, the former Los Angeles Lakers superstar who died last year, earned both cheers and jeers from a lively crowd during his 2002 appearance.

Tim Gittens, a Harlem native, earned his nickname — Headache — at the park and is now an assistant coach for the W.N.B.A.’s Dallas Wings.

“All these guys came down there because it was basically mano a mano,” he said, “with you against somebody, not being told how to run a set, but your best skill against my best skill, and your knowledge against my knowledge, on this even playing field where the crowd can become an opponent too.”

Julius Erving and the rappers Fat Joe and ASAP Ferg spoke at the park’s reopening after renovations.

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

Wells recalled the time Carter, who recently retired after a 22-year N.B.A. career, matched against Adrian Walton, better known as Whole Lotta Game. “He was shocked that a little 18-year-old kid was giving it to him like that,” Wells said. “He had to tie his sneakers a little tighter.”

The former N.B.A. All-Star Baron Davis made sure to get some shots up on the court the evening before he played at Rucker Park, Gittens said.

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

“You would think this was video for a movie, because every time he came down, they made sure he got the ball, and he was just firing it from way beyond the 3-point line,” Wells said. “It wasn’t like he was off. It was automatic.”

Jamar Jones, whose nickname is Papa, was anticipating playing on the renovated court after its reopening Saturday. He has witnessed players like Bryant, Durant and Klay Thompson performing there.

For Jones, a 16-year-old resident of Harlem, it’s still just his home park, the one he has played at ever since he can remember. The renovation has meaning for him beyond just the return of celebrities and N.B.A. players.

He is looking forward to sharpening his game on a functional court.

“It was kind of tough, because one side of the court was uneven, so if you would run downhill, one side would be deeper than the other,” Jones said. “It would be hard to shoot if you would go to the corner.”

He added, “So I’m excited.”

Wells is hopeful that the renewed interest in Rucker Park will restore the court’s allure.

In recent years, Wells said, some summer tournaments that used to come to the Harlem court have started to go elsewhere.

“It’s not just the renovation,” Wells said. “It’s all the relationships that will hopefully come back and support the brands that’s out there and the tournament’s that’s out there, and that will help bring back the mystique of what it was and what it is. It needs the relationships and the connections with other brands and the support. It needs to have the support that we used to have.”

That mystique may be gone. But Rucker Park has always been home to true ballers who forge their identities, 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 from. We don’t care about your accolades and credibility in the N.B.A. It’s just us today in the park. That’s why that park is special. We don’t come there giving you roses. You got to earn it. Many players came to that park and got booed. Trust me. Many of them.”

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