“Rucker is love,” shouts NBA star Stephon Marbury in the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic at Rucker Park DVD.
Entertainer’s is one of two star-studded leagues that operate each summer at RUCKER PARK, the legendary Harlem playground at 155th Street and Eighth Avenue. Over the years, these rims have been bent by the likes of Kareem Abdul Jabbar (back when he was still Lew Alcindor) and Kobe Bryant (before the scandal). Originally just named P.S. 156, the courts were dedicated in 1974 to Holcombe Rucker, a heroic Parks Department employee who created a refuge for neighborhood youth underneath the halos of these rims (and begat a veritable brand name).
Greenwich Village’s 4TH STREET COURT (just off Sixth Avenue) is also the stuff of legend. In the summer, locals and foreign tourists crowd around the 20-foot-high fences to watch the Pro Classic League in action and to hear stylized play-by-play over the loudspeaker. It’s a strange game here, on a lone full court that’s half the length of a regulation run. One pass, two dribbles, and a guy’s under the boards: This can make for some especially nasty incidental contact.
But the love is felt all over New York, and not just by wizards with 36-inch vertical leaps. If you’ve got a basketball jones to satisfy and a decent rock under your arm, this town is one big playground.
Tips for out-of-towners: Forget your hometown compassion. In New York, half-court always means winner’s ball. And no matter how many are waiting, the winning team stays (all day, if they’re hot). Forget the comforts of home: A smooth, dry surface, real rims, and backboards suffice; nets are luxuries (sometimes of the chain-link variety). And take care: Cement doesn’t give. Broken glass can wound. And that thing that looks like a used condom is a used condom.
Everyone’s got their favorite runs. Here are some less storied locales:
• P.S. 282 Lincoln Place and Sixth Avenue, Brooklyn This decent full court is mainly empty during the week. Weekend mornings, it’s a safe haven for aging, vertically challenged hoopsters like me; later on, the oak trees stand tall.
• JACOB RIIS PARK, THE ROCKAWAYS Across from the huge parking lot are eight sweet full courts. There’s no reliable scene, but on a sweltering summer day, you can surf-and-turf: Play until you feel faint, kick off your Nikes, brave the hot sand, and dive into the ocean. (Oh, and blame those missed 22-footers on the Atlantic breeze.)
• RIVERSIDE PARK Two reliable runs, hosting a mix of locals with axes to grind and Columbia jocks with time on their hands.
• TOMPKINS SQUARE PARK, 9TH STREET BETWEEN AVENUES A AND B The controversial cleanup has meant more recreational sports and fewer recreational drugs. All levels of play.
• FORT GREENE PARK, BROOKLYN, MYRTLE AND SOUTH PORTLAND AVENUES Spike Lee lent funds to create the spanking digs, where games range from flamboyant to flailing and the rims are sturdy.