Rucker's Disciple

The worn steps inside the old YMCA on South Park Street in Halifax were a multi-levelled, brown-tiled affair that ended one story up at a set of heavy metal doors.  On the other side were a pair of handball courts (my father, sister and I played handball; folks with tender paws played racquetball), next to which rested a sleepy old gymnasium replete with a punished wooden floor and a set of lofty, lead-lined windows that only permitted a dream-like amount of the sun’s rays to penetrate that sports sanctuary.

It was there, as a boy of 12 in 1979, that I joined a basketball day-camp run by a man I’d never met before and, to the best of my recollection, had not the privilege of meeting again.  

I had been steered to the event by well-intentioned coach or (although I find this a doubtful possibility, at best) my parents. Either way, it was a life-changing few hours that started with a t-shirt.  In my memory, it is heavy white cotton.  On the front is a basketball surrounded by navy blue lettering that spells “Each One, Teach One”.  A burly Terry Symonds had pulled the event together with the help of a lean basketball great named Lee Thomas (who was staring at Saint Mary’s University in those days on route to taking his place in that school’s sports Hall of Fame).  

Terry was an employee of the north-branch library and a fixture at the adjacent gym known as the “Community Y” who would, in 1990, die at the unfathomably young age of 36.  He left this great world too soon, but his legacy has endured for the decades since. 

Back then, I was scrawny south-end kid who played guard for the unfortunately-named Canadian Martyrs team.  I knew many of the Community Y players from their prowess on the court and brief exchanges we’d have after hard-fought games, but I was not overly familiar with their coach and mentor, Terry.  I probably had very little interaction with Terry at the basketball camp that day, I don't remember, but I clearly recall the incredible vibe in that gym full of basketball crazed kids of all colour, size, and skill.  

I also remember that my parents didn't hover nearby that day.  

If I had to wager they’d either gone home or headed to work after dropping me off with only cursory glance toward the bustling gymnasium.  Either way, I was alone with dozens of other ballers, forced to navigate my way in games rich with talented ‘Y’ players - many of whom I’d compete fiercely against for years to come (losing with frustrating frequency) before settling into warm adult friendships.  It was empowering and fun to be in the Y that day with my cool new t-shirt (replete with a slogan I didn’t understand) playing the game I loved with kids who shared my passion for basketball. 

Long after my playing days ended, I started to piece together what had happened back in the YMCA during that era when Earth, Wind & Fire was rocking turn-tables and Magic & Michigan State were preparing to do battle with Larry & Indiana State…

... Terry and Lee had struck up a friendship, and the latter was from New York City.  It was in NYC – home to some of the best basketball players on the planet in those days – where the “city game” was in full flight.  And no one flew as high as the guys who rose above the blacktop in Harlem’s Rucker Park: guys with names like Erving, Kirkland, Hammond... a list as lengthy as their playground feats mythical.

Yet, before the helicopter dunks and snatching of quarters off the top of backboards, there was Holcombe Rucker.  Starting in the 1950s, Rucker was a Playground Director for NYC’s Parks & Rec department.  An educated man, Rucker started the fabled league that bears his name but insisted that education take its spot on the court alongside basketball.  Rucker’s “Each one, Teach one” approach took root in the Harlem asphalt and captured the imaginations of thinking men like Lee Thomas and, soon enough, his pal Terry Symonds.

UP basketball is a modern version of that old concept, and similarly fueled: By the belief that sports is as much about learning as leaping; as much about connecting people as counting points. 

As for Rucker and his memorable disciple, Coach Symonds, they continue to prove that good ideas have lasting resonance.  And, to twist the words of the formidable Africadian poet George Elliott Clarke, each life is a drum.