NEW YORK -- Walking into the playground at just after 2 p.m. Monday afternoon, things looked normal and not so normal. There were swarms of kids riding the swings, chasing each other around. But there were also a couple large trailer trucks, a satellite dish, and a stage set up.
That's what happens when SportsCenter comes to town on its "50 States in 50 Days" tour.
But this isn't any old playground. In fact, Harlem's Holcombe Rucker Playground might be the most famous playground in America.
If you're a basketball fan, and you haven't heard of Rucker Park well, you better go back to school.
A quick refresher course: Holcombe Rucker, a local playground director, started a basketball tournament in 1947 at a playground on 7th Avenue between 128th and 129th streets. In 1965, he moved the tournament to another location, at 155th Street and 8th Avenue (the former site of the Polo Grounds, which served as the home to baseball's Giants, Yankees and Mets, and football's Giants and Jets). And over the years, the league grew in prominence to the point when NBA superstars like Wilt Chamberlain and Julius Erving were coming to compete against local streetball legends like Earl "The Goat" Manigault and Pee Wee Kirkland.
The current level of competition at Rucker isn't quite what it used to be in those days. But people still flock to the court to watch the action. In many ways, even more so than Madison Square Garden, it is the mecca of New York City basketball.
The court itself appears pretty standard for a playground -- except for the breakaway rims and the small blue scoreboard. Most of its surface is green. The paint is painted red. There are several rows of beat-up bleachers on all four sides, and a tall black fence behind them, with several trees surrounding it and the Polo Grounds projects lurking across the street.
A little after 4 p.m. Monday, a couple people were trying to clean off the court with a scraper and a leafblower -- it had drizzled a bit earlier in the day. The head of security was barking instructions at his staff of a couple-dozen members collected in the bleachers. And several fans were already lined up outside the fence, waiting to get in.
Monday night was the opening night of the Entertainers Basketball Classic playoffs. The EBC is the prominent league at Rucker Park now. The original Rucker League lost its luster when the pros stopped coming regularly in the late '70s and early '80s, fearing they'd get injured and jeopardize their big-money contracts.
Greg Marius started the EBC in 1982, as a series of games between rap groups. But over the years it has evolved, where all the teams are sponsored by entertainment and film companies, but stocked mostly with local streetballers, who compete over a nine-week season from mid-June to mid-August. The Terror Squad, sponsored by rapper Fat Joe, has won the championship the past three seasons.
The special treat is when NBA stars do show up to play -- and that does still happen from time to time. Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant are just a few current superstars who have come and competed here. Gilbert Arenas and Trevor Ariza are two NBAers who played at Rucker earlier this summer.
It's been a bit of a down year at Rucker in terms of star power -- but that hasn't stopped the crowds from coming. Richard Brown, a 20-year-old from the Bronx, was the first in line Monday afternoon -- he said he arrived at the park around noon. And Ling Pei, another early arrival, came all the way from Beijing; he's a huge basketball fan, and is in New York City on vacation. "I just had to come to Rucker," Pei said.
Clearly, the word has gotten out, even worldwide.
Corporate sponsorships may have helped. There are lots of advertising banners hung around the court during EBC games now, and the games are televised on NBA TV. Marius has been criticized by some for turning Rucker too commercial. But he disagrees.
"We still keep it gritty," Marius said. "The game's still the same."
The highest-profile player slated to suit up for the first game Monday evening was Joe Forte, the former North Carolina star who had a brief NBA stint with the Celtics and Sonics. A few minutes before tip-off, he was finishing putting on his uniform, out by some park benches near the handball court.
Not exactly an NBA locker room.
Forte hopes to get back to the NBA. But in the meantime, he's enjoyed his second summer playing at Rucker.
"You've got to bring your 'A' game out here," Forte said. "Or else the fans will get on you. But that's what Rucker's all about."
On the opposite end of the court, by the far bleachers, two Rucker legends were chatting -- one past, one present. Kirkland, one of Rucker's all-time greats, was drafted by the Bulls in 1969 but never played in the NBA. Corey "Homicide" Williams, last year's EBC Rucker MVP, is still seeking an NBA opportunity after spending some time in camp with Denver last year.
Playing at Rucker has given Williams the confidence that he could succeed in the NBA.
"It's the No. 1 tournament in New York City," Williams said. "It's a chance to match up with legitimate pros I love the competition."
Kirkland is trying to help Williams and other young streetballers. It's been his mission since he spent several years in prison for drugs and tax fraud. In fact, he said he placed a call earlier Monday to another Rucker legend currently playing in the NBA, Rafer "Skip to my Lou" Alston, trying to see if he can help Homicide get a shot.
"Homicide is not just a potential NBA player," Kirkland said. "He's a potential NBA superstar."
As for the current crop of NBA superstars, Kirkland is very appreciate of those who have come back to play at his home court.
"There are still pros that keep it real," Kirkland said. "They come back from the heart. They could ruin their careers. But they still want to show these people that they really care."
As usual, Monday night's games got off to a bit of a late start. But the crowd -- which had grown to fill most of the bleacher space (the place fits about 1,500 people) -- didn't seem to mind too much. There was music pumping through the P.A. system, plus the three MCs who call the action -- literally -- on the court.
The first game pitted Black Wall Street against Certified, Forte's squad. Black Wall Street was the favorite, but Certified led most of the game, thanks in large part to an assortment of crowd-wowing jumpers and dunks from Forte, nicknamed "Something's Out There." He also got some help from "Lights Out," aka Chudney Gray, a former point guard at St. John's.
(By the way, almost every player at Rucker has a nickname, courtesy of the MCs. The MCs also offer plenty of "colorful" commentary throughout the game. A couple of my favorites from Monday night were: "What's he shooting from way out there for? Authorization has been declined," and "How do you explain it to your girlfriend when you get dunked on like that?")
Unfortunately for Forte and Certified, a dagger of a 3-pointer by James "Speedy" Williams with four seconds left in the second overtime sent Black Wall Street to the semifinals.
Game 2 pitted Don Diva vs. Full Service/Ruff Ryders. Don Diva is led by Homicide (he got the nickname, he said, because "I destroy everything in front of me") and another streetball legend, dazzling ballhandler Larry "The Bone Collector" Williams. But Homicide and company were off their games, and ended up getting dominated. With the score 80-53, the crowd filing out, and bench players already wearing their backpacks, the game was finally called with 25 seconds left.
Not the best ending, to be sure. But not to worry.
Hoops fans have other games to keep them flocking to Rucker Park.