Airport ’99


The Handler sat courtside at Rucker Park last week, straight across from where the True Warrior was taking in the action. On the blacktop, the Natural Controller and the Headache did battle with Black Widow and the Show.

And for hundreds of playground basketball fans lucky enough to be there, many pressing their noses against the chain-link fence surrounding the tiny park or perching themselves on tree limbs to get a better look at the run, the best was yet to come— Air Canada was due for arrival.

“Stegosaurus catches a pass and backs into the paint, taking up more space in there than a Tyrannosaurus rex,” says the man behind the microphone, a cross between Marv Albert and Snoop Doggy Dogg. “I mean, this boy’s 100 percent beef, you can call him the Tank, you can call him Sherman. . . .”

Since late June, every player with a name as colorful as his game has been lugging a duffel bag to the legendary park on 155th Street and Eighth Avenue, where the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic, a descendant of the old Pro Rucker Tournament, is being staged, filling the summer air with the sweet sounds of basketball and music.

Since the late ’60s, the top high school, college, pro, and playground stars, all with nicknames straight out of the World Wrestling Federation, have been soaring above the rims 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.

And Thursday night, two of the 14 teams in this year’s tournament will collide in the championship game of the ultimate New York City basketball showcase, competing for the city’s ultimate bragging rights.

“You might think I’m crazy, but to me, this is more exciting than an N.C.A.A. tournament game,” said Ron Artest, the former St. John’s star who was recently drafted by the Chicago Bulls. “This is all about returning to your roots, putting your talent on display against many of the guys you grew up playing against in the parks,” said Artest, who has played in the Rucker Tournament for years as the True Warrior.

Last season, the True Warrior captured both the regular season and playoff MVP awards playing for Bad Boy, a Rucker dynasty in recent years that was undefeated (5-0) heading into the playoffs this season and the odds-on favorite to win it all tomorrow night.

“When I played for the Bad Boy, they called me the Handler,” said Stephon Marbury, the Coney Island point guard prodigy who now runs the show for the Nets. “I have great memories of my playing days here because the competition is so awesome.”

Despite the absence of Marbury on its roster, Bad Boy is still oozing with talents like the Best Kept Secret, a/k/a Kareem Reid, the former Arkansas star; the Future, a/k/a Malloy Nesmith, a New York streetball legend; and the Black Widow, a/k/a Tyron Evans, who spun his game at Cal State Bakersfield.

“But they can be beat,” warned the player known as High Five, a/k/a Reggie Freeman, a standout at the University of Texas, who had a brief stint with the Milwaukee Bucks and is now playing professionally in Argentina. “We only lost to them by one point this season, so anything is possible.”

The Show, a/k/a Dana Dingle, the former UMass backcourt man who now plays for the Ruff Ryders along with former LIU star Mike Campbell, knows what winning a Rucker championship can mean to a player’s reputation. “New York is the mecca of great basketball; this is the streetball version of the NBA,” said Dingle, himself exploring the possibility of playing overseas. “A championship goes a long way in terms of respect, because some of the teams in this tournament are better than some Division I college basketball teams, so winning it all here means that you played for one of the best teams in the country.”

In their quest for a championship, the Ruff Ryders eliminated Team Mary J from the playoffs. That was no small task considering that the Natural Controller, who is former Florida State point guard Kerry Thompson, was playing quarterback for the Mary J’s.

¤ Throughout the years, the Rucker Tournament, which has attracted scouts and big-name coaches like Lou Carnesecca, Jim Boeheim, and Jerry Tarkanian, has produced a number of magical moments: Joe “the Destroyer” Hammond once dropped 50 in a championship game on the Doctor himself, Julius Erving, back in the early ’70s, and Marbury once dream-teamed in the same backcourt with Philadelphia 76er superstar Allen Iverson.

And just last week, one of the fabled tournament’s finest chapters was written during a playoff war between Black Hand Entertainment and Vacant Lots. The game took place at the Gauchos Gym in the Bronx, having moved indoors when it began to thunderstorm at Rucker Park.

Undefeated Vacant Lots (5-0), led by C.J., a/k/a Charles Jones, who led the nation in scoring at LIU for two straight years and played with the Chicago Bulls last season, raced out to a 10-0 lead midway through the first quarter. And then, suddenly, the MC, his eyes bulging, blurted out two words that brought the drenched crowd to their feet and into the outer limits of hysteria: “Heeeeeee’s Heeeeeere!!!”

With the place in a frenzy, the locker room doors burst open, and out stormed Vince Carter of the Toronto Raptors in a brown and white Black Hand uniform, waving to the crowd, which included rapper Jay-Z, and pleading with the guy at the scorer’s table to sound the substitution horn. When Air Canada hit the runway, teaming with a Washington, D.C., phenom known as the Prime Objective, a/k/a Lonnie Harrell, the roof nearly blew off the gymnasium.

After a slow second quarter, Air Canada spread his wings, flying high over the competition in the third frame with an offensive explosion still ringing in the ears of everyone in attendance that night.

With 8 minutes 41 seconds to play in the third, Air Canada scooped up a loose ball in the paint and put down a two-handed jam for his first basket of the evening. A few seconds later, he buried a 3-pointer, NBA range, from the left side. And at the 7:41 mark, he drained another 3-pointer from the same spot, giving him 8 points in one minute— and the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year was just warming up.

With 6:28 left in the third, Air Canada broke into the open court, slipped past one defender with a right-to-left, behind-the-back dribble, whipped a behind-the-back pass to a trailing Prime Objective, pointed north, and as an alley-oop pass came falling out of the sky, turned his body 180 degrees in midair so that he was facing the opposite basket, caught the rock, and threw it down with a force that literally shook the Rucker faithful out onto the floor in celebration.

Shortly after order was restored, Air Canada took off again. With 54 seconds left in the third, he rose to catch another alley-oop pass with his right hand along the left baseline, about five feet from the rim, and, still airborne, slammed windmill-style over the outstretched fingertips of two opponents. It was perhaps the greatest dunk in the history of Rucker.

The crowd poured onto the court again, and the festivities lasted nearly 10 minutes as fans just had to give props to the man with the most devastating jam in the game today. After Air Canada and company ran off the court and out into the night with a 66-64 victory, the Handler smiled.

“I’m telling you, you never know who’s going to show up at one of these games,” said Stephon Marbury. “Kareem played here and so did Doctor J, and I played here with Allen and now Vince,” he added. “Tell Michael Jordan his career is not officially over until he comes up to the Rucker and shows us his game.”