New York City may struggle to be considered the undisputed “Mecca of basketball” anymore. Harlem’s iconic Rucker Park, however, is still where many of the NBA’s greatest names sharpened their saw and retains the crown for where real blacktop legends are made. And so, the NBA Players Union spoke with Harlem’s Community Board 10 Parks and Recreation about plans to invest $360,000 in renovating “The Rucker.”
“You can’t talk about New York basketball without talking about the Rucker,” said Michele Roberts, the exec. director of the player’s union, during the video conference call with Community Board 10. As reported by Patch, she told the attendees about her days as a girl from the South Bronx and how her brothers would make the journey to Harlem with her to play ball at the revered park. “At a very young age, [I] learned to appreciate how the Rucker is essentially holy ground.”
The park was named after local teacher and playground director Holcombe L. Rucker, who began holding basketball tournaments there so youth could stay active and keep away from other more unfavorable elements, like gangs or drug culture.
According to the presentation, a range of updates will be made, including new benches and gates, better grades of backboards and rims, and a revamped blacktop. There will even be a new scoreboard, and its design will be simplified in order for community members to operate it more easily. The courts will have artwork done by someone from the area like was done at Lower East Side’s Stanton Street Courts or Harlem’s St. Nicholas Park, and the renovation project is expected to start mid-August with a target completion of some time in October.
Older generations of NBA greats such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who was then Lew Alcindor), Joe “The Destroyer” Hammond, and Julius “Dr. J” Erving (called “The Claw” for his massive hands) are some of the players who made their bones at Rucker Park during the ’60s and ’70s. Neighborhood celebs like Richard “Pee Wee” Kirkland are Earl “The Goat” Manigault are only two of the names who were “must-see” entertainers who unfortunately got dragged into the harsher parts of Harlem life, though.
Millennials are likelier to recall performances from Kobe Bryant (who was proclaimed “Lord of the Rings” when he visited West 155th Street and 8th Avenue) or Kevin Durant and his scorching display of shooting in 2011. Harlemite Greg Marius famously brought his own ball tournament, the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic, to Rucker Park in 1987, and EBC has since been visited by the likes of Fat Joe, Diddy, and former President Bill Clinton.
“The entire world of summer basketball, from the organized level down to pickup, owes their left sneaker and both shoelaces to Mr. Holcombe Rucker,” said NYC DJ and street culture historian “Bobbito” Garcia to ESPN. “Basketball was born in Springfield, Massachusetts,” he said, “but it grew up in New York.”