NEW YORK — One basketball playing youth from the South Bronx was occasionally on babysitting duty, charged with watching his little sisters. Instead, sometimes he would sneak away with sisters in tow, heading to Harlem to hopefully catch a glimpse of some of the finest street ballers in the city at famed Rucker Park.
One of his sisters remembers vividly her love of riding the subway to 155th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, which was less than a 10-minute walk from the Polo Grounds, home of MLB’s New York Giants.
But once she first got there at age seven, she was too small to see most of the action on the court. It didn’t matter. Overhearing her brothers speak about the players on the court, she knew Rucker had to have magical qualities.
That subway-riding, basketball loving little girl was Michele Roberts, who is the current executive director of the National Basketball Players Association.
“It was a like a carnival, a party. Going to the Rucker was special. I don’t know of any black kids that grew up in the 60’s and 70’s who didn’t know Rucker,” Roberts told USA TODAY Sports.
Roberts, the NBPA, several corporate sponsors along with the New York City Parks department have teamed up to give the court at Rucker Park an updated look, thanks to $500,000 in funds from the players union.
Players have showed up to play over the years despite the deep cracks in the pavement that are going to be repaired. Spaulding will provide new NBA quality custom-made backboards and baskets. New bleachersand a scoreboard will be installed as part of a much-needed facelift. Other additions include repainting the court, adding team benches, and park gates.
Roberts says she’s not just disappointed at how Rucker deteriorated over the years, but also how fans don’t seem to understand its rich history.
“Back in my day, it was the biggest show in town. So, I took a look at the court (recently) and said, ‘Oh! It’s a little raggedy, and kind of dangerous,’” Roberts said. “I think over the years, and I am not casting blame on anybody, it’s been allowed to get in various stages of disrepair, patchwork here and there. I was concerned about it because the Rucker is a mecca.”
The history of Rucker began in 1950 when a New York City Department of Parks and Recreation worker named Holcombe Rucker took it upon himself to create a tournament to help kids realize their higher education aspirations, while staging a summer league designed to give ballers a safe place to display their skills.
Along with the renovations, the NBPA has a foundation funding a full-time recreation manager position similar to what Holcombe Rucker’s position was with the city decades ago.
«Rucker Park will once again become that same proving ground with the assistance of the NBPA, NYC Parks, and [apparel brand] Legends, while realizing the vision of one man — Holcombe Rucker,” Rucker’s grandson, Chris Rucker, founder and CEO of Rucker Brand, said in a statement.
The new court will reopen Saturday after a ribbon cutting ceremony and a grassroots basketball and community event hosted by the NBPA and THINK450, the union’s licensing and business development arm.
The court and park received celebrated status over the years, when players like Julius Erving, Kobe Bryant, Wilt Chamberlain, New York’s own Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, “Jumpin» Jackie Jackson, Earl “The Goat” Manigault and Richard “Pee Wee” Kirkland, displayed their skills giving the viewing public a rare up-close and personal look at some of the game’s greats that ever laced up sneakers.
Roberts says when she spoke to the players about the possibility of renovating the Rucker, it got overwhelming support.
“That’s a special place, a storied place of great players who played in the NBA and who haven’t played in the NBA and street ball legends who have graced that court,” Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant said.
Durant was a 22-year-old playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder, who had led the league in scoring the previous season, when he arrived at the Rucker on a hot August day in 2011. Durant wearing number 21 proceeded to torch the competition with jumpers and breakaway jams in torching the competition, scoring 66 points at the Entertainers Basketball Classic in a performance that’s still talked about. After hitting his final shot of the game, the Rucker Park crowd stormed the court and mobbed Durant.
“It’s meant so much to the basketball community, especially here in New York,» Durant said. «But not only in New York but around the world. This is a huge name, Rucker Park and I had so many great memories. So, I’m excited that the NBA and NBPA are doing that.”
Usually, when a new project is brought for review in New York City, it’s met with skepticism, and if it disrupts the business-as-usual approach in most neighborhoods, a resounding rejection from residents. There was no such pushback on making significant upgrades to the three-acre park, in which a resolution received a unanimous vote from community board members to support the NBPA in the court’s refurbishment.
“Basketball courts are not just a basketball court. People play basketball. It’s for community development,” said Chris Jean, the NBPA’s senior director of Grassroots Basketball & Events. “We cannot just recreate a court. It’s about picking up the community. It’s a gathering space, which is what was the idea behind it.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Michele Roberts backs Rucker Park new look with $500,000 from union