A dirty orange globe hits the asphalt, again and again, its rhythmic motion almost hypnotizing as the young man dribbles up the court. At this moment nobody can touch him – it’s just him and the ball going thump, thump, thump. Nothing compares to knowing he’s playing on the same court where Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson and Michael Jordan once stood.
Xavier Montgomery, 15, spends most weekends and nearly every day after school at Holcombe Rucker Park along West 155th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. He’s been playing there since he was 7, he said, practicing and enjoying pickup games with friends. “I come out here to have competitive fun,” he said. “You learn how to control the game and play new competition.”
Spending half his life on the faded green court, Montgomery picked up crossover techniques, studied how to lead a team and to think ahead during games. He credits some of those skills to the annual Nike World Basketball Festival held here. Three years ago, Bryant and Jordan showed Montgomery and his friends the fundamentals; he even got a few pointers from the stars one-on-one.
He didn’t want to brag, Montgomery said with a shrug, but a smile slipped through his lips anyway. A lot of great players have passed through this courtyard, he added.
Three acres of history, Rucker Park boasts some of the most noteworthy pickup games in basketball history. Sports enthusiasts say that 18 NBA players got their start at Rucker Park – including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Kevin Durant, reports BleacherReport.com – and countless more graced its court after gaining stardom.
Founder Holcombe Rucker grew up in Manhattan and worked as a playground director at several Harlem locations from 1948 to 1964, according to the city parks department. Rucker started a basketball tournament in Harlem in 1974; his league’s motto was “each one, teach one.” He emphasized the importance of education – sometimes report cards dictated who could play. Rucker even helped obtain over 700 college athletic scholarships for tournament participants, according to nycgovparks.org.
Over the years, Rucker allowed his best tournament players to share the court with professionals like Chamberlain, leading to the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic and the Each One Teach One tournament.
The park, officially opened in 1956 as P.S. 156 Playground, was renamed Holcombe Rucker in 1974.
It still hosts the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic each summer, a semi-professional tournament that many Harlem fans consider the greatest street ball tournament. It’s gained so much recognition over the years that movie stars and music moguls – like Jay-Z, Mary J. Blige and Denzel Washington – have come to watch.
Dashon Glenn, a longtime Rucker Park player, recalls seeing Bryant and DJ Khaled at the classic last summer. “They look different on TV though,” he said. “They real – they don’t let money go to their heads.”
Last year’s NBA lockout, the fourth in league history, also led some professional players to head to Rucker Park to stay in shape and hone their skills. A lot of famous faces appeared on the court, Glenn said.
Glenn, 22, has been playing pickup games since he was 9, leaving his apartment at the Polo Grounds Towers complex across the street to play games late at night. “I would come out here on dark nights, stormy nights, when we didn’t have any food in the house,” he said. “I would come out here, hungry, and play ball.”
“This is my hunger,” he added, surveying the court just before twilight. Most of the younger players had left, so the court was absent the usual sounds of kids shouting drills and sneakers scratching the surface.
Although basketball reigns supreme, Rucker Park still has four handball courts – underused, park goers said – plus a baseball diamond and a playground featuring a seal statue that kids enjoy climbing over, though the gray-blue seal is missing a flipper.
Billy Roman, 18, takes his three younger sisters – the family also lives at Polo Grounds Towers – to the playground as often as he can. They enjoy swinging on the monkey bars and jumping off the scarred seal.
Roman’s been to the park so many times that it’s boring, he said. But he admits it’s filled with history. “The only bad thing is the amount of killing that comes out of here,” he said. “It has a positive and negative.”
In July, during the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic, five people were shot after a spectator grew upset over a referee’s call. The New York City Park Advocates’ blog, dedicated to reporting park crime, lists the shooting as the last major crime to originate at Rucker Park.
Yet overall, neighborhood crime has plummeted nearly 75 percent over two decades. Rucker Park is in the 32nd precinct, where 4,469 serious crimes were reported in 1990, decreasing to 1,110 last year, according to a NYPD CompStat report. But while police track crime statistics for 30 city parks, according to New Yorkers for Parks, a park advocacy group, Rucker Park is not among them.
Joe Fergerson, 43, played street ball at Rucker Park in the late 70s and early 80s. “People from the old school, like me, we nurtured a lot of people,” he said. “It gives a lot of young people hope.”
Fergerson watched Montgomery play one-on-one with another neighborhood kid. “This is a comfort,” he said. “I like to see young people out here playing and not fighting. Basketball is one of the sports where you can make brothers out of nothing.”