SI Vault
Curry Kirkpatrick
August 05, 1968
Each summer pro basketball players come back to playgrounds like this one in Harlem where they can still learn a lot from neighborhood regulars who never had the chance to make the big time
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August 05, 1968

A Place In The Big-city Sun

Each summer pro basketball players come back to playgrounds like this one in Harlem where they can still learn a lot from neighborhood regulars who never had the chance to make the big time

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On any winter night anywhere in the U.S. the scene is familiar. High above the court in Providence, or in Peoria, or in Portland, a crowd will watch the kid with all the moves and marvel at him. He is so young, but so advanced. He has it all—the polish and the sense of the game and that special feel of the ball that can come only by growing up with it, bouncing it and shooting it against somebody else good almost every day of the year. The kid has got to be New York. The precocious ones with all the moves are almost sure to have learned the game on the hard and hot surface that is universally recognized as basketball's gut-and-soul home: the playground.

It is hardly a revelation that basketball, more than any other sport, is New York's game, the playground game. High-rise geography and the other realities of the urban core have dictated this. Where baseball and football cry out for grass and space, basketball asks only for concrete. Just a little bit of concrete. A kid in New York goes eight blocks to the concrete playground instead of 80 to the grass, and he shoots a basketball all year round. Even in the summer when the pavement burns and the only relief is the man with the snocones he goes to the playground and shoots a basketball.

The significant locus of all playground competition in New York has always been Harlem. They all play there, the aristocracy of the game and the anonymous, together. They play behind the fence on 138th Street off Fifth Avenue, or over by the St. Nicholas projects, or on a hundred other sidewalk courts around the area. So a guy picks up a game and finds himself guarding Jimmy Walker. Cool it, Jack, Harlem tells the guy. It is Harlem's justifiable boast and well-documented claim that the guy is probably as good as Walker, anyway. A man leaves his reputation and his clippings behind him when he comes to the Harlem playgrounds.

To be sure, it is somehow rare to find players who have to come to street-corner basketball; most are already there. One such man was Holcombe Rucker, a high school dropout and World War II veteran whose idea it was to transform pickup basketball into an organized activity for all the youngsters of Harlem. Today his efforts have come to maturity in a group of summer leagues that include a division for professional players. The Holcombe Rucker professional tournament now stands as the pinnacle of playground sport in America.

In reality, the "tournament" isn't a tournament at all; it is a league composed of nine teams that play each other once in a round-robin competition on weekends from June through August. Most of the teams in the tournament have a couple of players from the National Basketball Association; the remaining participants are lesser-known pros from the ABA, the Eastern League and the Globetrotters or the countless other touring teams from Harlem.

Risking imminent exhaustion from the 90� heat and what seems to be their own certain destruction on the steel posts that support the baskets, the players gather each Saturday and Sunday on the fenced-in courts of the 155th Street and Eighth Avenue playground. There, about two fast breaks away from the site of the old Polo Grounds, they are watched by upward of 3,000 spectators who arrive in all varieties of exotic summer costume and who, if the stark green wooden stands are filled, use beach chairs, orange crates and oil cans as their bleachers.

Over the heavy, staccato beat of the bongo drums on an adjacent playground, the public-address announcer, Walter Simpson, speaks through a bullhorn. Along with the running score and the time remaining, a skillful play-by-play of all the action is furnished with commentary spiced by such remarks as, "You know who got that one!" after a rebound by Jumping Johnny Green of the Philadelphia 76ers or, "Everybody take it easy; ain't nothin' happenin'!" after an uproar over an official's call. Mr. Simpson is very nearly as good as the Astrodome scoreboard itself; he does everything but blow up.

Though play is well-controlled and not so rough as a newcomer might expect, there is a considerable amount of freelancing and "get back" competition. Get back is instant playground reprisal. If a man exhibits his best move and scores on a negligent opponent, all hands yell, "Get back, get back," at the defender, whereupon he must immediately try to get back at the opponent who just took him. Promptly, with what is often a spectacular retaliatory move of his own, the second man usually does get back.

The audience is appreciative of all this and quite knowledgeable. The spectators are quick to detect the spurious move and overblown reputation, and they do not keep these discoveries to themselves. Often they are as much a spectacle as the scrimmages on the court. Included in their number sometimes are such heralded celebrities as Lew Alcindor, home for the summer to work in Mayor Lindsay's program, Operation Sports Rescue, and Wilt Chamberlain, who between contract negotiations has tooled up in his sparkling Dual-Ghia to catch the action of one team from which he has never been traded.

"There go 'The Dipper,' " says one little fan to his companion.

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