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Across the street from the site of the old Polo Grounds, where project buildings cover the same earth that Willie Mays once did for the New York Giants, the lines are forming earlier and getting longer than they did when the Entertainers Basketball Classic first opened for business, or rather, show business, back in 1980.
"Look at all these people," the EBC's commissioner, Greg Marius, says before another night of hoop-la at tiny Rucker Park on 155th Street and Eighth Avenue.
"This thing started out as rappers playing basketball, and now we're celebrating our 20th anniversary," says Marius. "It's amazing what this has become."
Sitting in front of a scorer's table, deejay booth, and microwave ovenall plugged into the same streetlight to fill the warm air with the sounds of playground basketball and the smell of fresh popcornMarius slides his thumb down the season's schedule to reveal the two-division, 16-team field that make up this year's Classic. Many of the teams are sponsored by rap-music honchos like Puff Daddy, who owns Bad Boy Entertainment, and Russell Simmons, who owns the Crusaders. Master P, whose dream of playing in the NBA is dying hard, is the starting small forward for Blackhand Entertainment.
"No league in the world combines musical talent and basketball talent the way the EBC does," says Marius. "We are unique in what we offer to our fans."
The EBC, which stages two games per night from Monday through Thursday (first game starts at 6 p.m.) until the middle of August, shares the park with the resurrected Rucker League (in its 50th anniversary season), which plays its games on Friday evenings and runs to the end of August. Each One Teach One, the Rucker League's high school-level branch, plays its games on Saturdays.
Named after its founder, the late Holcombe Rucker, the Rucker League's heyday was back in the '60s and '70s, when pro players like Wilt Chamberlain, Connie Hawkins, Julius Erving, and Tiny Archibald tuned up during their off-seasons by dueling playground phenoms like Joe Hammond and Pee Wee Kirkland.
But Holcombe's death, combined with the fact that pro players were earning too much money by the early '80s to risk injury hooping in the playgrounds, made the Rucker Tournament a tough sell, so the EBC moved in and jazzed up the system by adding more sizzle to its games and setting it all to a soundtrack. For the past two years, both leagues, which entertain their fans for free, have lived happily together.
Clearly, however, the Entertainers Classic remains the primary pastime on most summer nights for thousands of local residents, and a major hunting ground for scores of college recruitersall of whom flock to the hallowed patch of blacktop to see some of the top college and high-school stars from now and then and near and far, as well as playground wizards with names straight out of the World Wrestling Federation eager to display their own brand of magic.
"This tournament is and always has been the best place to get a run," says Richie Parker, who played his college ball at Long Island University in Brooklyn, and has played for the Bad Boys in recent seasons. "This is so much more than just streetball, it's a way of life."
And on those nights when life is real good to the locals, and you happen to be one of the 1500 or so spectators crammed inside the rusted chain-link fencethe stone bleachers were built to hold roughly 500 people comfortablyor lucky enough to have perched yourself on a tree limb or rooftop for a better look at the action, there is also the chance that an NBA star will swoop in on the festivities to join in the battle, just as Joe Smith, Allen Iverson, and Vince Carter have done in recent years, and Stephon Marbury did just last week.
"That's the beauty of this tournament," says the man who refers to himself as the Honorable Hannibal. "You never know what's going to happen or who's going to show up, but you can always count on being entertained."
A cross between Bob Costas and Snoop Doggy Dogg, the Honorable Hannibal is Rucker Park's resident MC, a verbal wordsmith who unleashes a fast-as-lightning monologue on the contests as they unfold. Before calling the action he introduces himself this way: "Ladies and gentlemen, let's have a big hand for the 210-pound, undisputed champion of commentators, Harlem's very own . . . Honorable Hannibal!"
Some nights, after the Hannibal-intro applause has faded, his partner on the broadcast bench, Duke Tango Mills, provides his own version of the national anthem: "You're with me, I'm with you. We are all together as one. United we stand. Divided we fall. Now let's play ball!"
Last week, security guards dressed in bright orange T-shirts with black lettering that read "In memory of Malik Sealy" (a popular Rucker alum, and NBA vet, who recently died in a car crash), ushered in droves of spectators while Hannibal and Tango, dancing along the sidelines to the beat of the bouncing rock, welcomed everyone into the park.