Holcombe Rucker Park
Holcombe Rucker Playground
What was here before?
This was once the site of the 8th Avenue Railroad Company, which opened in 1852. It operated services from Lower Manhattan to 51st Street and 8th Avenue and expanded to this location in the late 1800s. The M10 bus line currently runs along part of the original route.
How did this site become a park?
The park opened as PS 156 Playground in 1956 and was a Jointly Operated Playground. Beginning in 1938, the Board of Education agreed to provide land next to schools where the Parks Department could build and maintain playgrounds that could be used by the school during the day and the public on evenings and weekends. Due to declining student population within the district, the school closed in 1981 but the playground remained.
In 1974, the playground was renamed Holcombe Rucker Park after Parks’ beloved Playground Director at the request of Rucker’s protégés. The basketball tournaments at the park’s Greg Marius 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.
Who is this park named for?
Holcombe Rucker (1926-1965) is remembered for the basketball tournaments he founded at this court and the generations of players he mentored. Born and raised in Manhattan and schooled at Benjamin Franklin High School, Rucker worked as a Playground Director for NYC Parks at various Harlem parks from 1948 and 1964.
His career flourished at this park, where his tournaments became summertime rituals and drew upon neighborhood talent schooled in fast-paced, rough-and-tumble, acrobatic streetball. Rucker’s motto on the court was “each one, teach one,” which stressed the importance of sharing knowledge, and he guided players in scholarly pursuits in addition to athletics.
By the 1950s, Rucker started the ‘Rucker Tournament,’ out of which came some 700 college athletic scholarships. Over time, the best amateur players competed here with leading professional athletes such as Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Rucker saw the tournaments as a positive influence on local youth during the summer when school was not in session.
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. He died prematurely, at age 38, due to complications from cancer, leaving his wife Mary Thomas and many devoted followers. Following his death, two protégés – Bob McCullough and Fred Crawford (both drafted by NBA teams) – created the Rucker Pro League, a competition among professionals held in the park each summer. In the spirit of Rucker’s legacy, this tournament is always preceded by one amongst amateur players, called the “Each One Teach One” tournament.
In the late 1960s and ‘70s, the Rucker Pro League reached its apex with rosters that included the likes of Julius ‘Dr. J’ Erving, and Willis Reed. Amateur teams were manned by legendary streetball players such as Joe ‘the Destroyer’ Hammond, Herman ‘Helicopter’ Knowling, and Earl ‘the Goat’ Manigault. 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.
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.
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 brings together top players from all ranks – high school, college, and professional.