Thomas "TJ" Webster Jr. waits impatiently for the ball to be tossed in the air. The only white player on the court, he can sense the eyes of the few dozen spectators lounging around the steel and plastic bleachers.
At half court, the sole referee delicately balances the ball on his fingertips while simultaneously judging the slight breeze coming off the Harlem River.
He doesn't seem built for this game, or, perhaps, this place.
(Photo by Flinder Boyd)
Across the street, rising out of the ground where the once famed Polo Grounds stood and Willie Mays tracked down fly balls, four, 30-story housing projects known as the Polo Ground Towers loom ominously over Holcombe Rucker Park.
TJ anxiously tugs at his long, black shorts once, then again. The tattoos that start at his wrist and crawl toward his slender biceps glisten under the sun. At 5'11 with a lithe upper body that more resembles that of a tennis player, he doesn't seem built for this game, or, perhaps, this place.
As the players wait for the scorer's table to set up, TJ bends his knees then jumps straight into the air, landing with controlled force. It's as if he's testing the durability of the newly installed NBA-grade wood floor placed over the blacktop.
Despite his small size and light frame, he carries, like a weapon stashed under a vest, a 38" vertical jump. Along with his self-proclaimed "great" outside jump shot, he knows that during this 20-minute open tryout he'll have to do enough to impress one of the handful of coaches glaring at him from the stands. They represent teams in the upcoming Entertainer's Basketball Classic, an eight-week long tournament and the jewel of New York's basketball summer circuit.
Just two days ago, TJ stepped off a cross-country bus with every penny to his name wedged into the bottom of his bag for a chance to change his life. It's a long shot; he understands that, and so do the other nine players on the court. There are only two ways to make an EBC team, either by reputation or by being selected after your performance in the open run.
Each year, one, maybe two players, at most will be good enough to be granted a jersey and, in essence, a pass inside the halls of the cathedral of street basketball; a chance to feel the nearly religious power of Rucker Park - the same court that has hosted some of the greatest players to ever play the game.
In 1947, Holcombe Rucker, a Harlem teacher, started the predecessor to the EBC tournament on 128th Street, a mile south of its current location on West 155th Street, in the park now named in his honor. He viewed the tourney as a way to keep local youth busy during the summer months.
Over the next few decades, the tournament expanded and became vital to the community. Every local player with any game had to go through the crucible of Rucker's tournaments to prove he could play. Not only to himself and to other players, but also to the fans on the street who would sometimes wait for hours to squeeze inside the small park and watch basketball in its rawest form.
Although the tournament games are generally governed by the same rules as the indoor game, streetball has its own unique subculture. At its core, the attraction to the playground is the spontaneity and the depth of human expression. Without many, if any, set plays, extreme displays of individual skill and athleticism can flare at any moment. Early on, NBA players seeking a break from the stodgy confines of their winter league, and to solidify their street credentials, began flocking to the tournaments uptown. A young Lew Alcindor perfected his footwork there. Dr. J. was a regular, and locals like Earl "the Goat" Manigault, Herman "the Helicopter" Knowings and "Pee-Wee" Kirkland became legends almost equal in stature to their NBA counterparts.
Reputations could be made, but dreams could be destroyed, at Rucker Park.
On the court, other players with ability, but who lacked a name, had the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with the game's best. Overnight heroes and streetball legends appeared from seemingly nothing and nowhere in a way that could never happen in the inaccessible castle of the NBA. Reputations could be made, but dreams could be destroyed, at Rucker Park.
The success stories have become a part of the folklore of the game and are passed down from one era to the next. Joe "‘The Destroyer" Hammond, was offered a contract by the Lakers after he scored 50 on Dr. J in the park. Harlem's Adrian "A Butta" Walton once dropped 33 on Vince Carter. Larry "The Bone Collector" Williams was an unknown Pasadena kid who earned himself an AND 1 tour contract off the strength of his Rucker Park performances. The tales are endless. So, too, is the allure.
TJ knows all these stories by heart. He knows every last page of the history and anecdotes of New York street basketball and often spends his free time researching well-known streetball players, memorizing their achievements, but imagining their stories are about him and his life. This is his sustenance. It allows him to believe that a 24-year-old white kid, born and raised in stark poverty -- who never played an organized indoor game in his life, never graduated high school -- somehow belongs, not just here in the open run standing on this court, but that one day his own story will also become part of the mythology of Rucker Park. A chance to not just earn himself a nickname, a reputation and respect, but maybe if all the stars align the way he thinks they will, the way he believes they will, perhaps he'll get noticed by the right people and earn himself a basketball contract, maybe somewhere overseas, the AND 1 Mixtape Tour, or the Ball Up Streetball Tour -- anywhere, just to do what he loves, just to change things.
Really, he's given himself no other choice. He quit his job as janitor at the Greyhound bus station in his hometown of Sacramento, gave up his room in his grandfather's house and cashed in every last penny he saved to take a three-day bus trip across the country to try out for these 20 minutes.
Twenty minutes. Running clock. That's all he has to make a team and continue his journey.
Twenty minutes. Running clock. That's all he has to make a team and continue his journey toward the gates of basketball heaven, or, crumble and perish into the basketball hellfire below.
The referee bends his legs slightly as the long-time EBC announcer, Duke Tango, picks up the microphone.
"Welcome to Rucker Park, the start of the greatest outdoor tournament in the world." His husky voice shreds through the summer air, jolting the listless crowd.
The ball is tossed up -- a knuckleball -- and climbs toward its apex before a pair of large hands meet it on the way down. It's tipped backwards in a slow, soft arc. TJ grabs it out of the air, then pauses and looks over at the scoreboard, at the clock that has already begun its slow descent toward judgment.
19:59 ... 19:58 ... 19:57 ...
* * *
(Photo by Flinder Boyd)
In the early afternoon, our bus pulls into Salt Lake City. The station is crowded, but it somehow seems vacant. A room full of exhausted, hungry people gives the long, cold hallways a feeling of vast emptiness. I've only been on the bus with TJ a relatively short 14 hours, but it's already begun to feel claustrophobic and restrictive, like a truck full of cattle.
I find a couple open spaces on the floor at the far end of the station; I put my bag underneath me and sit down. Soon the stench of hours of unchecked sweat spills out across the room. TJ seems unfazed. He pulls out his basketball, nearly worn to the rubber, signed by each of his family members and closest friends like an arm cast, wishing him luck on his journey. He begins casually spinning it around his finger in a tight circle, then around his thumb, then finally transferring the spinning ball to the edge of his cell phone. It's a party trick he's perfected to the point of boredom. A smallish man, with thick, worn lines across his forehead, comes closer to admire the skill. TJ smiles proudly.
This is the third time TJ has made this pilgrimage across country. The first time, in 2011, he had no expectations or even a place to stay. He was allotted a free ticket by virtue of working at Greyhound and simply wanted to take the three-day journey, place his feet on the Rucker Park playground, then get back on the bus and head home. However, a few days before he left, as if by divine intervention, he met a fellow streetballer at his favorite court on P Street and 10th in downtown Sacramento. He invited TJ to stay at his family's place in Queens for few days, only a subway ride from Harlem.
"The first time I went there I took the subway to 145th Street," he explains to me through an awkward accent -- a slow Northern California drawl (he'll say "hella" more than a few times) with touches of a southern twang from his high school years spent in Oxford, Miss.
"The place went crazy. I dreamed about that my whole life."
"As I'm walking I see the Polo Ground Towers and my heart starts racing. I was shaking and nervous because I'm so excited. I sit down during a game and at halftime they ask if anyone wants to dunk. I was nervous, but I know for a fact if I raise my hand they'll pick me. Why? Because I'm white. Hannibal (an EBC announcer) picked me out of everyone. I went on the court, threw myself an alley-oop, cocked it back and dunked it. It was 10 at night, streetlights on, music is going. The place went crazy. I dreamed about that my whole life."
A year later, he returned to Rucker, not just to dunk, but also to enter the open run and try to make a team. However, an ankle injury a few days before derailed his attempt. He stayed in New York a week longer, returning to Rucker Park nearly every day to watch the games, before eventually taking the bus home.
Over the last 12 months, he's been consumed with thoughts of playing in the EBC and excelling, seeking out that euphoric rush from the crowd on a weekly basis. He wakes up every day at 5 a.m., runs suicides, shoots an obscene number of jumpers, then plays in any game he can find.
But he's also taken to Facebook to boast he's one of the best in Sactown. He has announced that he is coming to Rucker Park this summer to score 40-50 points a game against the world's best.
People began to take notice. The director of the EBC heard about him, and so did others associated with the tournament. A film production team in Los Angeles got wind of the white kid with the unreasonable confidence and soaring leaping ability, and they got curious.
A producer friend of mine suggested I go up to Sacramento from L.A. and find out more about him, then document his journey across country. I played 10 years of pro ball overseas and although I knew very little about street basketball in New York, my friend thought, if nothing else, I'd be a good judge of talent.
* * *
The day before we took off across country, I met TJ at his grandfather's house in the Northern Sacramento neighborhood of Del Paso Heights (DPH or "Deepest Part of Hell" as TJ calls it). It's a community of mostly small, decaying California bungalow houses built for migrant farm workers from Oklahoma and Mexico during the Great Depression and workers at the McClellan Air Force Base during World War II. His place, near the end of the block, sits across from an alley of abandoned furniture and behind a pair of RV dealerships. A couple of the houses on the block are boarded up, the rest seem to be, if not neglected, barely functional, nothing more.
I walk past his uncle's old Camaro parked across the front lawn. TJ greets me and shakes my hand with an unconvincing flip of the wrist. His cut-off T-shirt shows off sleeves of colorful, cartoonish tattoos that start at his wrist and work their way up.
"‘80's BABY," his left arm shouts; a Roc-A-Fella Records logo with the lines from a verse in Jay-Z's "Lost One": Time don't go back/ it goes forward/ Can't run from the pain/ go towards it; A boom box animation with "hip-hop" tagged above it; a Wu-Tang Clan symbol near his right wrist; a large inscription of the '80s rap group Audio Two ("Milk is chillin'"); an array of colorful dollar signs and tiger-striped stars and his self-anointed moniker, "Uptown Finest."
I wasn't quite sure what to make of his tattoos, and stared at them a few moments longer before I noticed his grandfather, hunched over on the blue cloth couch across the room, waving at me. He began to say something before picking up a glass marijuana pipe. He lit it up and took one long toke before turning back toward me and groaning some barely audible greeting.
After a lifetime of chronic back pain, he's usually stuck in a wheelchair and has spent most of the last few years under a haze of smoke and reruns of "Judge Judy." At night, he simply curls up on the couch while TJ's older cousin sleeps on the love seat.
(Photo by Louis Lampcov)
The only well cared for items in the entire place are two large cannabis plants.
The house itself is crumbling. The bathroom is decaying and full of mold and the kitchen floor seems to be rotting completely on one side. The only well cared for items in the entire place are two large cannabis plants on a circular plastic kitchen table, surrounded by bleach bottles, glowing under fierce HID lighting.
TJ has lived here almost six years, after homesickness brought him back from Mississippi. Born in Sacramento, starting in eighth grade when his father moved him to Reno, he had a nomadic childhood. He was there for a year before his dad abandoned him and his sister for another family -- he hasn't spoken to him since. His mother remarried and took TJ to Oxford, Miss., during his high school years. He tried to adapt, but struggled in school, cutting classes to shoot hoops or just roam the streets with his new friends. He dropped out before graduation to help his family pay the bills. Eventually, one day when he'd had enough of the South, he walked to the bus station and headed back to Sacramento.
When he came home, after searching for months, he found the only job he could get in Sacramento's harsh, collapsed economy -- cleaning bathrooms, part-time, at the local Greyhound station. In three years, he's never had a promotion or a pay raise.
Standing in TJ's kitchen, the inescapable smell of weed and beer drifts in from the yard. I walk through the backdoor and see 20-30 smaller marijuana plants lined up in neat rows, empty beer cans strewn across the concrete patio. The family pit bull lies in the sun, tongue out, and takes in the sweet smell of freshly grown weed.
TJ, who seems to be weary, ushers me back inside. We pass his uncle's bedroom. He's counting piles of green, Ziploc bags and shoving them into a box.
I walk behind TJ into his room, then freeze and look around. His bed is immaculately made, his sneakers lined up perfectly. A clothes iron is placed on the floor. There is the tidiness of a well-groomed man, but also innocence, the naiveté of a 14-year-old boy who still views the world in terms of heroes and candy money.
As he talks to me, he fiddles with his white headphones and moves them off his ears. I can hear the faint sounds of Mobb Deep's "The Infamous" eke into the air.
On his desk sits a large plastic jar filled to the brim with nickels, dimes, quarters and pennies. Mostly pennies. It's money he's saving for food in New York. Next to the jar are spray cans and black markers for tags he's working on -- "Brooklyn" and "Uptown Finest."
A time that must seem romantic and authentic, in a way that his life now seems difficult and mundane.
In the confines of his room, it's as if he's trying to live out his own fantasy of what he imagines an early '90s childhood to be during the golden age of hip-hop on the streets of New York. A time that must seem romantic and authentic, in a way that his life now seems difficult and mundane.
On his desk, stacked neatly in two piles, seem to be every DVD or VHS tape ever produced about street basketball. "Above the Rim," "Heaven is a Playground," a documentary about streetballer Earl "The Goat."
These are the tapes he grew up with. "I was like, in the second grade watching a show with my dad and this commercial come on about street ball," he says. "I can't remember what it was, but the footage was fuckin' crazy. I was hypnotized, I couldn't get enough. Ever since that, that's all I want to do."
The rest of his room is a homage to his idols; quotes and pictures of Jay-Z over his window, an awkward life-size cutout of Michael Jordan leaned against the wall, a framed photograph he took with streetball legend Joe Hammond the first time he went to Rucker. "Joe didn't have to go to class, he was a legend," he says. "The entire Lakers flew to Rucker to see him play." He holds the picture in his hands, then puts it down and stares at it in admiration.
And above his bed, glaring down on him each night is a mini-shrine to the fiery Boston Celtics' playmaker, Rajon Rondo. It's almost an unhealthy love. His entire bedroom is sprinkled with odes to Rondo -- a jersey, his pictures, a warm-up shirt, and all types of assorted Boston Celtics paraphernalia.
When I ask him to name five players to comprise an all-time team, he mentions Jordan then almost gushes with admiration just to say Rondo's name. He identifies with the anti-authoritarian point-guard who views the game through the lens of love, loyalty and heart, and who shuns standardized versions of fundamentals and statistical analysis. A streetballer's baller.
"Rondo plays because he loves basketball," TJ says. "Basketball players in the NBA right now, like LeBron James, they're all about money. Like, Rondo dislocated his elbow and he still played."
Finally, he picks up his basketball off the carpeted floor, and tosses it to me. "You wanna play one-on-one?" he asks.
* * *
From hell and back:TJ's three-day Sacramento-to-NYC route
Seventy-four hours, 12 states, and eight bus changes. The distance from Sacramento to New York can be measured in many ways -- hours wearing the same underwear, times stepping over a poor, passed out soul in a bus station bathroom, centimeters of your swollen ankles, vending machine Snickers bars for lunch or dinner -- but as the hours pass and sleep deprivation takes hold of you, your actual destination seems less and less important. It's almost as if you begin to just float alongside the bus in a sort of zombie-fied state, watching yourself through glossy eyes.
I felt as if I was escorting him to his own wake.
(Photos by Flinder Boyd)
Still days away from New York, falling forward through the night across I-80, somewhere east of Utah, I looked over in TJ's direction and wondered what he was thinking. The lights inside the bus were off completely except for the thin strip across the roof that acted as a nightlight.
Maybe he could sense me looking at him and he turned toward me. "You know how the EBC started?" he offered, as if he's been waiting for this moment to tell me. I say nothing. "You don't know?" He leans in as if we're around a campfire, I can make out the outline of his face across the aisle.
"It was 1982," he begins, and then proceeds to tell me about the moment when modern streetball, as we know it -- the marriage of hip-hop and outdoor basketball -- really started. It's his creation myth, and happened seven years before he was born, but as far as he's concerned, it's the beginning of time.
During a 2 a.m. broadcast of the legendary Mr. Magic and Marley Marl radio show on WHBI in New York City (which Notorious B.I.G. later immortalized in the song "Juicy") the local rap group the Crash Crew issued a live on-air challenge to another up-and-coming rap group, the Disco Four, to play a basketball game.
At the time, the show was the only strictly hip-hop broadcast in the nation, and a must listen for many of the youth in Harlem. Word spread fast and the next day hundreds of people turned up to watch as the Disco Four destroyed the Crash Crew by 59 points in the impromptu game.
Over the next few weeks, other pioneers of the genre, like the Sugar Hill Gang and Grandmaster Flash, wanted to join in, so Greg Marius of the Disco Four organized a round-robin tournament of rappers.
To up the stakes, some of the best ball players in New York City were brought in as ringers to compete alongside the musicians and rappers. Soon, as the quality of play went up, the rappers were forced to the sideline (Nas and Rick Ross coached teams this year). By 1987, crowds were so large that the EBC found a permanent home at Rucker Park.
TJ smiles proudly when he finishes the story. I could see his white teeth through the dimness.
I feel my stomach grumbling and I reach into my bag for a granola bar. Despite being on a bus with 45 other people crammed together for endless hours across the American landscape, there's a distinct sense of isolation hovering over each of us. As the miles pass and you're pushed further away from home, your thoughts become more powerful; your dreams get bigger, and your fears start to scream at you.
Minutes lapse in silence, maybe even hours. My red eyes flickered shut then back open. TJ, who never seemed to sleep more than a few minutes, leans over and taps me on the shoulder, "You know what my goal is?" he says through the darkness. "Kevin Durant scored 66 points one game at Rucker. That would be cool if I beat that." His voice trails off. "There's a chance I could do that shit. There's a chance."
I finish my granola bar, and stash the wrapper back in my bag. Maybe, I wonder, it's better if he gets off the bus in Denver and turns back home, never attempts to play at Rucker and just lives inside his own innocence, his own version of reality.
I felt as if I was escorting him to his own wake.
A couple of days before, he took me from his place to Roosevelt Park on 10th and P Street, a quiet well-manicured playground just south of downtown. Right away, he asked again if I wanted to play one-on-one. I had on jeans and low-top sneakers and hadn't planned on playing, but he needed to prove to me he had game, so I agreed. He showed off his turnaround jumper, quick hops and sharp lateral quickness. The hours of hard work had paid off and we split two games to 11. But when more players showed up for the noontime run, the crater-sized holes in his game became obvious.
He had never been coached, and had no understanding of the subtleties of basketball. When he didn't have the ball, he would shuffle toward the dribbler with his hands out, unaware of spacing, or search for steals on nearly every play. You could almost see the gears turning over in his head as he planned out each move. Nothing was natural.
He tried hard, and hustled, but overall he wasn't remarkable. Maybe if he had been relentlessly drilled from the age of 10 onward, things would be different, but he hadn't. Nobody had ever taken his hand and walked him into a gym. Instead, he was just a 24-year-old, stuck in a time that had already passed.
"Don't you think ..." -- I try to find the right way to say it -- "Do you think maybe you should put your energy into something else? Maybe have some other options in case you don't make it at Rucker Park? Do you have a backup plan?" I ask. "Have you thought about going back to school?"
"People ask me if I have a Plan B. To be honest, I don't."
(Photo by Flinder Boyd)
"No," he says. His headphones, which he rarely takes off, jiggle audibly as he shakes his head from side to side. "This basketball thing is all I got," he says, almost pleading. "I'm 110 percent focused on this. People ask me if I have a Plan B. To be honest, I don't. I think, like, nine out of 10 people with backup plans don't succeed at their first plan because that backup plan is constantly in the back of their head, and they lose focus on Plan A."
"But ..." I began to say shaking my head. I wanted to scold him, tell him that he's wasting his time, and teach him as I'd been taught, to plan your life. The words, however, never came. I turned away, back toward the desolate road and breathed out.
For me, this trip was nothing more than an adventure, a story I could tell my friends, a chance to laugh about the time I spent half a week on a bus.
But for TJ, this trip wasn't his Kerouac novel, and didn't emerge from Steinbeck's "virus of restlessness." It wasn't a modern-day vagabond's romantic jaunt around the country seeking to understand the ills of America. This trip came from a deeper place. It was his calling, he had to travel 3,000 miles from home on his own. He had to believe in himself and that this life-long fantasy to be a basketball star was, in fact, his reality. No one else would. To him, this was all there was.
Perhaps he wasn't wrong to stake everything on this. He'd chosen a different path -- a journey deep into the unknown to confront his self-doubts and fears head-on. He had to walk fearlessly inside the gates of Rucker Park and believe it was all worth it ... then play the game of his life.
His choice to put everything on the line was rare, but it's not unique. Nearly every culture and tradition has a similar story, real or imagined. When a young man starts his journey, he must be brave enough to take a metaphysical leap of faith. He must be willing to step foot on the bus and travel straight into the labyrinth of his fears, toward whatever awaits him on the other end, even if it may rip him to shreds.
It's the ultimate gamble. If the young man is successful, he comes home a hero, and becomes important. His life has meaning and purpose. But in order to succeed, he must first completely open up his soul to the consequences of failure, knowing there may be no way back out. This, above all else, is the hardest thing to do.
(Photo by Ben Rodkin)
"This summer at Rucker, I think no one's gonna be fuckin' with me."
TJ's quest reminded me of that of the Athenian warrior Theseus, who journeyed down into the impenetrable labyrinth, leaving only the slimmest thread to mark his path and then, armed with only a shield and a small dagger, defeated the terrifying Minotaur. He was then able to follow the thread back out of the labyrinth to become King of Athens. He risked all, and gained all.
Or, maybe we all simply live within the confines of our own fears and TJ was just running away from his, afraid of slowly rotting inside a weed den in the Deepest Part of Hell. At least he was on the bus. And at 5 a.m., three days after we left, as we passed through Weehawken, N.J. and the Manhattan horizon came into view, I leaned over as a ripple of excitement rushed through the entire bus.
"So, are you ready?" I asked TJ.
He smiled from ear to ear. "Hell yeah," he said. "This summer at Rucker, I think no one's gonna be fuckin' with me. Think about it. I've been on a bus three days. No sleep. Just think when I go to Queens and get some rest. I'm gonna feel even better. No one's touching me."
As the bus hurtled toward New York, there was no turning back. He was going to Rucker Park almost bare, exposed, armed only with his hopes and his over-confidence. His abrasive arrogance -- and his 38-inch vertical leap -- were his only weapons. It was all he had, and, really, all he had left.
Sports Illustrated named "Heaven is a Playground" one of the "Top 100 Sports Books of All Time." First published in 1976 and now available in a new fourth edition edition from Skyhorse Publishing’s Sports Publishing imprint, the book chronicles Rick Telander’s experiences playing street basketball in New York the early ‘70s. Since then Telander has gone on to a long and successful writing career with SI, ESPN, and on the seminal television program "Sportswriters on TV." He is now a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. The following book excerpt, a vignette on Rucker Park legend Herman "Helicopter" Knowings, is reprinted with his permission.
By Rick Telander
Yesterday, Rodney and I had taken the subway over to Manhattan and then up to City College in Harlem to watch the Harlem Professional Basketball League, commonly known as the Rucker Tournament.* In the games, which were originally started by the late Holcombe Rucker to showcase New York's playground talent, street legends and legitimate professional stars such as Julius Erving, Nate Archibald and Larry Kenon find themselves side by side. The tournament, in many ways, is a display of what is and what might have been. The thrill, as the fan sitting next to me put it, is to see "millionaires and bums on the same court."
... At the Rucker, two of the most renowned playground stars ever, Earl Manigault and Herman "the Helicopter" Knowings, have come to watch the action. To Rodney they are simply losers, men with fantastic abilities who didn't capitalize; but to others they represent the all too human weakness of the common ghetto dweller - men beaten down by fate, frailty, and circumstance.
That they have become symbols at all is more the work of the analytic white press rather than anything the players or their fans have done. Neither Earl nor Herman played college ball; Herman did not even play in high school. But their stature on the courts of Harlem was never questioned. In his book "The City Game," Pete Axthelm called Manigault "the classic playground athlete," a symbol of "all that was sublime and terrible about this city game." Herman he describes as a "playground phenomenon," a "demigod."
The Helicopter, aged thirty now, sits in the bleachers and watches the games silently. He is rock-solid at 6'4, with a bear, huge arms and coal black skin. Like a stone, his body seems deeply at rest, as though movement would take the work of levers and sledges. His face is expressionless, as blank as an aquarium drained of water.
Ever since a childhood attack of meningitis he has had hearing only in his right ear, but until the pavement ruined his knees, that seemed his only infirmity. His game was built around his muscle and an almost superhuman leaping ability.
In games at old Rucker Park on 155th and 8th near Yankee Stadium, Herman used to outjump all the pros, being able to dunk easily in one step from the free-throw line. Many people claim to have seen the Helicopter black shots a yard above the rim, a move that would put his feet nearly five feet off the ground.
Milton Wadler, an assistant coach at Hughes High School, swears he once saw Herman jump higher than any man ever has. "It was up at Rucker against Nate Bowman, Tom Hoover and Willis Reed, three big men. They had him boxed out and Herman just went over all three like a huge bird. I'd say he could've put his chin on the rim."
Why he's never made the pros can be seen partially in Herman's self-effacing character. "Basketball was a hobby," he says, waving his hand as if to clear the air of annoying smoke. "I didn't have anything to do so I used to play in the alley behind my home on 100th Street. I took a basket out of the park and put it on a telephone pole behind my place. I just climbed up one night and took it home. It was so heavy it fell off the pole every week but I'd keep putting it higher and higher until it was above the first floor. I could still dunk easy." He drifts off into the game, motionless again, except for this eyes. Then he returns.
"I don't know why I didn't play high school ball, I just liked blocking shots and didn't think about much else. I never thought about making a living at it either. And people said I was a hero. I don't know why. Why should I be a hero? I never did nothing. I could jump, yeah, that's true. I used to pick quarters off the top of backboards, a wallet a few times and dollar bills, and I was careful not to hit my head on the rim."
I ask him if it's true about the three-second stories. "Yeah, a couple times guys would fake me in the lane, and before I'd come down the ref would call three seconds on them. But I don't know, it's all talk, talk. It's nothing."
Herman Knowings died in a car accident in April, 1980. Earl Manigault Passed away on May 15, 1998.
*Editor's Note: In the early 1970s The Rucker tourney was briefly played indoors before returning to Rucker Park, where it remains played today.
Copyright 1976, 2004 by Rick Telander
* * *
TJ got off the D train two hours early and sat down in the adjacent playground, and waited. There was no selection process or online registration for the open run; if you wanted to play, you just walked onto the court at 3 p.m. with a pair of sneakers.
A few minutes before his game was due to start, TJ's airtight ego was deflating. "I hope it works out," he said meekly. I peered inside the gate as a few players began warming up. I'd imagined a collection of ripped 6'8 high jumpers and burly New York City point guards with lightning-quick handles. Instead, many of the players trying out struggled with basic dribbling skills, or would jump to dunk, but fall short and tap the glass backboard furiously with their palm. Few, if any, looked as if they had ever played college ball. TJ saw what I saw and his eyes lit up, the hopefulness returned.
(Photo by Flinder Boyd)
He was beginning to realize that once the fantasy starts to unravel, it can never come back.
But as soon as he corralled the opening tip, the nerves began to show. He started to press. He'd pick up his dribble after only a few bounces, or guard too tightly on defense.
The third or fourth time down the floor, he got the ball at the top of the key. Before making a move, before even thinking about a move, he rose up and launched it at the hoop, missing everything. The ball bounced up and over the small fence into the empty steel bleachers behind the basket. He ran his hand through his hair in frustration then jogged back on defense.
TJ had, over the years, made a shield for himself. Carefully constructed out of every hope or fantasy he'd ever had of being a basketball star, it helped him endure and survive DPH and everything else. As long as he never really tried to play at Rucker and see whether he was good enough to share a court with Kevin Durant, or "A Butta" and the "Bone Collector," the shield protected him.
But as he looked up at the scoreboard, maybe he was beginning to realize that once the fantasy starts to unravel, it can never come back. He missed another shot badly, and audible groans came from the stands.
As the minutes continued to pass and the players sprinted up and down the court, a set of clouds rolled by overhead, blanketing the sun. That seemingly innocent shift, however, changed TJ. As if the natural spotlight shining down on him had been turned off.
TJ still had a few skills he could showcase. He stole the ball near half court and sped the other way, he stutter-stepped and readied himself for a dunk - his moment. Then, at the last second, he backed down and simply laid it in. Still, it was a start. It wasn't a dunk, but he had scored at Rucker Park.
On the next offensive possession, his confidence was soaring. He called for the ball. The small crowd seemed to sense something was about to happen and fell nearly silent in anticipation. TJ made a quick move right to left, skipped past his defender, then turned to make a no-look bounce pass through the key in between three defenders -- the kind of out-of-nowhere, once-in-a-lifetime pass Rondo would have been proud of. The kind of pass that would earn you, by word of mouth, recognition in the streets, or, even better, a nickname.
In New York street basketball, your nickname is your identity. Once you're granted a nickname (and you can never give yourself one), it sticks with you for life. It's a sign you belong on the court. The nickname often comes from one of the announcers and it can be descriptive of your physical appearance: ("Cabbie," "Eddie Kane," "Bodega"); your style of play ("Helicopter," "Dribbling Machine," "Cookie Monster,"); something comical ("Clumsy Janitor," - "He does nothing but drop buckets!") or simply your initials. But a streetball player hasn't arrived until he has a nickname.
TJ's pass didn't go as planned. Perhaps nothing ever does. It was half a second too late, knocked down inside the key, batted around, then picked up by the other team and tossed ahead for an easy lay-up.
Duke Tango, a childish grin on his face, squeezed his microphone tight, "That man's name isn't ‘Uptown Finest.' His name from now on is ‘Plastic Cup.' Because he can't hold nothing. That's' Plastic Cup' right there," he said pointing at TJ. The entire crowd chuckled.
Every time TJ touched the ball, a chorus of "Plastic Cup" echoed from the bleachers to the project buildings across the street.
TJ heard the snickers and seemed to shrink, his shoulders hung low and his frail body slumped downward.
The shield that had protected him for so long was gone, disintegrated in his hand. He was completely naked, staring at the Minotaur, his deepest fears, flush in the eyes.
If I was his coach, I would have subbed him right there, spared him the humiliation, let him watch from the bench and just soak up same Uptown air the legends once experienced.
Instead, I watched from four rows back, my hands at my side and wished, like he wished, that life had been kinder; that he wasn't born a touch under 6 feet; that poverty isn't what it is; that he didn't have to clean up shit for a living; and that he didn't wrap so much of himself into a bouncing ball that was both his source of happiness and slowly strangling any hope of a future.
Still, as the minutes passed, there was a chance the basketball Gods would smile down on him and the ball would bounce his way and this time he would dunk and the crowd could go crazy, and for a moment, or two, it would be different.
He shot another airball, then another. The chuckles became laughs. "Plastic Cup! Plastic Cup!"
As the last few seconds ticked off the clock, TJ stood in the corner, away from the ball. The buzzer sounded, mercifully, and he shuffled back toward the bleachers. He sat down, alone, leaned forward and dropped his head between his hands.
* * *
After Rucker, TJ had floated around New York for as long as he could, trying desperately to put off the inevitable.
A couple weeks later TJ asked me to meet him at Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen, but he didn't tell me where exactly so I wandered around the web of concrete, past the dull orange walls and narrow slopping walkways. The terminal is designed in such a cold, impersonal way that it's impossible to tell if you're standing two stories above ground or two stories below it.
I finally found him standing by himself under a flight of stairs. He had lost some weight, and eyes looked worn and tired.
"I checked my card today," he said, to explain why he's leaving. "I got $8 on my card. And cash, I got like $7 and some change." He gnawed his teeth together and looked down.
After Rucker, TJ had floated around New York for as long as he could, trying desperately to put off the inevitable. He'd wake up in the morning, pick up his basketball, and head to one of the thousands of courts across the city. Goat Park, Tillary Park, West 4th Street, Wilkins Park; but usually by the end of the afternoon he'd always travel toward Marcy Playgrounds in Brooklyn, underneath the building where Jay-Z grew up.
He'd come back day after day, often shooting around by himself. Those walking past would pause by the fence surrounding the courts and curiously peer in. It was as if he was hoping he would somehow stumble across the ghost of a younger Jay-Z or someone who knew him, that he would finally be seen. And that they would then take him by the hand and offer him something, some morsel of guidance or wisdom, something he so desperately sought; a thread back out of his own personal labyrinth.
One afternoon while shooting around, he told me, someone spotted his Roc-A-Fella Records tattoo with the Jay-Z quote on his arm. They told him there was someone he needed to meet and asked him to follow. He was nervous, but went anyway. And there, waiting in front of a corner store, was Damon "Dame" Dash, verified hip-hop royalty, former best friend and Roc-A-Fella business partner of Jay-Z.
(Photo courtesy TJ Webster)
They sat down, Dash and TJ, just the two of them, inside a small café nearby and talked. TJ told him his story. Then he asked about Jay-Z. He asked about how it all started - he wanted to know everything. Dash humored him and talked and listened. They exchanged numbers. After more than an hour, Dash got up, reached into his pocket and took out a wad of hundreds.
TJ looked at the outstretched hand, the edges of the bills poking out. But TJ shook his head and turned down the offer. Dash put the money back in his pocket, they embraced and went their separate ways.
"So why didn't you take it?" I asked.
"I don't take nothin' from nobody," he said, hoping for it to come across as a statement of pride. "But you know, I think he respected that, I do." He shook his head, still in disbelief he had met Dame Dash.
He couldn't buy food with respect, he knew that, but that didn't scare him. He knew the taste of poverty. Respect, on the other hand, was something he was willing to starve for. Maybe this wasn't why he came to New York, but then again, maybe it was.
Rucker was over, his fantasies were dead. He had no job to go back to, he had almost nothing, nothing at all but the possible respect of Dame Dash. But this, this was a lot.
"Now Boarding Bus 4083 to Pittsburgh and all points further west," the bus driver announced. Everyone nearby got up and staggered into line.
"Maybe, I should have taken it," he said reaching for his stomach. "I could use it, I could really use it." He zipped up his backpack and looked around as the passengers in front of him slowly shuffled forward.
As he neared the front of the line, the realization that maybe he would never be a Rucker Park legend was starting to sink in. "Three days on a fuckin' bus, to go back to ..." His voice started to crack. "You know where I live. What if you were in my shoes?" He glanced down at his worn Nike sandals. "In these fuckin' flip-flops?"
He looked up at me. I reached in my pocket and handed him a granola bar.
TJ gave the driver his ticket outside of the gate, then turned and hugged me quickly, looking away.
I stood and watched him walk up the stairs of the bus and disappear back into the darkness.
I wanted to tell him that this would make him stronger. That he did something most people would never dream of, that he scored, that he earned Dame Dash's respect, that the trip to Rucker Park was just a start.
I wanted more than anything to tell him that in the end it would all work out.
But the truth was, I didn't know. I didn't know.
The author would like to acknowledge the support of Trevor Hall of Creative Visions Foundation and Jessica Estrada in the film version of this project.