So I am headed away this weekend with my dearest pal PJ for what we hope will be a terrific vacation. We've taken this trip before but it never gets old.
Others crave beaches or the Vegas strip or all-inclusive resorts as their preferred getaway spots. But for me (and PJ) it's New York City. And not just Manhattan. We hit all five boroughs. Especially, the neighborhood of Harlem. We don't go because it’s hip or even because of the rich cultural history in the north end of Manhattan (altho I do recommend "On the Shoulders of Giants" by Kareem, if you want a fantastic history of the Harlem Renaissance). We go for the playground basketball.
I could tell you about my fascination with the playground game and how it's burned bright for decades (I recently picked up my old copy of "The City Game" and saw that I'd noted the date I first picked up that bible of ball: 2004). Let me instead share with you the start of a long article I am working on. The first few paras here give you a decent idea of where I am headed, literally and figuratively, and why NYC's playgrounds - especially those you reach after crossing 110th street - are such a special destination for me...
Travelling to Rucker Park is, for the die-hard basketball fan, akin to a person of deep faith making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The fabled basketball court at 155th and Frederick Douglass Boulevard in the Harlem has long been the home of basketball's version of the gods. A place where fans have pressed up against the chain-link fence or sat on roofs with their feet dangling perilously over the edge as they watched some of the best basketball players in the world put on displays of sheer athleticism that became the stuff of basketball lore. This is where “Jumpin” Jackie Jackson rose to the challenge and snatched a quarter off the top of a backboard. This is where a lean and afro-ed Julius Erving came (from Philadelphia) and operated so beautifully he earned the nickname “Dr. J”. And the Internet still racks up hits from those who want to see clips from the night Kevin Durant played in a Rucker league game and dropped a silky 66 points under the floodlights as fans went berserk.
Rucker is a holy place for those who follow urban basketball. But as with any fundamentalist hotspot it’s also a place to be approached with a degree of caution. Rucker can be a raucous and even dangerous place when competition gets heated, fans get hyped, and the mercury rises. So on a warm summer afternoon, as I emerge from the subway and step into the afternoon sun and approach the park, with its worn swings and teeter-totters and the high, rusty fence that surrounds the single court, I am overcome by a mixture of excitement and fear. Mine is a nervous swirl of emotion fueled by my deep reverence for this place in hoop history — that, and the knowledge that fans here do, on rare but bloody occasions, wield hand-guns and shoot each other.