Around this time last year, Roy Hibbert commented on how his teammate Lance Stephenson—playing the role of provocateur in the Pacers-Heat series at the time—always felt the need to tell folks where he's from.
“In practice he says, ‘Brooklyn, Brooklyn. I’m from Brooklyn.' ... He has a little swag about him,” Hibbert told Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
The thing is, Stephenson didn’t really have to tell anyone about his origins. His playing peers and hoops junkies are well aware that Born Ready (his Rucker Park given name) is from Gotham. He was a teenage legend, much like his Lincoln High predecessors, Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair.
And his game is distinctly New York. People play basketball with style and verve all over the world now (for instance, Ricky Rubio's from Barcelona). But earlier in May, when Stephenson skipped up the court, hopped in the air and threw a no-look bounce pass against the Hawks in the first round of the playoffs, well, that was a Coney Island thing.
New York City hoopers used to have quite the profile in the NBA. Legends like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob Cousy, Dolph Schayes, Connie Hawkins, Lenny Wilkens, Bernard King and Tiny Archibald were New York City products. But when the 2014 playoffs started, if you looked up and down the rosters, you saw only two NYC graduates—Stephenson and Kemba Walker.
(Taj Gibson grew up in Brooklyn, but bounced to California midway through high school. Joakim Noah was born in New York, but spent most of his childhood in Paris before returning to the States to live in NYC, though he played ball in New Jersey.)
In fact, there are just five players either on current NBA rosters (Kyle O'Quinn, Stephenson and Walker) or that suited up in the NBA this season prior to being waived (Ben Gordon and Metta World Peace) who grew up and played high school basketball in New York City. And that’s including Mount Vernon-product Gordon, since NYC basketball folk will all tell you that Money Earnin’ Mount Vernon is basically the Bronx.
You can add Queens native Charlie Villanueva if you’d like—even though he played high school ball in New Jersey and with a Long Island AAU squad—but he played all of 180 minutes this past season.
NYC’s current lack of imprint on the NBA would have been unthinkable years back. Twenty years ago, Kenny Anderson was an All-Star; Kenny Smith’s Rockets won the championship, taking three of four in a best-of-five from Rod Strickland’s Blazers first (Strickland averaged 24 and 10); Mark Jackson was just a few weeks away from being traded to the Pacers, whom he’d lead through many deep playoff runs; and Chris Mullin had recently played zone-buster for the Dream Team.
Or even 10 years ago: Ron Artest was All-NBA; Marbury and Jamal Mashburn were a year removed from All-Star selections; and Gordon and Telfair were lottery picks in the 2004 draft.
Fast-forward to today. A New York City high school graduate has not been an All-Star or made any of the All-NBA teams since 2004, and Kemba Walker has been the lone first-round draft pick during that same span.
That’s no mecca.
Or we can just get especially real and admit that, as it stands right now, the talent in the tristate area is coming from the west side of the Hudson River.
Pierre Turner, who along with Vincent Smith, Kenny Smith's older brother, began the Aim High Foundation, which produced scores of talented NYC basketball players in the 1980s and '90s, scoffed at the notion that players from New Jersey have a better chance of developing into NBA players than those from NYC.
“You can’t tell me that you go across the George Washington Bridge and the air is better,” he said.
Driving the New Jersey Turnpike and witnessing the smoke billow from refinery plants makes that hard to believe. So then what?
Why is NYC—which used to be the major manufacturer of basketball talent—a middle-rung talent-producer these days? And furthermore, as you might be wondering, does it even matter?
Isaiah Whitehead is a highly touted Brooklyn kid who played at famed Lincoln High under the increasingly venerated coach Dwayne “Tiny” Morton. He is ranked 16th by Rivals for the Class of 2014, and he’s somewhat of a rarity.
In the 10 years since Telfair, only Stephenson, Walker and Whitehead have left NYC high schools ranked in the Top 20 of their classes. Even if you include the kids that fled NYC for prep-school-prospect plants like Oak Hill, Montverde and IMG, the Bronx’s Dakari Johnson and Queens' Doron Lamb were the only other recognized blue chips.
Which begs the question: Can we still consider the nation’s largest metropolis a recruiting hotbed?
Jerry McCullough graduated from the former Harlem powerhouse Rice High School and went on to be a three-year starter at Pittsburgh in the early 1990s. Now, as director of basketball operations at South Florida (under fellow New Yorker Orlando Antigua), it’s his job to find the talent in the high school ranks. His hometown is struggling to keep up.
“New York is mid-major heaven, right now,” McCullough said. “Before, it was all big-time. When I was coming up, in each class we had maybe 10 high-major prospects. Now you have a couple, if that, and the rest are really good mid-major prospects.”
That’s not being said about, for instance, Chicago, which has produced Anthony Davis, Jabari Parker and 2014’s top-ranked Jahlil Okafor in the past several years (Kansas signee Cliff Alexander is also a Top Five prospect).
Talk to current and former players and coaches, and the general hoops intelligentsia associated with NYC, and you hear a variety of reasons for the distinct drop-off. Some of them are the typical character assessments that a lot of Generation Xers and baby boomers spit at millennials. Kids aren’t hungry enough. They don’t want to work. It’s a microwave culture, now, so the talent doesn’t bake.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Thanks for the boilerplates, homies. But, as the kids still say: What’s really good?
That’s the very matter-of-fact, one-word answer from NYC legend Rod Strickland. Rod is what’s known as hood platinum—or, in this case, “hoops head” platinum—meaning that his import for basketball junkies in the '90s far exceeds whatever props he gets from the general fan of that same era.
He made just one All-NBA team in 1998 (leading a Washington Wizards squad that featured a young Chris Webber-Juwan Howard reunion), and he never advanced past the first round as a starter in Portland. But that yo-yo handle and those ultra-slick finishes at the basket among the trees made him a hooper’s hooper. He says competition made him the player he was.
“Back in my day, you were either a [New York] Gaucho or a [Riverside] Hawk,” said Strickland, referring to the two towering AAU programs of the '80s and '90s. “If you weren’t good enough to make one of those two teams, then you weren’t good enough to travel and you couldn’t get the recognition. So you had to work to get to play with the best and against the best.
“Now, if you got a rich uncle or your dad wants to make sure you get some time, they just start up an AAU team,” said an annoyed Maxwell “Bingo” Cole, who coached eventual players like Ron Artest, Lamar Odom and Erick Barkley—all on the same squad—for Riverside.
This decentralization of talent coincided with a hoops culture change in the city. New Yorker hoopers had a reputation (urban myth or not) of simply playing more ball than everyone else.
“We used to shovel snow off the courts to play in the winter—seriously,” said Orlando Antigua's brother Oliver Antigua, longtime coach at St. Raymond’s (alumni includes Allan Ray, Julius Hodge and Terrence Rencher, among others) and recent Seton Hall assistant. “Now, we just play as much as everyone else. Go to the parks. They used to be packed. Not anymore.”
“Night centers” used to be the spots where talent gathered, too. Over the years, they’ve either closed or become increasingly used for other activities. Lost Battalion in Queens (aka “Kenny Anderson’s Personal Playground”) was where everyone from Kenny Smith to NCAA champion Taliek Brown honed their skills, but you’re more likely to see little girls practicing ribbon gymnastics on that court these days.
But perhaps the most compelling reason many gave for NYC’s dwindling relevance was the loss of teachers.
“The forefathers aren’t around anymore,” said Mark Williams, who runs the Queens-based skills academy Footprintz, with Brown, the former Connecticut Huskie. “Who’s teaching these kids?”
Everyone rattles off the same names of the the previous eras' teachers: Riverside’s initial head honcho Ernie Lorch, the Gauchos’ Lou d’Almeida, Dave McCullough, Vincent Smith, Turner, former Christ the King coach Bob Oliva, the “father of basketball in Brooklyn” Gil Reynolds—to name a few.
Some of these men have died, some left amid controversy, others moved away. (Oliva, d'Almeida and Lorch were subjects of abuse scandals, as noted in these New York Daily News and FoxSports.com articles.) In their stead are men who many don't consider to be on the same level as basketball minds.
“I was talking to Pee Wee Kirkland not long ago,” recalled Turner, “and he said, ‘Pierre, I come home [from serving a jail sentence] and everyone that comes up to talk to me tells me he’s a coach. Now there’s too many coaches and not enough players.’”
Everyone from Kenny Smith to Anderson to Artest to Odom spent significant time learning at Aim High at some point. Teaching was the focus.
“Anyone can be a coach,” Turner continued. “But can you teach? Back when we were running [Aim High], we had what we call ‘skull sessions.’ Science class. We taught the angles. What do you do against a 2-3 zone? That kind of stuff. These days they just roll the ball out.”
New York City has a basketball brain-drain problem. Dain Ervin is an NYC (and Aim High) product who went on to play D-I ball at Texas State and stayed there. He rattled off a bunch of names (Jerry McCullough, Charles Jones, Kevin Simmons, Rencher and others) who aren’t in NYC passing on the knowledge they learned coming up from the teachers of their era.
There’s a personal responsibility, he says, to pay it forward (him included).
“Guys like Taliek, they’re the keepers,” Vincent Smith says. “The younger guys gotta take the torch and start teaching kids to put New York back on the map.”
America is sometimes referred to as a superpower in decline. Hegemony lasts for only so long. It’s not a coincidence that basketball’s most analogous geographic changing of the guard is what we’ve seen take place with rap music over the same period.
Although Brooklyn’s Jay Z and Queens’ 50 Cent sold a gazillion records the previous decade, they were joined by rappers from St. Louis (Nelly), Chicago (Kanye West), Detroit (Eminem), New Orleans (Lil Wayne) and a boatload from Atlanta, the capital of the South, rap’s new dominant region.
“New York ran hip-hop for a long time and then before you knew it, here comes Death Row. Here comes Lil Wayne. Same thing happened with basketball,” Brown said. “The rest of the country caught up. The world caught up.”
Chicago is churning out future Hall of Famers (Kevin Garnett, Dwyane Wade, hopefully Derrick Rose, maybe Anthony Davis) and Los Angeles County had 12 players (including big names James Harden, Paul George, Paul Pierce and Russell Westbrook) on the 16 playoff rosters alone.
“Taliek told me a story,” recalled Ervin, “about him playing overseas against this teenage kid that was bustin’ his ass—that kid was [Goran] Dragic. Basketball is global. Everyone can ball now.”
“New York used to have a mystique,” Strickland said. “If you were from New York, it was a big deal. It’s not feared anymore, though. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
Whereas some misguided rap “purists” try to correlate the demise of NYC hip-hop with the erosion of artistry in the genre (like Smoothe da Hustler is inherently more artistic than Schoolboy Q), you won’t find many New Yorkers making a false connection between NYC’s retreat to the middle of the hoops pack and, say, some negative change in the game stylistically.
“New York—especially the guards—always brought that flair and swag to the game, but now everyone has that,” said Cole. “KD shut down Rucker Park. You got point guards like Chris Paul and Steph Curry that got the NY swag to their games, too.”
“And they even got jump shots!”
Because New York remains the media capital, the goings-on here still receive disproportionate attention. It’s probably partly why Felipe Lopez made the cover of Sports Illustrated before he played a college game (unheard of back then) and could never earn a full-time starting gig or average double figures in his short NBA career.
It’s probably partly why the ballyhooed Class of 2000 point guards (Brown, Barrett and Omar Cook) were supposed to usher in a renaissance for the city, but, despite successful college careers, the three played a combined 89 games in the NBA.
It’s probably why Sebastian Telfair—one of the most hyped prep ballplayers ever (other than LeBron)—can barely stay in the league. So, the fact that, during these Ramen noodle years, we haven’t had to read a bunch of overwrought obituaries for NYC hoops, pining for the “glory days” or claiming that “the game’s just not the same” without it, has to be considered a win.
Stephenson will undoubtedly "rep BK to the fullest” as these playoffs continue. But in all likelihood, the best players will be from a smallish town in Ohio, a D.C. suburb, Los Angeles County and France.
Everyone’s OK with this, and if you let them tell it, New Yorkers aren’t sweating it, either.
Vincent Thomas is a writer living in Brooklyn. He is the former editor-in-chief of The Shadow League. His work has frequently appeared in SLAM, ESPN.com, Fox Sports, NBA.com and various newspapers. Follow him @vincecathomas.