Holcombe Rucker Park
Holcombe Rucker Playground
Holcombe Rucker (1926-1965) is remembered here for the major basketball tournaments he founded at this court, and for the generations of players that emerged under his wing. Born and raised in Manhattan and schooled at Benjamin Franklin High School, Rucker worked between 1948 and 1964 as a Playground Director for NYC Parks at various Harlem playgrounds. Rucker’s main purpose was to train local kids so that they could better compete on the court and in life.
His career flourished at this playground. Rucker’s tournaments became summertime rituals and drew upon the talent in the neighborhood. Under his guidance, young local players cut their teeth on some of the most acrobatic streetball of their time. The game of streetball – a rougher and often faster version of basketball played outdoors – gained currency here because Rucker’s tournaments combined the skills of both streetball and professional indoor basketball.
Rucker’s motto on the court was “each one, teach one,” which stressed the importance of passing on what you learn to your neighbor. Rucker emphasized not only physical skill and discipline on the court, but education as a necessary partner to recreation. Rucker himself taught the players reading fundamentals, graded their homework, and let success on report cards influence who would get to play. By the 1950’s, Rucker had started the ‘Rucker Tournament’, out of which came some 700 college athletic scholarships. Rucker continued his own education with a degree from the City College of New York in 1962, and then taught English classes at Frederick Douglass J.H.S. 139. Rucker continued to build on the accomplishments of his students when he organized a tournament amongst his best amateur players and the professionals of that era. Such legends as Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul Jabbar came out to play.
Basketball is traditionally thought of as a winter sport, with the playoffs in spring. When Rucker opted to hold his training and tournaments throughout the summer, he met with opposition from local officials. Rucker argued that the summer was the best time to organize and train local kids, if only so that they stayed off of the street. Rucker persisted and prevailed, and his summertime tournaments are now held in his honor. Basketball became a four season sport.
Rucker died prematurely, at age 38, due to complications from cancer, leaving his wife Mary Thomas and many devoted followers. In the months following his death, two of his protégés – Bob McCullough (drafted by the NBA Cincinnati Royals) and Fred Crawford (drafted by the NBA NY Knicks) – created the Rucker Pro League, a competition among professionals held each summer here at Rucker Playground. In the spirit of Rucker’s legacy, this tournament is always preceded by one amongst the amateur players, called the “Each One Teach One” tournament.
In the late 1960s and ‘70s, the Rucker Pro League reached a high point when such esteemed players as Connie Hawkins, Tiny Archibald, Julius ‘Dr. J’ Erving, Tony Jackson, Calvin Ramsey, and Willis Reed played on this court. The amateur teams included legendary streetball players such as Joe ‘the Destroyer’ Hammond, Herman ‘Helicopter’ Knowling, Peewee Kirkland, Earl ‘the Goat’ Manigault, and Pablo Robertson. By the early 1980s, professional athletes were less active in the competition, for fear of injury during non-season play, and the league returned to its amateur roots. Today Rucker’s original tournament is played at Colonel Charles Young Playground at 145th Street near the Harlem River. Most recently, the Golden Hoops East Coat High School Basketball Classic tournament has become part of this tradition.
For over 50 years the Each One Teach One summer league, also founded by McCullough and Crawford, has called Rucker Park home. This annual summer youth league has been instrumental in developing young players, and cultivating academic growth and community building. In addition to weekend tournaments, Each One Teach One offers daily skills clinics to kids age six to thirteen.
The Entertainers Basketball Classic, a celebrated annual tournament that marries basketball and music, moved to this court in 1985. Founded by Gregory Marius, this tournament enjoins top players from all ranks – high school, college, and professional.
The park opened February 23, 1956, as a ‘Jointly Operated Playground’ owned by the Department of Education and managed by NYC Parks, but in 1974, at the request of Rucker’s protégés, Mayor John V. Lindsay issued a local law officially naming this site Holcombe Rucker Playground. The tournaments at Rucker court have been the subject of three films, Above the Rim, On Hallowed Ground and The Real: Rucker Pro Legends and Fathers of the Sport. These films, Rucker’s devotion to the game and community, and the continued dedication of his pupils have secured the park’s place in basketball history.