Basketball In The Summer
New York Playground Legends
(1st of 4 parts)
I know it is not summer. But I thought you folks might enjoy some reading about summer basketball.
It was a hot summer day many years ago that I ventured to the local park outside of my home in the St. Nicholas Projects in Central Harlem to watch the most famous summer basketball league in America, The Holcombe Rucker Summer Professional League. Besides the great basketball, it was a great place to collect empty soda bottles in order to cash them in for the .02 deposits on the small bottles and .05 deposits on the larger bottles. Growing up this was one of the many ways to earn money for purchasing candy, or attending movies. Besides hustling at the local food chains carrying bags, this and opening taxi doors at local churches was the next best thing for enterprising 11 year old kids.
As I sat down in a small space under the basket watching the great Wilt “The Stilt Chamberlain” from Philadelphia dominate the paint, I was amazed at his size and ability. He was a true super star!!!! But what has remained with me for over 40 years is what happened with less than one minute to go in the game. Big Wilt stepped on my foot going for a loose ball under the basket and all I could do was scream. Being the enterprising person I was at the time, I turned my pain into gain by tapping him on the shoulder with a smile minutes after the game reminding him how he hurt me. Well Wilt Chamberlain decided to treat me and a few other kids to sodas and Ice cream for my suffering. We were so pleased just to get him to acknowledge us. But to get him to treat us to goodies! That was the greatest! I would imagine if the same thing happened now, kids and parents would be seeking much more compensation via law suits, etc. lol.
That day was my first real initiation into New York City Summer Basketball. Summer basketball in New York City has been popular for 50 years or more. We all know the story about the legendary Holcombe Rucker. But many do not remember the other legendary figures associated with NYC Summer basketball. People such as Ollie Edinboro who was a protege of Mr. Rucker, Snookie Walker who owned the Famous Snookies Sugar Bowl which was a popular local restaurant filled with basketball trophy’s. Oddly, Snookie was even more famous for standing up to organized crime to protect his vending machine business. His exploits against organized crime was legendary!
Other heroes were Leroy Otis, One Eye Sam, Rodger “Buster” Bryant, Bob McCullough, Sand Man Sims (of Apollo Theater Fame), Jaws, Artie George, John Black, Jelly Roll, Cecil Watkins, Leroy Watkins, Lester Roberts, Rap Perez, Gil Reynolds, Jim Couch, The Tallifarro Twins, Don Adams, Skinny Reeves, and Hilton White. These gentleman ran tournaments without receiving compensation because they just loved helping kids.
Summer ball in the city was played in all 5 boros but dominated by tournaments in Manhattan, The Bronx, and Brooklyn. Later Queens became a major tournament player with the legendary Ray Felix Tournament, and now boasts the best HS tournament in America, IS8. Summer ball became so competitive that the original youth Rucker League and City Wide League which was new at the time, decided to have end of the summer championships which were held at St. Johns Recreation Center in Brooklyn. All the champs from leagues in the five boros went through a playoff with the winners meeting in Brooklyn on a Sunday for the overall City Championship. This was huge and as a youngster I had the privilege of participating as a member of Leroy Otis’s Church of the Masters/Young Life midget team. I remember the game as if it was played yesterday. It was so exciting to be part of an event that unfortunately no longer exits. By the way we did win the game against a strong team of future Boys High Stars including Earnie Douse, Gus Washington, and a guard named Bo who was great to say the least. Well this is not about my limited basketball exploits. Its about a few of the many players who left their mark on the hard top.
I remember the first time I watched Richard “Pee Wee” Kirkland play basketball. He was a 6 ft 2 guy who honestly was dunking on guys in Mount Morris Park playing for Milbank Center. He was one of the greatest guards I have ever seen. I could care less about the NBA. The summer in NYC had all I wanted to see. Pee Wee dominated the game and was very smooth off the court. I remember watching him score 50 in a game when he played in the Pro Rucker, and driving a luxury Dusenburg automobile around my Harlem Neighborhood later that evening in a blue suit with 4 beautiful women all dressed in blue riding with him. Now in our eyes, that was a star!
Joe Hammond? The greatest player I have ever seen who was fundamentally sound yet never made a legit dollar for playing the game. He dominated NBA players since he was 17 years old. He made NY Knick players including Reed, Bradley, Russell, and Stallworth look silly on the court. I wish there was video for people to see. By the way, he teamed with Pee wee Kirkland in the Milbank backcourt.
The first time I saw Pablo Robinson play basketball I thought he was doing magic. How could he do so much with a basketball. He was simply amazing the way he dominated. He had a brother Walter who was also good but not the player Pablo was. Still remember how folks always talked about his dad, who according to many was one of the top Chefs in NYC. Pablo made all of us proud by making the Harlem Globetrotters and even having a cartoon character in his image on the Globetrotter Cartoon Show.
People always seem to think Earl “The Goat” Manigualt was the greatest athlete and player during his time. He was a great one but the person often forgotten is Willie Manguam. I personally saw Willie Manguam take a quarter off the top of the basket in a park on 130th street and 7th avenue at 11 PM at night 45 years ago. I saw it with my own eyes as he took the quarter after a bet with a few other players. Besides jumping, Willie could just play!!! He could shoot, run, jump, and defend, Unfortunately we rarely hear his name. But he was a true playground legend.
Rodney Butler was the Charles Barkley of his time. When he entered a gym initially folks got a good laugh because he was a fat guy. Yes I said fat as opposed to big. Around 6 ft 1 and 280 ponds of White Castle Muscle. He would dominate every game he played. If he did not score 40 or 50 points it was a bad game. All he did was play hard and dominate. Rodney led the country in scoring while attending college at Springfield or American International.
Anyone recognize the name Red Cotto? Well Red was at one time the cover boy for American HS Basketball. A 6 ft 2 combo guard for Commerce HS in NYC, he was on everyone’s recruiting list. I was so proud the first time he called me by my first name. It was such an honor lol. Red was smooth and consistent. As a youngster he dominated the court all the way from JHS to HS. At the time HS basketball magazines were on the racks and he graced the covers of most.
The guy from back in the day who would contend for a NBA dunk championship was none other than Jackie Jackson from Brooklyn. Jackie was strong and athletic. He could fly to the rim and was strong enough to hold folks off. Jackie eventually played for the Harlem Globetrotters and had a long career.
Theres a guy out there now in his 50”s still playing in a few tournaments each year. Oddly he scores 20 to 30 when he plays. The story of the Sundance Kid is legendary. Sonny is just an efficient player who knows how to score. I remember him from his days at Charles Evers Hughes HS where he never even played on the team. In fact we ate lunch together often and none of us even knew he played basketball. One summer when I was home from college I heard about this great player down at the King Dome. My entire neighborhood made the 17 block walk to watch this soon to become legend play. As I sat in the stands looking for “The Sundance Kid” I was amazed to find out it was my HS buddy Sonny. As they pointed him out I said, “that’s not him, its only Sonny.” He went on to score around 60 points in that game and has not stopped yet. Trust me he still plays and gets 30-40 a game against college stars!!
The last person in the segment I want to talk about is a Harlem fixture to this day. Willie Hall is one of the toughest and meanest guys to step on the court. I first saw him when I was a youngster watching the Bowman Basketball League for men at Wagner Center on the east side of Harlem. He was unique because before the game he found time to sit with all of us young kids and laugh and joke. As the opposing team ran through warm-ups he looked at us and smiled saying watch what happens in the game. Well true to his word the game was not the lay-up line. It was man to man combat and Willie Took no prisoners. Willie was a star at St. Johns University years earlier but never made the NBA because he had a hot temper. According to many, even the great Oscar Robinson attempted to get him a spot on the Cincinnati Royals but it did not work out.
One of the funniest scenes I have witnessed on an outdoor court was when Willies Hall’s team faced off against Pee Wee Kirkland’s team in the Real Pro Rucker. Willie was never intimidated by Pee Wee and his crew. During the game Willie got into it with Pee Wee and shoved him. The entire stands became quiet waiting to see what would happen next. Pee Wee’s crew and friends all stood and started shouting at Willie. Willie walked over to them and told them to come out at him. Oddly they all seemed to be holding each other back because they knew that Willie was gentile off the court but a terror when confronted. Basketball wise Willie Hall was a real star who was tough before tough was something NBA guys admired.
Yes playground basketball in NYC has a lot of colorful figures in its history. It’s a history that needs to be shared. For many attending free games during the summer, it is more exciting and affordable than attending an NBA game at Madison Square Garden. It’s the reason the “And 1” tour is so successful. When young playground legends such as Kareem Reid, Bone Crusher. Half Man Half Amazing, Headache, I’ll Be Right Back, Master Rob, Future, and others enter a local neighborhood park, its as if true royalty has entered the room. Royalty that many in the inner city relate to better than the players on NBA teams. Its what makes NYC Summer Basketball so attractive. It’s a place where even NBA Players have to earn respect. Just as past players including Willis Reed, Dr. J, and others had to.
Please look for additional articles about New York City, New Jersey, and Pa. Summer Basketball coming soon. I have great Dana Lewis, Sonny Hill League, Newark stuff including Cleo Hill, and much, much more!!