The City Game: Basketball from the Garden to the Playgroundsby Pete Axthelm
Pete Axthelm follows the 1969–70 season of the New York Knicks and provides a parallel focus on basketball as it was then played in the black neighborhoods of New York City. Throughout, he writes clearly, intelligently, and passionately about the game, bringing alive the players’ efforts, accomplishments, and failures. See more details below
Pete Axthelm follows the 1969–70 season of the New York Knicks and provides a parallel focus on basketball as it was then played in the black neighborhoods of New York City. Throughout, he writes clearly, intelligently, and passionately about the game, bringing alive the players’ efforts, accomplishments, and failures.
"The best description of basketball played in New York City streets during the sixties and seventies."—Bill Bradley, The New Yorker
"Superb . . . [Axthelm] combines Knick history, player backgrounds, seasonal anecdotes and court triumphs with another phenomenon—city basketball in the crowded ghettoes of the nation. The areas he focuses on primarily are the asphalt playgrounds of Harlem and Bedford Stuyvesant. There basketball has its special code of behavior, its pecking order and its own culture heroes. . . . A few city playground aces have made it to college . . . , and a few have found an escape route to the Harlem Globetrotters or the Eastern League. But many others have become strung out on poverty or drugs or have been imprisoned. . . . The book offers absorbing insights into the most unique and gripping of all city sports."—Rex Lardner, New York Times
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- University of Nebraska Press
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The City Game
By Pete Axthelm
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1970 Pete Axthelm
All rights reserved.
Two Games: The Challenge of Basketball
A morning rain had left wide shallow puddles in the undulating asphalt and some of Saturday night's litter had washed down from the corners of the small park, giving the basketball court a grimy and abandoned look. The green- and red-tinted glass of discarded wine and whiskey bottles glinted dully in the sunlight that was just breaking through; the surrounding wire fence was scarred every few yards by unrepaired holes that had been yanked open by countless basketball-hungry kids over the years. Within hours the court would be fairly dry, the debris would be kicked aside and the games—raucous, exuberant pickup affairs or perhaps even full-scale epic battles featuring local titans—would fill the Sunday afternoon with clamorous excitement. But for the moment the playground, set back from Seventh Avenue near 130th Street, seemed silently evocative of its illustrious past. Walking across it, Pat Smith was lost in thought.
Smith, who played for several seasons at Marquette University in Milwaukee, is twenty-four years old now, and years of studying in a less basketball-oriented city have rendered him out of shape for the highest caliber of playground competition back home in Harlem. Yet for two reasons he remains a cultural hero on the streets. For one thing, he was a classic Harlem product, a six-foot-three-inch center who spent his college career outleaping and outfighting six-foot-ten-inch rivals. He had never harbored illusions about his basketball future: very weak eyesight made him a terrible outside shooter and limited him to center, and six-foot-three-inch centers—regardless of their jumping ability—are not sought after by the pros. But at Benjamin Franklin High School in Harlem and then at Marquette, Smith had used moves and muscle and a fierce instinct for domination to delight his Harlem followers.
The second reason for Smith's stature was equally important: He had "made it." Like most ghetto youths, he had faced tremendous adjustment problems when he arrived on a predominantly white campus. In his first months at Marquette, he had fought everyone who seemed unable to understand his ghetto jargon, his racial pride, or his competitive fury. He was so combative that teammates and friends nicknamed him The Evil Doctor Blackheart. The name stayed with him, but the attitudes that produced it began to change. He became extremely popular on campus, did well scholastically, and developed a deep bond with his coach, Al McGuire. In Smith's senior year, that bond faced its ultimate test. For reasons that neither man has ever confided, McGuire suspended Smith for most of that season—and, incredibly, the two men grew closer than ever. Most black athletes who encounter such crises and find their basketball eligibility running out, drift back home, feeling lost and exploited—and lacking a college degree. Smith stayed at Marquette through the suspension, and remained two more years before earning his degree in June 1970. The reasons for his remarkable determination are as shadowy as the man himself sometimes seems; but it made the Evil Doctor a figure to be respected back home. And though he is intent on building a future outside Harlem, Smith returns home often, to be troubled once again by friends who have succumbed to drugs, to be enraged by conditions, and to remember some of the good things about growing up.
"The old Rucker Tournament was held in this park," Smith said, gesturing to one of the trees alongside the court. "When I was a kid I'd climb up into that tree. I'd stake out one of the branches early in the morning and just sit up there all day. A guy with a cart would come by and I'd yell for him to hand me up some lemon ices, and I'd eat one after another. There was no way anyone could get me to come down while the games were going on. I was in a world of my own, sitting up above the crowd and watching the great ones come in and do their thing...."
The Rucker Tournament is actually not a tournament but a summer league in which teams play one another through the weekends of July and August. Established in 1946 by a remarkable young teacher named Holcombe Rucker, it was originally intended mainly to keep kids off the streets and in school by encouraging them in both studies and basketball. Rucker's idea was to give dignity and meaning to pickup games by adding referees, local publicity, and larger audiences; it worked, and gradually the Rucker Tournament expanded to include divisions for young athletes from junior high school through the pro level. A project that had begun with four teams and one referee began to offer basketball from morning until dark in various Harlem parks, before crowds estimated as high as five thousand. When Rucker died of cancer in 1955 at the age of thirty-eight, a well-known Harlem player named Bob McCullough and pro guard Freddie Crawford, now with the Milwaukee Bucks, took over the direction of the tournament. It remains the pinnacle of playground ball in New York, annually attracting stars from both pro leagues, members of touring teams such as the Harlem Globetrotters, as well as the best players of the regular pickup games of the city.
The pro section of the Rucker Tournament had long since been moved to another storied playground, at 155th Street and Eighth Avenue, but the lure of a decade-old game remained in that Seventh Avenue park for Pat Smith. Outside the ragged fences, the quiet Harlem Sunday was interrupted by the sounds of the women on the ubiquitous church steps, straightening uncomfortable dresses and pushing veils away from their faces as they chatted feverishly, in the weekly ritual escape from rat-infested kitchens and endless labor. Near the knots of women, grown men in boys' uniforms joined small children in formation for one of the minor parades that still serve some Harlemites as straggly symbols of unity and pride. Young, educated, and militant, Pat Smith had very different ideas about black dignity; moments earlier he had been depressed by the Sunday delusions of some of his people. But under the tree that had once been his reserved seat, he occupied his mind with loftier drama, recalling a game of street basketball at its best.
"It was the kind of game that established citywide reputations. Clinton Robinson was playing. Jackie Jackson was there. So was Wilt Chamberlain, who was in his first or second year of pro ball at the time...." He savored each name as he spoke it; this was a very special honor roll. Some of the names, like Robinson's and Jackson's, would be familiar only to the ghetto kids who once worshiped them; others, like Chamberlain's, would be recognized by every basketball fan. But to Smith and many others they were all gods, and their best games were Olympian clashes.
"Chamberlain and Robinson were on the same team along with some other greats, and they were ahead by about 15 points. They looked like easy winners. Then, up in the tree, I heard a strange noise. There were maybe four, five thousand people watching the game, and all of a sudden a hush came over them. All you could hear was a whisper: 'The Hawk, The Hawk, The Hawk is here.' Then the crowd parted. And the Hawk walked onto the court."
The Hawk was Connie Hawkins. When you ask ghetto basketball fans to cite the very best players ever to come out of New York, you find much disagreement; but a few names are invariably included, and one of them is The Hawk. Yet for years he seemed fated to become one of those virtually forgotten playground stars who never earn the money or fame they deserve. Connie made his reputation at Brooklyn's Boys High in the late 1950s, but when he was a freshman at the University of Iowa in 1961, he was linked to a gambling scandal. His chief crime had been naïveté in talking to glad-handing gamblers, and he had never been indicted or even accused of trying to shave points or fix games. But his college career was shattered and for almost a decade he was an outcast, barred from the NBA, laboring in the short-lived American Basketball League and then in the American Basketball Association as it struggled for survival.
In 1969, after a prolonged legal battle, Hawkins won a million-dollar lawsuit and readmission to the NBA as a member of the Phoenix Suns. He quickly justified everything the playground kids had been saying about him for years. At the time of the game Smith described, Hawkins was a year or two out of Boys High, a man without a team or league. Yet he was the most magnetic star in Harlem.
"The crowd was still hushed as they called time out," Smith continued. "They surrounded the man. They undressed the man. And finally he finished lacing up his sneakers and walked out into the backcourt. He got the ball, picked up speed, and started his first move. Chamberlain came right out to stop him. The Hawk went up—he was still way out beyond the foul line—and started floating toward the basket. Wilt, taller and stronger, stayed right with him—but then The Hawk hook-dunked the ball right over Chamberlain. He hook-dunked! Nobody had ever done anything like that to Wilt. The crowd went so crazy that they had to stop the game for five minutes. And I almost fell out of the tree.
"But you didn't get away with just one spectacular move in those games. So the other guys came right back at The Hawk. Clinton Robinson charged in, drove around him, and laid one up so high that it hit the top of the backboard. The Hawk went way up, but he couldn't quite reach it, and it went down into the basket. Clinton Robinson was about six feet tall and The Hawk was six feet eight—so the crowd went wild again. In fact, Clinton had thrown some of the greatest moves I'd ever seen, shaking guys left and right before he even reached The Hawk.
"Then it was Chamberlain's turn to get back. Wilt usually took it pretty easy in summer games, walking up and down the court and doing just enough to intimidate his opponents with his seven-foot body. But now his pride was hurt, his manhood was wounded. And you can't let that happen in a tough street game. So he came down, drove directly at the hoop, and went up over The Hawk. Wilt stuffed the ball with two hands, and he did it so hard that he almost ripped the backboard off the pole.
"By then everybody on the court was fired up—and it was time for The Hawk to take charge again. Clinton Robinson came toward him with the ball, throwing those crazy moves on anyone who tried to stop him, and then he tried to loft a lay-up way up onto the board, the way he had done before. Only this time The Hawk was up there waiting for it. He was up so high that he blocked the shot with his chest. Still in midair, he kind of swept his hands down across his chest as if he were wiping his shirt—and slammed the ball down at Robinson's feet. The play seemed to turn the whole game around, and The Hawk's team came from behind to win. That was The Hawk. Just beautiful. I don't think anybody who was in that crowd could ever forget that game."
The crowd of spectators was much larger on the night of May 8, 1970, when the New York Knicks faced the Los Angeles Lakers in the final game of the National Basketball Association playoffs. There were 19,500 people in Madison Square Garden and thousands more in front of television sets in the homes and bars that were hooked up to the Knicks' cable-TV network. All—from the chic celebrities and silk-suited gamblers in the Garden's courtside seats to the cheering beer drinkers in the taverns—shared an experience as communal as that of the smaller, blacker groups at long-ago Rucker confrontations.
The first week of May had been a brutalizing, feverish ordeal for most New Yorkers. United States troops were slogging into the mud of Cambodia and a shocked young girl was screaming silently from the front pages of newspapers and magazines, in terrible, haunting testimony to the four murders at Kent State University. Anguished demonstrators were assembling near the United Nations and in the Wall Street area, pleading almost hopelessly to a government they knew wasn't listening, fully aware that the cab drivers who cursed them from behind flag decals on dirty taxi windshields were now the voice of their administration. Then the city's darkest fears took shape, as mobs of Wall Street construction workers unleashed the small hatreds and resentments that had been building within them for years, and descended on the young people whom their President had reassured them were merely bums. For two days the workers were content to rain beer cans and insults on the demonstrators. Then, on the afternoon before that final Knicks game, the workers came down to bully the kids at close range. Aided by Wall Street clerks, they went on a sickening spree, ganging up on the kids, kicking them when they were on the pavement, and leaving scores of bloody victims while policemen stood placidly by.
The politics of hate and polarization had thrust deep into New York's guts, and few people on either side could relish the sight of open war between Nixon's newly unleashed Silent Majority and the young, the poor, and the black. Countless people groped for sanity in the wounded city, and wondered if it would be sundered irreparably. Some of the spectators who came to watch the Knicks that night may have wondered just how much they could still care about a game. Then the Knicks showed them. They didn't solve the world's problems, any more than playground games cure the ills of the ghetto. But, like a ghetto game, the Knicks and Lakers did offer a moment of high drama, a brief and necessary escape from reality—a transcendent experience, which, in the end, is all anyone can ask of a great sporting event.
Fittingly, the drama began in much the same way as it had in that Rucker game for Pat Smith. The Lakers were at one end of the floor, gaudy in their purple and gold warm-up jackets, crisp in their practice shots, and dominated by the same seven-foot-two-inch figure who had dominated the Rucker scene, Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt was thirty-four now, struggling courageously to come back from a crippling knee injury; but he remained an imposing figure, a towering complement to the other Laker superstars, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. At the other end of the court, the Knicks appeared ill equipped to challenge him; their own big man, Willis Reed, was not among them.
Reed, the center and captain and the Most Valuable Player in basketball, was back in the locker room, stretched out motionless on the training table as Dr. James Parkes, the team physician, injected 200 milligrams of a pain-killing drug called Carbocaine into his right hip. Reed had strained the muscles in the hip four nights earlier in the fifth game of the championship series. As he had toppled to the floor, New York fans had seen their cherished hopes fall with him. Because they were in New York, the big league of basketball and the citadel of national media, the Knicks had been christened early in the season—admittedly prematurely—as one of the most remarkable teams of all time. Logic had dictated that they would have to win championships before they deserved such accolades; but the spectacle of their superb team play and their fervid rapport with the crowd had not been conducive to logic—and New Yorkers had confidently assumed that the Knicks' prowess would be rewarded with a title. Then Reed's painful injury had rudely shattered that confidence.
The Knicks had won the fifth game without Willis, but in the sixth game, in Los Angeles, Wilt Chamberlain had crashed over and around Reed's replacements for 45 points and the Lakers had won handily. There was still a chance that a delirious home crowd could inspire the Knicks to win again without Reed. But the crowd itself seemed to sense that the odds were very slim. The repeated chant of "We want Willis" contained a note of fear; plaintive signs were draped from the balcony to express the desperate hopes of the fans: REED, WE NEED YOU.
At seven-thirty-four, his lips pursed and his face intent as he forced himself to walk stiffly erect and hide his limp, Reed finally appeared. The crowd greeted him with the most deafening standing ovation of the season. For one hundred games the fans had poured out their love for the Knicks in countless bursts, hailing steals by Walt Frazier and passes by Bill Bradley and shooting sprees by Cazzie Russell. Yet in the hundred and first game they seemed to call on special reserves of emotion, in direct response to the reserves of courage that Reed had found within himself. Their voices rose in a two-minute crescendo as Willis strode to the foul line and took a few practice shots. The roar faded, then rose again when Reed was introduced with the other Knick starters—and then the Garden exploded when Willis made the first two shots of the game.
Excerpted from The City Game by Pete Axthelm. Copyright © 1970 Pete Axthelm. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Pete Axthelm was an editor for Newsweek. Rick Telander is a sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and a writer for ESPN Magazine.
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