With the summer hoops season in full swing, the city’s basketball supremacy is on full display. In playground leagues all around town— from Rucker Park in Harlem to the West 4th Street court in the Village to Tillary Park in Brooklyn— fans can see true basketball brilliance on a near-daily basis. Today, it’s the likes of Ed “Booger” Smith and James “Speedy” Williams who inspire oohs and aahs from overflow city park crowds. They are the latest in a long line of playground legends who’ve owned the blacktops for decades. The heyday of that hoops history was 25 to 30 years ago. Since those days, a debate has raged.
Some native New Yorkers who were bouncing around in the ’70s will swear that Joe Hammond was a better basketball player than Dr. J. Some will tell you that Pee Wee Kirkland was a better point guard than Tiny Archibald. In Detroit, you will still hear folks comparing Curt Jones to the likes of Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas, and in Chicago, the names Ben Wilson and Lamar Mondane are often mentioned in the same breath with players like Mark Aguirre.
The legends of the playground versus the legends of professional basketball. For years you’ve heard the tales get taller on the blacktop: “Hammond dropped 50 on Doc. He could’ve busted ass in the N.B.A. if only. . . . Pee Wee used to shake Tiny out of his sneaks, if only Pee Wee was running those Boston Celtic teams. . . . ”
Whether those words are being spoken behind chain-link fences in Harlem, Philly, or L.A., or behind the Bulls’ bench at the United Center in Chicago— “no way Michael Jordan could jump higher than the Goat, Earl Manigault . . . “— or in any other corner of the basketball universe where asphalt gods have done battle with hardwood honchos, one question keeps being repeated: could some of the more famous playground stars outshine their professional counterparts?
Three of the greatest talents in the history of the N.B.A., Walt “Clyde” Frazier, Nate “Tiny” Archibald, and Bernard King, recently joined the playground-versus-pro debate.
Frazier, who won a pair of championships with the New York Knicks, and played one year at Rucker Park when he was an NBA rookie back in 1967, says there is no way that playground stars should even be considered in the same class with pro players.
“Many of those guys could jump out of the gym but they couldn’t dribble or didn’t have a perimeter shot,” says Clyde. “They were schoolyard legends and guys would always say ‘Oh, they could play in the N.B.A.,’ but it was questionable because they had so many glaring weaknesses.”
According to Frazier, playground legends usually have an advantage over pro players because the rules of the game are often overlooked in favor of a good show.
“In the parks, you could goaltend, or you could travel and nothing would be called,” says Frazier. “That’s why I didn’t like it.” In his one season at Rucker, Frazier teamed with his ex-starmate from the Knicks, Willis Reed, and their team was eliminated by a squad comprised mainly of playground stars.
“Guys were just dunking the ball all over the place, it was wild,” says Frazier. “You also have to realize that playing against N.B.A. competition was their N.B.A. season, we were just up there playing in the off-season and not as serious as they were. They certainly had more incentive than we had.”
Frazier, who happened to be the best guard in New York City during the golden era of playground hoops, said his presence in the parks brought out the best in his schoolyard rivals.
“It was like being in the Old West, and running into all those gunslingers,” says Frazier. “Everybody was after me because I was the Knicks’ number one draft choice, so they all were trying to show me up.
“But if you put those guys in a pro game, they wouldn’t know how to set a pick-and-roll or do backdoor plays or execute the basic fundamentals of the game,” says Frazier. “It was just one-on-one showtime stuff, kind of like the N.B.A. is today, with guys shaking-and-baking, with the crowd oooh-ing and aaah-ing, but there was no team structure involved.”
Take a time-out and head to the bench, Clyde, it’s time to sub your opinion with that of another legendary point guard, Tiny Archibald, a six-time all-star who owns one championship ring and a billion great memories of his playground wars on the streets of New York.
“I was fortunate to grow up in New York City because I got a chance to play against guys like Pee Wee Kirkland, Joe Hammond, and Earl Manigault,” says Archibald. “I had an N.B.A. career, but I consider my experiences on the playground to be my summer professional career.”
Archibald, a Hall-of-Famer who played with legends Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish on the Boston Celtics, says he
truly believes all the playground hype for one simple reason— he was there. “I was actually working a Rucker game once for ESPN when Joe Hammond scored around 82 points against pro-caliber competition. And I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t see it with my own eyes. It was live, and it was real,” says Archibald. “Growing up in the city, I knew all that playground talk was not just hype, because I played with and against some of those great players.
“Playing in Rucker Park was an ego thing because there were great players involved from both sides like Pee Wee, Hammond, Connie Hawkins, and Willis Reed,” says Tiny. “In their hearts, and in their souls, the playground guys felt that they didn’t have the same opportunities as guys like myself did to get to the pros, and they thought they were better than we were. So when I went out there, I had a lot to prove.”
The big picture, according to Tiny, was in striving to be the best, no matter what neighborhood or team, or walk of life, a particular player was from.
“For me, it was more than just a guy from the Boston Celtics playing against a guy from Milbank,” he says. “It was Tiny Archibald, who grew up in the city, playing against Pee Wee Kirkland and Joe Hammond, who also grew up in the city. They brought their fans, and I brought mine. And I had to prove I was a formidable challenger to those guys.”
With the great debate tied at several valid points apiece, Brooklyn-born Bernard King, one of the greatest scorers in N.B.A. history— who led the league with 32.9 points per game in 1985— is asked to check in at the scorer’s table to see if he can break the tie. He does. Sort of.
Well, Bernard, do you agree with Tiny or Clyde?
“I agree with them both to a certain extent,” says King. “I agree with Tiny as the debate relates to the really great playground stars like Joe Hammond and Herman ‘the Helicopter’ Knowings. I mean, some of those guys had great athletic skills. When I was in the ninth grade, I saw the Helicopter, with my own two eyes, pick a quarter off the top of a backboard to win a bet, and I was in complete shock.
“As the debate relates to playground players in general, yes, I have to agree with Clyde,” says King. “There were a lot of guys along the way who I competed with and against that had exceptional skills, but they couldn’t fit their skills into a team concept. They were very individual type of players, and once they got into a framework where they were being coached and had to deal with a structured offense, they didn’t succeed, and that’s why some of the players made it and some didn’t.
“No matter who you are or how talented you are,” King concludes, “if you can’t mesh your skills into the framework of a team, it just doesn’t work.”