Rucker Park, Harlem: The Wall Street of Playground Basketball

Doug Merlino@dougmerlinoGuest ColumnistApril 8, 2011

Kobe Bryant at Rucker Park, Aug. 14, 2010
Kobe Bryant at Rucker Park, Aug. 14, 2010

The following is an excerpt from the e-book The Crossover: A Brief History of Basketball and Race, from James Naismith to LeBron James.

If a visitor asked me where to find some of the most “American” places in this country, I’d point him towards Wall Street, Silicon Valley and the basketball court at Holcombe Rucker Park, an unimpressive patch of asphalt tucked next to some high-rise projects in Harlem.

Like its two more famous siblings, Rucker Park is another spot where hustle, flash, genius, hype and ambition collide.

During the last decade, the summer tournaments held at the court—located at 155th Street and Eighth Avenue, a stone’s throw across the East River from the South Bronx—have seen stars such as LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Jamal Crawford, Joakim Noah, Vince Carter, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest running the green-painted asphalt.

For these players, an appearance at “The Rucker” burnishes a reputation and earns a little street cred.

Most summer nights, though, the court is occupied by unknowns—the great majority of them African-American—ranging in age from middle-school to well into their 20s. Spectators sit on aluminum bleachers to take in the action on muggy nights as a sideline MC chatters through the PA system.

Great plays are met with raucous cheers; below-average moves with cheerful mockery.

A few players here will go on to big careers in college or even the NBA; the farthest most of them will get is this court itself and a momentary chance to leave an indelible imprint on the eyeballs of everyone who has shown up to watch.

Rucker Park in 2008 (Photo: wikiWHAT, Wikipedia)
Rucker Park in 2008 (Photo: wikiWHAT, Wikipedia)

Behind all this, Rucker Park is a living laboratory where the disparate strands of basketball have met and played off each other: the loosely structured team game as invented by James Naismith with the underlying goal of teaching teamwork and discipline; and the explosive, improvisational style developed by African-American teams such as the Harlem Globetrotters.

The influence of Naismith is readily seen with the man responsible for it all, Holcombe Rucker, who was born in Harlem in 1926 and grew up poor. In high school, he became a star basketball player before he dropped out to join the Army during World War II. He returned to the city in 1946 a serious man, and found work as a playground supervisor with the City Parks Department.

Rucker also coached basketball at St. Phillips, an Episcopal church in Harlem. When he noticed that a lot of kids had nothing to do in the summer, he started an outdoor basketball tournament in 1947. His goals were straightforward: He thought that through basketball he could provide structure, instill discipline and keep kids off the streets.

The tournament was held in its early years at a playground at 128th Street and Seventh Avenue. Rucker arrived early in the morning, took a seat on a park bench and oversaw the games for the next 15 hours. 

In the meantime, he mentored kids, checking their homework and exhorting them to do well in school. Over the years he helped hundreds get college scholarships. His motto was: “Each one, teach one.”

Earl "The Goat" Manigault in 1989. (Photo: Charlie Samuels/Creative Commons))
Earl "The Goat" Manigault in 1989. (Photo: Charlie Samuels/Creative Commons))

At the time, Harlem was poor, segregated and shut out of the post-war economic boom that the rest of the country was enjoying. Even for people who followed all the rules, the route to advancement was narrow and difficult.

James Baldwin brought this out in his 1957 short story “Sonny’s Blues,” which depicts a Harlem essentially sealed off from the rest of the city by a wall of discrimination. 

The story is narrated by an African-American school teacher who works in Harlem, a man who has done everything “right” but still sees a life ahead of limited possibility. He wrestles with his feelings towards his brother, Sonny, a musician who attains temporary release through heroin use and jazz improvisation.

Similarly, Ralph Ellison’s seminal novel Invisible Man centers around the idea of the African-American as nonexistent to white society, a non-person exploited for menial labor and then shunted back to the ghetto.

For most kids growing up in Harlem in the 1950s—including those playing in Holcombe Rucker’s tournament—everything in life would have to be contended and fought for. So while Rucker preached patience, hard work and discipline, the games themselves were momentary chances to transcend and soar far above the streets of Harlem.

This is where the idea that discipline learned on the court will translate to life off of it gets complicated. It’s one thing if you play high school basketball, easily transition into college and then slide into a job in corporate America on the other end. If this path isn’t readily available, you have to improvise.

“Just as white college basketball was patterned and regimented like the lives awaiting its players,” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote of the games at Rucker’s tournament, “the black schoolyard game demanded all the flash, guile, and individual reckless brilliance each man would need in the world facing him.”

This flash and guile was apparent in Holcombe Rucker as well. When the City Parks Department wouldn’t fund the tournament in its early days, Rucker turned to a sports gambler named John “Twenty Grand” Hunter, who readily gave the necessary cash for equipment and transportation. The reality of life in Harlem meant that even a man of Rucker’s high ideals sometimes had to look a little to the side in order to move ahead.

Rucker expanded the tournament up until his early death from cancer at age 38 in 1965, and it has lived on after him. Over the years, the tournament has seen appearances from greats such as Dr. J (Julius Erving), Connie Hawkins and Wilt Chamberlain.

There has also been a string of players who gained notoriety on the streets of Harlem but never went further, revered names such as Richard “Pee Wee” Kirkland, Herman “Helicopter” Knowlings and Joe “The Destroyer” Hammond. They represent the other side of the equation, that of those with unprecedented talent who were not able to leverage it as a springboard out.

The greatest of all these is Earl “The Goat” Manigault, who was born in 1944 and mentored by Holcombe Rucker as a kid.

Though only 6'1", Manigault had a 50-inch vertical leap, and was known to pluck quarters off the top of the backboard. He claimed credit for inventing the Tomahawk Dunk, cranking the ball back behind his head with two hands and then slamming it home. There was also the “Double Dunk,” in which Manigault would jam it with one hand, grab the ball with the other, and then stuff it again before returning to earth.

In one story related in Pete Axthelm’s classic book The City Game, Manigault is described driving the hoop towards two much taller defenders. As they jump to box him in from both sides, the Goat leaps and simply keeps elevating up and up until he soars over both of them to jam it in two-handed. The crowd erupts so loud that the game has to be stopped for five minutes.

As a kid, Manigault practiced on the playgrounds with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But while Kareem was exceptional for his tremendous discipline, the man he called “the best basketball player his size in the history of New York City” was far less focused and way more fallible.

Manigault was kicked off his high school basketball team for smoking marijuana in the locker room, a charge he always denied. Afraid that he couldn’t handle the workload at a big university, Manigault went to a small black college in North Carolina but dropped out after a year.

While Kareem won three NCAA titles at UCLA, the Goat returned to the streets of Harlem and developed a heroin habit. In 1969, Manigault was arrested on drug charges and sent to prison for 16 months.

The following year, when Manigault was 25, the owner of the ABA’s Utah Stars read about him and offered a tryout. By that time, though, the Goat’s body was shot. He was cut from the team.

Back in New York City, Manigault started a basketball tournament for kids, but he was sent back to prison for two years in the late 1970s for attempted robbery. Upon his release, he moved to South Carolina to get away from the temptations of the city.

He eventually returned and again worked, inspired by Holcombe Rucker’s example, to mentor children through youth programs. The Goat died from heart failure in 1998 at 53.

It’s hard now to know exactly how good Manigault actually was—if there is any video of him playing basketball in his prime, I’ve been unable to find it. That lack of documentation speaks to just how far Harlem and other black communities were from the mainstream radar in the early 1960s.

It also helps explain Manigault’s legendary status—his life remains a cautionary tale, and a reminder of all the talent and human potential wasted in the rougher parts of America.

“For every Michael Jordan, there’s an Earl Manigault,” the Goat told The New York Times in 1989, when he was 44. “We all can’t make it. Somebody has to fail. I was the one.”

For a time, though, Manigault transcended his surroundings and brought others with him. “I let thousands of people down,” he said. “But I’m nothing phony. And there was a time when I gave the people what they wanted.”

Unlike Wall Street and Silicon Valley—those other all-American enclaves of relentless ambition and ingenuity—there are no bailouts at the Rucker, and very few second chances.

To learn about Doug Merlino's e-book, The Crossover: A Brief History of Basketball and Race, from James Naismith to LeBron James, click here.

Further reading and viewing: Vincent Mallozi’s Asphalt Gods: An Oral History of the Rucker Tournament is an entertaining and informative history of Holcombe Rucker and the tournament he started.  

The City Game by Pete Axthelm is a literary portrait of New York City street basketball around 1970. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s autobiography, Giant Steps, is an engaging read, telling his story from birth through his early years with the Lakers.  

Rebound: The Legend of Earl “The Goat” Manigault, a movie with Don Cheadle as the title character, is worth watching even if some of the basketball scenes look too staged; also, people who knew Holcombe Rucker have said that Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of him as something of a wise janitor bears no resemblance to the actual man.  

Gunnin’ for that #1 Spot, a documentary directed by Beastie Boy Adam "MCA" Yauch, is a more recent look at basketball at The Rucker. 

Doug Merlino is the author of The Hustle: One Team and Ten Lives in Black and White. Visit his blog. Follow him on Twitter. This is the third of eight parts, with new installments every Friday. Read Part 1 and Part 2


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