Holcombe Rucker Park
Holcombe Rucker Playground
Holcombe Rucker (1926-1965) dedicated his life to his community. Although he died young, his memory endures because of the major basketball tournament he founded. Rucker grew up in Manhattan, attended Benjamin Franklin High School, and between 1948 and 1964 worked for Parks as a playground director in numerous Harlem locales.
In 1947, the year that Rucker married Mary Thomas, he started a basketball tournament in Harlem. The Rucker League’s motto was “each one, teach one,” and it stressed education in combination with recreation. Rucker personally taught participants reading fundamentals, graded their homework, and let success on report cards influence who would play. Throughout the course of the tournaments, Rucker helped to obtain over 700 college athletic scholarships for the participants. Rucker continued his own education with a degree from the City College of New York in 1962, and then taught English classes at J.H.S. 139.
In the 1960s, Rucker transformed his local league into a basketball institution by organizing games where his best players shared the court with professionals such as Wilt Chamberlain. Although Rucker died at age 38 due to complications from cancer, the 1960s and 1970s represented a high point for the Pro Rucker League when greats such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came to play. By the early 1980s, professional athletes became reluctant to risk injury during non-season play, and the league returned to its amateur roots; Rucker’s original tournament, however, is still played today in Colonel Charles Young Playground.
A number of basketball tournaments for children, high school, college, and professional players now take place in Rucker Playground, including the Entertainers Basketball Classic and the Each One Teach One tournament. The Rucker court and the top players it attracts have also been the subject of two films, Above the Rim and On Hallowed Ground. Both films secure the park’s place in urban and basketball history.
Located north of 155th Street, and bounded by Frederick Douglass Boulevard and the Harlem River Drive, the park opened February 23, 1956, as P.S. 156 Playground. In 1974, a local law re-named it Holcombe Rucker. In 1993, Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger sponsored a $423,000 renovation of the playground, reconstructing the facility as part of the Neighborhood Park Improvement Program (NPIP). The resulting facility contains play equipment, swings, safety surfacing, a spray shower, a flagpole with yardarm, a comfort station, four handball courts, seal animal art, and a baseball diamond. But, amongst an array of bleachers and stadium lights stands the Holcombe Rucker Basketball Court, the park’s main attraction, where both local players and national idols have come to play for four decades.