Streetball scoring new fans as exposure to game grows

Thursday, August 21, 2003

— It was the type of play that makes jaws drop.

As the point guard brought the ball up the court, he did a mean crossover, then whipped it behind his back to the small forward out on the flat, who gunned it to the off guard on the edge of the key, who touch-passed it to a wide-open power forward under the basket.

The finale: an earth-rattling two-handed dunk.

This isn't the NBA or even the NCAA. It's Harlem's Rucker Park, legendary home to New York's great streetball tournament.

"When you get off that A train at Rucker Park, you better bring your A game," game announcer EJ the Mayor said during a break in play last week.

Street basketball players have traditionally been the stuff of urban legend -- amazing small crowds at asphalt courts in cities across the country, but unseen and unknown by most. That's changing now, as the exploits of these raw talents with colorful nicknames catch the attention of TV and music executives, writers and entrepreneurs.

The summer league at Rucker -- started in 1956 by Parks Department worker Holcombe Rucker -- is the center of it all.

After almost dying away in the early 1980s, the Rucker league has experienced a resurgence, drawing the interest of rappers like Jay-Z and Fat Joe, who sponsor teams, as well as the National Basketball Assn., which broadcasts games on its cable channel.

The annual tournament, now called the Entertainer's Basketball Classic, is the subject of an MTV reality show called "Harlem Hoops." Its history is detailed in the new book, "Asphalt Gods: An Oral History of the Rucker Tournament," by Vincent Mallozzi, a New York Times sports editor. And Universal Pictures is developing a film -- titled "The Rucker" -- due out next year.

Residents say summer doesn't truly start at the park -- located in the middle of the Polo Grounds Housing Project and across the Harlem River from Yankee Stadium -- without the ping of a bouncing basketball, the squeak of sneakers and the tales of some of the sport's greats strutting their stuff on the court.

The competition is so fierce that the end-of-season tournament in August draws pro stars to compete against the city's best streetballers. In past years, greats such as Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Connie Hawkins and Allen Iverson graced the court.

Many current pros, including Mark Jackson, Ron Artest and Stephon Marbury, are Rucker Park alums. Even some of the sport's greatest nicknames, from Earl "The Pearl" Monroe to Nate "Tiny" Archibald and streetballer Joe "The Destroyer" Hammond, were earned on that court.

With such talent, the quality of the game is top-notch. That cuts down on some of the truly outrageous schoolyard tricks one might see at other streetball exhibitions.

But Pee Wee Kirkland, one of the greats from the league's heyday in the early 1970s, says the game has suffered because of the premium put on embarrassing your opponent with high-wire acrobatics.

"Young players today are very much out of focus," said Kirkland, whose professional aspirations were cut short by an 11-year stint in prison on a drug trafficking conviction. "It's all about the trick, and not the win. When we played, we learned from the neck up, we knew our fundamentals."

The new players say fundamentals are important -- but so is fun. After one recent tournament game this summer, 17-year-old point guard Sebastian "Too Fast, Too Furious" Telfair, widely considered one of the top high school players in the nation, said he looked at the league as a place to be a little more free.

"It's supposed to be a little more fun here, but when you put me on a court, I want to win, first and foremost," he said.