Long ago, before basketball became a billion-dollar business and turned gifted black boys into commodities, there lived a man in Harlem who loved his neighborhood.
Born in 1926, Holcombe Rucker grew up parentless and impoverished on 141st Street under his grandmother's watchful eye. He excelled on the basketball court as a lean 6-foot-3 guard at Benjamin Franklin High School before dropping out to serve in the Army during World War II. Once discharged in 1946, Rucker started a family, obtained a GED, earned a bachelor's degree from City College and dedicated himself to the uplifting of Harlem.
Holcombe Rucker's tools: compassion, books and basketball. In that order.
Seventy years later, the seeds planted by this humble community servant have grown, flourished and covered the globe. As the progenitor of organized outdoor basketball for youth, Rucker fathered summer hoops, from park pickup leagues to air-conditioned AAU tournaments to NBA offseason leagues. He carved educational pathways that guided thousands to higher learning. His pro tournament injected the NBA with a style and flavor that led to immense popularity and riches. Today, the Harlem playground that bears his name, Rucker Park, is revered worldwide as a place worthy of pilgrimage for generations of great ballplayers.
For these often overlooked contributions, The Undefeated respectfully urges the induction of Holcombe Rucker into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, which will be considering candidates after it enshrines a new class of members on Sept. 11.
"The entire world of summer basketball, from the organized level down to pickup, owes their left sneaker and both shoelaces to Mr. Holcombe Rucker," proclaims the basketball historian, player, journalist and filmmaker Bobbito Garcia.
Ernesto Morris, mentored by Rucker as a schoolboy and a player in his tournament as a grown man, believes that today's NBA owes a stylistic debt to the man whose leagues added creativity and flair to a stiff, plodding NBA game. "The stuff I'm seeing now in the NBA is the stuff I saw at the Rucker when I was 11 or 12 years old," Morris observes. "Rucker was the guy who started it."
Rucker started by teaching English at a Harlem junior high school while also working as a recreation director for both the city parks department and the Saint Phillips Church community center. In 1946 -- several months before the National Basketball Association played its first game -- Rucker started his first summer youth league through Saint Phillips, with games played at the park on 138th Street between Fifth and Lenox Avenues.
And Rucker started with boys like Bob McCullough.
The son of a numbers runner, talented with the basketball and troubled on the streets, McCullough lived on 133rd Street. He ran with a gang called the Politicians that fought and robbed its way through grade school. At 11 years old, he got arrested with a hatchet on his way to a gang fight. Rucker showed up at the police station to help McCullough get released into his mother's care.
"There's an old African proverb that says if you're going nowhere, any road will lead you there, and that's where I was going: Nowhere," McCullough says.
But McCullough's road now went through Saint Phillips and Rucker's youth basketball league. Rucker started showing up unannounced at McCullough's classrooms. He ferried McCullough and his friends to games around the city in his '53 Ford. He guided, taught and challenged McCullough like one of his own children.
McCullough blossomed. After a tryout at a 129th Street park, Benedict College in South Carolina offered him a scholarship. As a freshman, McCullough dropped 64 points in one exhibition. He averaged 28 per game for his college career and 36.4 points as a senior in 1965, a close second in the nation to Rick Barry.
Drafted by the NBA's Cincinnati Royals but cut to make room for Oscar Robertson, McCullough earned a master's degree and became a teacher, counselor and lecturer. He still mentors youth through his organization, named after Rucker's motto, Each One Teach One.
"Holcombe Rucker saved my life," McCullough explains.
"Here's a guy running the biggest tournament in the city, with all these great players, Carl Green from the Globetrotters, Cal Ramsey from the Knicks, Satch Sanders who won eight rings with the Celtics, he has all these guys but he's asking, 'How are you doing?' And you end up having a conversation about life."
In today's basketball economy, with high school players generating millions of dollars and Youtube views, with sneaker companies sinking their teeth into the youth game and so many desperate for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, Holcombe Rucker would be a power player with six-figure sponsorships, his own faux prep school and John Calipari on speed dial.
But Rucker never sought to profit from his people. This being America, where culture is one of black folks' biggest exports, the weeds of commerce and greed inevitably encroached upon the basketball seeds that Rucker cultivated with love. Even in his day, middlemen and street agents had begun to sprout from the cracks of the city's concrete. For better and for worse, Rucker unknowingly played a seminal role in monetizing the game.
He did it all for the simple love of his community.
Rucker dug into his own shallow pockets to provide T-shirts, refreshments and other essentials for his youth leagues. With segregation still widespread in college hoops and the pros, few grasped the concept of black kids using basketball to obtain an education. Yet Rucker, the teacher who required respectable report cards before kids could play in his tournaments, possessed that vision. He constantly preached education, education, education.
"It was all giving. Money out of his pocket," recalls his wife, Mary Rucker-Thomas. "Even up to giving his lunch to the kids, the lunch he took to work. He'd come home and wouldn't have eaten anything all day."
"He was benevolent. He was loving. And determined," Rucker-Thomas continues. "There was a determination to succeed, to help underprivileged children and help children get back into school who drop out."
Rucker did this for hundreds, and indirectly thousands, of youths -- including many who never played a minute of college basketball.
"It was in his heart," declares Butch Purcell, who grew up around Rucker and coached several legendary Rucker tournament teams. "He didn't get paid a lot of money. He was very easy to talk to. There would be lines of kids to talk to him, about school, about basketball, about life. A lot of these kids went on to become doctors and lawyers, a lot of teachers, a lot of educators."
And a lot of hoop legends, especially after the Rucker mystique exploded with the addition of a pro division in the summer of 1954.
Back then, the NBA resided in the hinterlands of sports, just eight seasons old, playing an earthbound, barely integrated game. White players filled all 10 spots on the first and second All-NBA teams. Yearly salaries amounted to four or sometimes five figures, not much more than other laborers who sweated for a living.
Holcombe Rucker brought players from this rinky-dink operation to the park at 130th Street and Seventh Avenue. He brought them to Harlem -- the epicenter of black culture.
The NBA would never be the same.
The Rucker Pro tournament pitted NBA talent against many incredible black players who couldn't obtain NBA opportunities. Their game moved quickly, flashing with personality and innovation. Overlooked, underappreciated or outright denied by the pro establishment, they competed with ferocious hunger, the championship of reputation at stake in every game.
By exposing NBA players to tougher, more intense, more creative summer competition, Holcombe Rucker played a pivotal role in the unshackling of NBA basketball.
"I had to play harder in the park than I had to play in the NBA," states Freddie Crawford, a former Knick, Laker and 76er. "Your stuff is on the line up here."
Many other players, coaches and tournaments also deserve credit for changing the NBA. But during a critical period from 1954 to the late 1970s, Holcombe Rucker's pro tournament boasted the best players, the biggest crowds and by far the most influence. A vicious slam or a breathtaking block meant more at the Rucker than anywhere else.
"Basketball was born in Springfield, Massachusetts," declares Garcia, the historian. "But it grew up in New York."
The Rucker tournament names and stories are legend. Wilt Chamberlain dunking so hard, the ball is said to have caromed off the asphalt, over the fence and clear out of the park. Lew Alcindor, before he became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, honing the sky hook that would make him the NBA's all-time leading scorer. Connie Hawkins, Willis Reed and Nate "Tiny" Archibald. And three incredible guards who chose street fame over the pro game: Earl "The Goat" Manigault, who could snatch a quarter off the top of the backboard; "Pee Wee" Kirkland, a wizard with the rock and a boss in the drug world; and bank-shot genius Joe "The Destroyer" Hammond, who collected points like subway turnstiles collected tokens.
Word spread. Rucker Park had the best ball in the world, more exciting than the Knicks downtown at Madison Square Garden -- all for free.
"Everything starts somewhere," states Ron Naclerio, who has won 700 games over 40 years as coach of Cardozo High School in Queens. "Basketball, the greatness of basketball that the world started loving, started in New York City. Harlem was one of the places that got people to feel they were at the Garden who couldn't afford to go to the Garden."
On March 20, 1965, Holcombe Rucker, a heavy smoker, died of lung cancer at 38 years old. He was studying for a master's degree at the time. His summer tournaments included hundred of players, from junior high school to the NBA. Bob McCullough, the ruffian turned educator, vowed to keep the dream alive, and he pushed the Rucker Pro Tournament to even loftier heights in the '70s.
The engine of ascent: Julius "Dr. J" Erving. For the first five years of his pro career, as he altered the trajectory of basketball possibility, Erving astounded Rucker Park each summer.
"A lot of my dunks I learned at the Rucker," Erving disclosed in the book "Asphalt Gods: An Oral History of the Rucker Tournament," by Vincent M. Mallozzi.
"It had to do with the environment and the freedom and the fact that it was show time and the shackles were being taken off," Erving explained. "You're letting it all hang out, and you're playing the game at another level, and the guys you're playing against are bringing stuff out of you that maybe guys you played with before, in the organized set, didn't bring out of you."
The Doctor carried the NBA into a new era of large audiences and lavish salaries, which inadvertently pulled pros away from the unforgiving asphalt of Rucker Park. They dwindled to a trickle as the '80s arrived.
That's when a rapper and ballplayer named Greg Marius started his own tournament, the Entertainers Basketball Classic, which fused hip-hop and basketball just as both exploded into the mainstream. In 1987, the EBC moved to the playground at 155th Street and Eighth Avenue, which had been named Rucker Park. The EBC became the hottest tournament in the city, famous for the "streetball" style that elevated dribble tricks and alley-oops to an art form as far removed from the mainstream game as the original Rucker Pro style was in 1954. A crowd "ooh"-ing over a move became more coveted than a bucket. A younger generation of stars resumed the Rucker pilgrimages, hungry for the lore and the street cred -- Allen Iverson, Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant, Kyrie Irving. The EBC at Rucker Park rep became synonymous with crossovers, oops and oohs. The style spread worldwide via videotapes, magazines and the Internet, and then was absorbed into the NBA.
Streetball is a meaningful part of Holcombe Rucker's legacy. More importantly, though, it thrives in organized summer leagues -- Rucker's creation.
Summer basketball is the lifeblood of the game. Summer is when championships are built. It's when resolve is summoned from within instead of by a coach's whistle. It's when the pure joy of basketball unites strangers, scrubs and stars beneath the hoop and the sky. Summer is when the Doctor first spread his wings, Jordan sharpened his weapons and LeBron sought refuge as NBA owners locked arena doors.
During the NBA lockout summer of 2011, Kevin Durant poured in 66 points at Rucker Park, and NBA stars performed at the Rucker and other summer leagues across the country wearing shirts with "Basketball Never Stops" across their chests.
"My grandfather's impact is long-lasting, it's permanent," says Chris Rucker. "It's really a part of world sports culture."
That impact is felt as far as Tokyo, London or Ghana's capital city of Accra, where numerous outdoor youth basketball tournaments attract players from all over the country. "A lot of them wouldn't know, but what they are doing is based on what Rucker started 70 years ago thousands of miles away in New York," says Ghanaian hoop aficionado Theophilus Mensah.
The monumental accomplishments of Rucker's brief life continue to educate and inspire fans, playground warriors, YMCA gym rats -- and superstars like Durant.
It's January 2014. Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder are in Miami, up a dozen on LeBron James' defending champion Heat. With 9 minutes, 15 seconds left in the third quarter, Durant and James start going bucket for bucket and shot for ridiculous shot.
After the duel, Durant is asked to describe one of the most exciting basketball sequences in recent memory, the kind of exhibition that inspires TV networks to pay $24 billion for nine years of excitement and enriches players beyond even the imagination of a visionary Parks Department worker in Harlem.
The best scorer on the planet replies, "It was Rucker Park."
Share the impact of Holcombe Rucker on your own life by emailing HolcombeForTheHall@gmail.com.