Jeffrey Banks pauses in the middle of a story and sniffs the air.
“Smell that bullshit?” he asks. “I smell that.” He looks around amid the small crowd gathered before him on the wide sidewalk outside the Fine Fare Supermarket, near the corner of West 112th Street and Eighth Avenue in Harlem. “It smells like drugs.”
Banks’s gaze settles on an older man listing up the sidewalk. He stares hard at the man, who is holding the front of his black pants in his right hand, a large gray plastic bag with overflowing belongings in the left. Three NYPD officers in blue uniforms follow.
A lifetime ago, that man could have been Banks. But that was then. Now he’s drawing a small crowd of neighborhood folks, regaling them with outrageous stories of his exploits as “Hannibal, The Most Electrifying One,” or, as he likes to call himself, a “ghetto celebrity.” The drug-running and -selling that is part of his past is over, replaced by a bigger-than-life YouTube personality that draws tourists and celebrities from all over the world to watch him work the crowds at the Entertainers Basketball Classic, the famous streetball tournament held each summer on the revered hardcourts at Holcombe Rucker Park.
Started in 1983 by an enterprising young St. John’s University student named Greg Marius, the EBC has become a must for streetballers and pros, for world-famous hip-hop artists and underground rappers, for tourists and locals alike.
“Hannibal, The Most Electrifying One, they remember him,” Marius says of the tourists who pack the stands to watch Banks. Thirty-two years after launching the tournament on a whim, Marius, as CEO of the EBC, has turned it into the most instantly recognizable and oft-imitated outdoor streetball tournament in the world. And he acknowledges Banks’s role in defining its attitude. “[The fans] go back and talk about him. Even the NBA players remember Hannibal. He’s Kobe’s guy. Kobe will send for him, will send him sneakers. When he talks about his experience at Rucker Park, he mentions Hannibal. So right there, it tells you, he definitely leaves a lasting impression on you.”
Born in 1968, Banks grew up a block away from Rucker Park, whose outdoor courts at West 155th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard are decidedly the most famous playground basketball courts in the world. The park is named after Holcombe Rucker, a Harlem teacher who also worked at the NYC parks department. Rucker started a basketball tournament in 1947, and, over the years, the courts have seen some of the game’s greatest stars — Dr. J, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kevin Durant — and streetball legends like Joe “The Destroyer” Hammond and Pee Wee Kirkland.
Banks has seen them all, but since becoming the voice of the EBC in 1999, he’s been as much a part of the experience as the players.
He had no broadcast experience, no public-speaking experience, no basketball experience. He wasn’t a presenter, an actor, or a performer. But he had a great voice, an outsized presence, and an even bigger ego.
“You’ve got to come out there and act like and pretend like you already got paid,” Banks says. “That’s how I come out there. That’s why I’m the diva of the bunch. I do take my time. I come late, I do, because I know when I get there, you need me to show you something that you’re not gonna believe. I invest in the craft of what we do. I’m probably the first announcer in the history of this that did that.”
Banks is hard to miss as he strolls onto the court every summer wearing his round, oversized sunglasses and flowing robe, his head clean-shaven, his beard trimmed. His trademark belt — an authentic piece of World Wrestling Entertainment hardware — hugs his waist and, on good days, an entourage includes a gaggle of beautiful women.
“He does things that most of them won’t do,” Marius says of his other announcers. “He’s very flamboyant and he’s exciting. He took the style of WWE that he was a fan of for years and he put it in the center stage of basketball, and it worked well. The guys in the neighborhood, they just look at him like he’s a clown. But people from outside the community, they love Hannibal. That’s the one they look for when they get there to the park.”
Banks started out as an ardent fan of the EBC before he was ever on the mic. One summer, he decided to volunteer with the league and was responsible for hanging sponsorship banners above the courts. He would entertain the other workers by calling imaginary games as they all worked. When the regular announcers boycotted the games one day over payment, Banks stepped in. The crowd loved him. Marius had found a star.
Banks is a product of the streets. He says his father was regularly sent to prison and his mother couldn’t keep a tight rein on him. He ended up being looked after by the street dealers who hung out in the neighborhood. And when he turned fourteen, they trusted him to sell as well.
“Me and my brother, we were kind of raised up in the house with these Jamaicans, big-time jabroskis,” he says. “They got reefer big time and we were the only two, like, Americans and young guys that they trusted. They gave us a spot. And we were little niggas. But we had grown men working for us.”
He remembers selling his first stash of marijuana in junior high in the last stall of the girls’ bathroom. He says he was finally inspired to stop dealing drugs after spending two years in prison in the mid-1990s. Not long after his release, he asked to volunteer at the Rucker.
Marius acknowledges that Banks has a bit of a past, but it has never concerned him.
“During the summer, I don’t see or hear any of that and he doesn’t bring that to the court,” Marius says. “I’ve known Hannibal, I know the block he comes from, but I don’t know that part of Hannibal.”
Of Marius, Banks says: “I owe him everything. He took a chance on me, an ex-convict.”
On the corner at West 112th in Harlem, one of the dozen or so people around Banks is asking him about The Rock. Most of us know him, now, as actor Dwayne Johnson, but at one time he was a professional wrestler who famously dubbed himself “The Most Electrifying Man in Sports Entertainment.”
Banks turns back to the crowd. In his deep, rapid-fire tone (one can imagine its flow fitting over any East Coast hip-hop track), he starts up again. “When they were calling me ‘The Most Electrifying,’ he wasn’t even ‘The Rock’ yet,” Banks crows. “He was Rocky Maivia. He had curly hair. He hadn’t started the cool Rock shit yet. He was starting to call himself ‘The Rock,’ and then he started calling himself ‘The Most Electrifying,’ but I was already ‘The Most Electrifying.’
“But I didn’t get mad. People who knew, who remembered the timing, know that for a fact.”
This is Banks in his element. Even on a street corner on a windy Sunday in Harlem, he starts talking and people stop.
“That’s what happens,” he tells the crowd. “What happens a lot of times, when you don’t write, when you don’t copyright, anybody can just swipe it. But I don’t complain about it. I look at it as a compliment.”
Banks knows nicknames. Over the years he’s handed out sobriquets as extreme as “Swine Flu,” and he’ll be the first to tell you that few can top him in the creativity department.
“I give out the best names out of everybody,” he says. “I go places where people don’t even want to think.”
So how does he do it?
“It’s a feeling,” he says. “It’s something you feel when you’re out there. You can’t create the name already in your head. I’ve never given no one a nickname that I thought of before. I’ve never sat in the house and said, ‘I’m gonna give this person this nickname.’ That don’t happen. I’m glad it happens the way it happens.”
But not everyone appreciates Banks’s antics at the park. Often, his biggest critics are his fellow EBC announcers. Some say Banks’s style-over-substance approach overshadows the more legitimate game-calling that they do.
“Hannibal is a handful,” E.J. “The Mayor” Johnson, Banks’s announcing partner, says with a laugh. “I love him to death, but sometimes I think he’s over the top. He brings a lot of excitement when he walks in. I’m able to feed off his energy, but at the same time I like to keep everything under control and be tasteful with it.”
Thomas “Duke Tango” Mills, one of the original EBC announcers and now an emcee with Ball Up Streetball, claims Banks “is not a commentator. He’s just a hype man.”
“All he does is hype up the crowd,” Mills says. “E.J. is the man up there.”
Marius admits that he has had to deal with some announcers who don’t want to work with Banks.
“They’ll say, ‘I can’t work with that dude, Greg,’ ” Marius says. “At the end of the day, you either work with Hannibal or you won’t be here. Those people are in the park because of him.”
Marius compares Banks to Danny Ray, the man who emceed for James Brown and always carried the cape he would then drape over the music legend’s shoulders.
Ray, Marius argues, “was just as important as James Brown, if not more. [People] may say, ‘James Brown had a dope show.’ But did you see the guy that put the cloak around him and walked him off and he knocked it back off and he was dancing with him?
Banks shrugs away the criticism. He speculates that some of the announcers were still bitter; if it hadn’t been for their strike over pay all those years ago, he never would have gotten the chance to get on the mic in the first place.
“I know I’m the hottest thing out of all of them, but I’m not ever going to sit here and believe that that tournament can’t live without me,” Banks says. “For me, there’s a method to my madness. You got to make them not forget you. When you demand that kind of attention and respect, they want to give it to you.”
The Entertainment Basketball Classic begins at 6 p.m. on June 22 at Rucker Park and ends August 13.