[2 April 2003]
Embarrassing folks just comes naturally to me.
Embarrassment comes with the territory.
—The Bone Collector
Professional basketball’s face is changing. Before 2K hit, icons like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Charles Barkley ruled. Nowadays, the covers of Sports Illustrated and ESPN are flavored with a burgeoning international contingent, including Yao Ming (China), Dirk Nowitzki (Germany), and Steve Nash (Canada’s finest).
Similarly, the game itself has changed dramatically. Magic, His Airness, and the Round Mound of Rebound cut their teeth in a highly structured college system, dominated more by vivid coaching personalities than individual on-court theatrics. The college game was all about collective execution, and players who dribbled excessively or slamdunked outrageously were called “showboaters.”
This structure explains, in part, why the majority of phenoms who populate the pickup courts across America, including legendary Rucker Park in Harlem, can barely hack the rigid college game, to say nothing of the pro ranks. Still, it was only a matter of time before the distinctly entertaining playground game entered the mainstream. And now it’s hit with the force of a hurricane. Stop by any pickup court in America and you will see kids of all colors and sizes, with bags of footwork, dunking, and dribbling tricks. They can shoot as well as they can show off.
Consider the rabbit-quick Larry Williams, a.k.a. The Bone Collector, who gets his own chapter in the second-season DVD release of Entertainer’s Basketball Classic at Rucker Park. As he puts it, “I live to destroy whoever is in front of me and if you got a name, I need that name.” In other words, Bone has game to spare and knows what the ecstatic crowd wants, which usually involves confusing dribbles between his opponents’ legs, stop-start drives to the hoop, bouncing balls of his defenders’ heads, and the like. Bone Collector’s star turn on the EBC DVD is blast to watch, if only because you’ll be scratching your head, wondering how he can pull any move off, after seeing his spliffed-out, heavy-lidded interviews. Whether or not his team wins is irrelevant, because the only thing you see are his dazzling moves, not the results of any extended match-ups.
It’s all about entertainment, not competition, a Harlem Globetrotters’ extravaganza for the Murder, Inc. contingent (CEO Irv Gotti subsidizes one team). Like Bone Collector argues, the players at Rucker’s feel like “superheroes,” and they’ve got the nicknames and convention-defying games to prove it—whether they’re streetballers like Whole Lotta Game (Adrian Walton), Best Kept Secret (Kareem Reid), and Prime Objective (Lonnie Harrell), or NBA pros like Kobe Bryant (Lord of the Rings), Stephon Marbury (Starbury) and the hops-heavy Shawn Marion (The Matrix).
And while the real treat (and marketing highlight) on the DVD is watching these superheroes clash on the court, an entire chapter is devoted to Kobe’s stint at Rucker’s, mostly because, besides being the perceived Air Apparent, he’s the only NBA champ to join the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic and lend it some of that pro ball shine. While Rucker’s has street credibility to spare, very few top-echelon players have guest-starred in Harlem and given it the type of next-level attraction it needs to expand its market beyond the streetball set.
Similarly, New York hoops legend Stephon Marbury brings a degree of NBA luster, when he leads rapper Fat Joe’s Terror Squad to the championship in the third and final chapter of the DVD. Forget that his teammates are pros like Ron Artest (the fiery forward for the Indiana Pacers) and Suns teammate Shawn Marion—or that the Terror Squad had no chance until those pros jumped on board. The Rucker crowd doesn’t care.
Even Marbury asserts that, while most of Rucker’s games are about “guys doing tricks and stuff,” the championship game is “for real, guys are really getting after it.” The fact that it takes NBA pros to cash that particular check only reinforces the idea that, while playground hoops may be a Mecca for pro ballers looking for some street cred, it still takes a polished gamer to win it all.
But sports are never just about the championships. Those are for sports historians and occasional tv viewers. Sports fans usually live in the here and now, marveling over feats they know will be long forgotten in a scant few years. And when it comes to feats of physical skill, no one can beat the players of Rucker Park, whether they’re pros or amateurs. If that’s your kind of game, you’ll dig the EBC Rucker Park DVD. If you’re a numbers fiend, a Bobby Knight, John Wooden or Dean Smith fan, or a hoops traditionalist, you’ll be crying on your stat sheet when this disc is done.