By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
All summer long, thousands of hoop fans have been pressing their noses against the chain-link fence around Rucker Park to watch pro and college hoop stars like Stephon Marbury, Ron Artest, and Anthony Glover shine in the Harlem night. Two weeks ago, when it was rumored that Chris Weber, Steve Francis, Kobe Bryant, and two unnamed NBA players were suiting up for Puff Daddy's Bad Boy Entertainment team, police, staring at a line that stretched more than 10 city blocks, canceled the game.
Despite the abundance of All-World talent checking their duffel bags at the front gate this season, playground phenomsthose players known mainly on the local streets where their legends were carvedhave begun to reclaim their hallowed turf at the tiny court on 155th Street and Eighth Avenue. And this week, they'll really be tested, as the playoffs of the Entertainers Basketball Classic begin.
"Those guys know damn well that we got game, that's why they show up and put their reps on the line," said Malloy "the Future" Nesmith, who runs with 360.com. "It ain't got nothing to do with money. It's all about pride, all about ego."
In a game last Monday that had a few thousand spectators on the edge of their concrete seats, Earvin Opang, a/k/a "I'll Be Right Back," did big-time blacktop battle with Rafer "Skip to My Lou" Alston, a playground legend-turned-NBAer, now with the Milwaukee Bucks. Their shoot-out brought back memories of the early '70s, when the Rucker faithful perched themselves on tree limbs and rooftops to catch a glimpse of "Tiny" Archibald and "Pee Wee" Kirkland going mano a mano.
"That one [Monday's game] was for the history books," said EBC statistician "Choo Choo" Yates. "It was, in every sense of the word, a true classic."
During one sizzling stretch of that contest, I'll Be Right Back, running the show for Dunk.Net Posse, shook Skip out of his sneaks with a right-to-left crossover, spun right, and with Skip in his rearview mirror, zipped to the tin for a mighty deuce.
Skip to My Lou, who earned that nickname at Rucker with a variety of moves that made hapless defenders seem like cardboard cutouts as he skipped on past them, brought the ball upcourt for Tommy Hilfiger, and with everyone in the house expecting sweet revenge, Skip quenched their thirst.
With I'll Be Right Back in his drawers, Skip picked up his dribble and, in the blink of an eye, wrapped the ball around his defender's neck. When I'll Be Right Back spun like a ball-erina in search of the rock, Skip bounced it off of his head as if to say, "It's right here, silly."
Catching his own heads-up pass, Skip threaded the needle with a razor-sharp bounce pass to a streaking James "Speedy" Williams, who cut backdoor for an easy layup, sending the capacity crowd into the outer limits of hysteria.
With a long smile painted on his reddened face, I'll Be Right Back stormed downcourt, and as Skip began to backpedal on D, I'll Be Right Back went between his wickets with the rock, pulled up, and with Skip off balance, made it look threeasy from 25 feet.
From there, I'll Be Right Back reminded everyone just who had led Relativity to last season's championship, besting Skip en route to an 18-point, 10-assist night. Skip lost the battle, finishing with 10 points and eight dishes, but Hilfiger won the war, 72-63.
"I did enjoy being a showman that night," said the 5-6 Opang. "Rafer and [ex-Arkansas star] Kareem ["Best Kept Secret"] Reid are the toughest point guards I've faced all summer, and I'm hoping to meet Stephon Marbury in the playoffs."
The following night, Wali Dixon, a/k/a "the Main Event," led Karl Kani over former Harlem Globetrotter Arnold "A-Train" Bernard's Warner Bros. squad, 79-67. Main Event stole the show with a pair of Vince Carter-like windmill jams, and for an encore, the 6-4 blacktopgod added a Dikembe Mutombo-like rejection of a shot attempt by Fordham University star Duke Freeman-McKamey, who stands 6-10.
This past Wednesday night, the Future, making asphalt moves that still haven't been invented on the hardwood, conjured up yet another one against Marbury and his Terror Squad. Looking left during a left-to-right crossover, the Future then wrapped the ball around his lower back, and while putting it back through his legs, left his feet and in one motion fired a perfect pass to a teammate steaming toward the bucket for a layup.
"When the pros come to the park, that gets guys like me, guys who almost made it to the big time, all fired up," said the Future. "We live for that kind of competition."
Final EBC Standings
Division A w-l
Division B w-l
1. Vacant Lot 6-1
2. Terror Squad 5-1
3. Karl Kani 5-2
4. BlackHand Entertainment 4-2
5. Warner Bros. 4-3
6. Blackground Records 3-4
7. 360.com 1-6
8. Balla (Biv 10) 0-7
(Number of games differ because some postponed games will not be made up.)
Final Scoring Leaders