Read an Excerpt
All the Ballers, Moves, Slams, & Shine
History of Streetball:
The Birth of the City Game
This hallway is long and dark. It could be a metaphor for any one of countless streetball stories. But right now it's just a hallway. It's strewn with empty 40-ounce bottles dressed in brown paper bags, their caps long since disappeared like the dreams of those who tossed them long ago. Empty Styrofoam containers from that takeout joint on 153rd lie smashed. There's a small puddle of something you take care not to step in. The air is thick in here. You can feel the souls of those who have come before you, walked these very halls. You are, in a sense, in a tunnel. One that is 17 stories above ground in the Polo Grounds Apartments in Harlem, the very same ground that once served as the ball field for the New York Giants where Willie Mays used to shag fly balls. Down one end of this tunnel is an exit sign flickering to stay alive above a door wedged open by a folded cardboard box. At the other end is a light. You walk toward it and a picture begins to form. The view is different from up here. Rooftops, clotheslines, antennas. This is 155th street in Harlem. But take a few steps closer to the window. To the light. Then look down. There it lies, a rectangular slab of asphalt painted green and red. Holcombe Rucker Park. The Rucker.
It is the Mecca of street basketball. The lifeblood of the other game began here almost 60 years ago. In 1946, a New York City Department of Parks employee named Holcombe Rucker started a basketball tournament to give neighborhood kids something to do on those muggy Harlem summer nights long before the reign of the tech, long before anyone had heard of Nino Brown and the Carter apartments. And thus, the first summer league was born.
Skinny kids with Chuck Taylors or maybe Pro Keds, knee-high three-ringed socks, and afros flowing in the breeze would pound the pavement on what quickly became the hottest hoop spot in the city, long before the game was even cool. Back then the game was a diversion, something to do so you weren't doing nothing. But cats would knock down a few jumpers not long after the Parks Department put up new nets, and before your homey could say "Lew Alcindor" the nets would disintegrate and fall off. Trouble was the city wasn't keen about replacing them, which gave rise to the lasting image of a rim with no net: the hallmark of courts of InnerCity, U.S.A. When a court has no net, as any street observer can vouch, you can forget about the outside game. The net's functional purpose is to slow the ball as it goes through the hoop. But it also provides proper depth perception when bombing from long range. Many found it too hard to adjust their games, so early streetball was about taking it strong to the hole and finishing at the rim. To do that you had to get by your man. Thus the early style of the game was born. Anyone could hoist from beyond the arc that didn't yet exist, but the game was all about putting it on the deck, the concrete, the scorching asphalt and beating your man off the dribble. There were no crossovers back then. Only change of direction dribbles.
The sixties in America were a time of political upheaval and the quest for equality in the face of staunch resistance -- in short, instability. In the hood instability can lead to desperation, which goes hand in hand with destruction, or creative revolution. Nowhere was this epitomized better than by the early Rucker Park legends like Joe "The Destroyer" Hammond, Earl "The Goat" Manigult and Pee Wee Kirkland. These street poets of the sixties and seventies spoke to thousands of followers with artistic moves, incalculable numbers and Herculean feats on the basketball court that are etched in basketball mythology. This was hip-hop before hip-hop, long before bling and spinning rims. The NBA was not their calling, but they remain All-Harlem World and are the direct ancestors of ballers with names like Hot Sauce, Sik Wit It, and Main Event.
As the Rucker League began to gain a word of mouth following (the only way to get a following on the street), crowds began to number in the hundreds, then thousands. The hoods of cars and the trees that shaded Rucker became premium seating. The 155th Street bridge was the skybox. The tops of buildings were the cheap seats. If you showed up two hours early you were late.
The Rucker is where you could see the best ballers not in the league battle the NBA's best. Pros like Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Tiny Archibald, Dave Cowens, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Ollie Taylor, and Mike Riordan added to their legend and built their street cachet by showing up and battling street foes like Joe "The Destroyer" Hammond, Earl "The Goat" Manigult, Pee Wee Kirkland, and Fly Williams.
"What made the early streetballers so great was the fact that they had no fear of the pros," said Duke Tango, the legendary Rucker Park play-by-play MC. "They looked at the pros as just guys from the neighborhood who happened to be in the NBA. Outside of that they were just regular players to them."
Despite the fact that he never played a minute of college or NBA ball, many consider Hammond the greatest streetballer ever, the greatest king to walk any slab of asphalt ever poured for the purpose of reconfiguring Dr. Naismith's game as one's own. His high arching jumpshot was allergic to the rim. He found driving lanes that didn't exist and his knack for scoring made it look as though he were on cruise control. He paid attention to the details as much as he did the dunks. No player from New York City ever used those metal-grated backboards as well as The Destroyer ...Streetball
All the Ballers, Moves, Slams, & Shine. Copyright © by Marta And 1. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.