Must Hoop : Rucker Park in New York City

If there is one streetball court that stands above the rest, it is legendary Holcombe Rucker Park, or most commonly known as just “Rucker Park.” We feature the court as a “must hoop” for all basketball players.

Located on 155th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard in the borough of Harlem on the northside of New York City, Rucker Park is considered by many to be Hoops Heaven on Earth. Apartment buildings – the Polo Ground Towers – loom over the enclosed court, surrounded by playgrounds, a baseball diamond, and other park necessities.

Go there in the day, and you don’t see what is so special. It’s just another court in a city filled with them. Small, steel bleachers, shaking rims, concrete blocks on the other side of the high chain-link fence. Go there on a Friday evening, and you’ll start to get a feel of the magic in the air. Cheering fans, highlight plays, standing room only.

Learn about the history, and you realize that you are standing on hallowed ground.

There was a time where if you wanted to make a name for yourself as a basketball player in New York, you needed to make an appearance at Rucker. You needed to do more than just play, you needed to dominate.

Beginnings: In the 1950’s, Holcombe Rucker, the playground director of Harlem, started the Rucker League – an outdoor tournament at the court that quickly turned into a Pro-Am filled with the biggest basketball names in the city.

NBA players would come and try their luck against streetball legends like Earl “The Goat” Manigault and Pee Wee Kirkland. Oftentimes, they would leave with their heads down and tails between their legs, sorely beaten by the Rucker legends.

Rucker had a unique appeal. It combined the flash of streetball with the ability and competitiveness of professional play. The talent was high, the battles were hard, but most of all, it was excitement in a bottle.

The Golden Age: NBA Superstars started to appear more often as the years went on. In the 1970s, a young, unproven player by the name of Julius Erving walked onto the blacktop for the first time, surrounded by fans and desperate to play his best.

He proceeded to dominate the court like nobody had before. With standing room only and eager faces pressed into the fence, the announcers threw nicknames at the high-flying talent, trying to see what would stick. “Black Moses” and “The Claw” (shoutout to Kawhi Leonard, who took on that mantle 40 years later), but eventually, “Dr. J” had found a new name and a new home on the court.

Wilt Chamberlain was soon to follow, making a name for himself with his absurd athleticism and height on the court. Legend has it, Wilt played a game at Rucker without any nets on the rims. He dunked the ball so hard that the ball bounced off the ground and over the 15-foot fence that surrounded the blacktop. By the time a wayward fan had retrieved the ball, the rim still shook so badly that play could not resume.

Rucker had drawn the biggest basketball names in the world, and it was here to stay.

From Rucker to the NBA: Stars’ are not only made at Rucker park, but they’re also born and raised there as well.

God Shammgod, the creator of one of the filthiest dribble moves of all time, credits endless hours at Rucker Park as a child and teen to his basketball ability. While he may have only had mediocre success in the NBA, he is one of the greatest streetballers of all time.

Stephon Marbury grew up in Brooklyn and grew from being some kid shooting on the Rucker hoops to one of the greatest players to ever claim Rucker Park as his home court.

Modern Era: The newest generations of NBA stars do not frequent Rucker Park as often as they used to. With increases in popularity, security, and global stardom, it just is not possible.

That doesn’t stop the very best of the best from making an appearance from time to time to test their mettle on Rucker’s magical court, however.

LeBron James, Vince Carter, Allen Iverson, and Kobe Bryant have all played in games at the park, usually in organized games that involve teams composed of NBA talent and the best of the best streetballers.

In terms of modern legend for their play on the Rucker Park court, perhaps nobody comes close to Kevin Durant. In 2011, Durant played in front of a packed house. When I say packed, I mean PACKED. People filled out onto the street, cars parked on the road, and people hanging out of windows just for a glimpse of the action kind of packed.

Durant gave a performance for the ages. In a tightly contested game, he scored 66 points to win. To cap his team’s comeback victory, Durant hit back to back to back to back deep threes.

Watch the clip and you can start to feel the magic that surrounds that park. The players feed the crowd and the crowd feeds the players. There is almost an endless energy bouncing around while legends light up the park.

Durant was the latest to create a legend that will be passed down from generation to generation at that park, but he will not be the last.

Rucker Park taught stars of the past the beauty of the game, and it shows fans of the present the joy of basketball. A “must hoop” court for all you ballers!

        

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