While New York City has been referred to as “The Mecca of Basketball,” one neighborhood, Harlem, has its own rich history when it comes to African-Americans in the game.
The Harlem Globetrotters were not really from Harlem; they started in Chicago. But Harlem did produce the dominant all-black Harlem Renaissance basketball team, raised the NBA’s leading scorer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and is the home of great pickup basketball at Rucker Park. While New York City has lost its luster in recent years for producing elite ballplayers, Harlem’s own elite NBA draft prospect Mohamed Bamba wants to change that trend.
“I’m not sure exactly what the reason is for it, but I think we owe it to the city to sort of branch out and be successful in the NBA,” Bamba said.
Robert “Bob” Douglas is known as the “Father of Black Basketball” in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, according to NBA.com. Douglas organized two all-black basketball teams in Harlem called the Spartan Braves and the Spartan Hornets, who played black and white teams from 1919-23. In 1922, Douglas earned financial backing from the Harlem Renaissance Casino and owned and operated a professional all-black basketball team called the Harlem Renaissance, or Rens for short.
After initially playing in Harlem, the Rens began barnstorming in the late 1920s and typically played 120 games a year. The Rens built a healthy rivalry with the all-white New York Original Celtics. The Rens compiled a 2,588-529 record from 1923-49 but folded just as the NBA began integrating. The New York Renaissance team was placed in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1963, and eventually so were Douglas and five other players.
Abdul-Jabbar fondly recalled a conversation he once had with Rens guard John Isaacs, a member of the Hall of Fame. Abdul-Jabbar also gave racial context to why the Rens folded.
“It was fascinating for me because they were aware of me growing up and I was not aware of them,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I didn’t know that they had done so much for the game and for the black community. [Isaacs] was the last surviving guy, and we were trying to advocate for him to make it into the Hall of Fame. He didn’t make it while he was alive. I think two or three years after he died he made it into the Hall of Fame.
“But those guys, they really made such a big difference. When the NBA started, Mr. Douglas, who owned the Rens, wanted to bring his team into the NBA and they refused to let him in. And they had a segregation policy. He gave up dealing with professional basketball at that point.”
Abdul-Jabbar, formerly known as Lew Alcindor, is widely regarded as the greatest New York basketball player ever after starring at Power Memorial Academy before starring at UCLA and in the NBA. The 19-time NBA All-Star is proud of being from Harlem and considered moving back several years ago. Harlem has produced several other NBA players in Hall of Famer and eight-time NBA champion Tom “Satch” Sanders, three-time NBA champion Charlie Scott, three-time NBA champion Mario Elie, 2003 NBA All-Star Jamal Mashburn, Walter Berry and Julius Hodge. Bamba is up next.
For Abdul-Jabbar, Harlem had its challenges and reasons to make you proud as an African-American when he was growing up there in the 1950s and 1960s. The two-time NBA Finals MVP also noted that today’s Harlem is much different from where he was raised.
“Life in Harlem was tough,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “We just moved like 2 miles away out of Harlem in 1950, and that was when Harlem was at its most intensely populated time. It was tough. You couldn’t get a job in Harlem. You had to go other places to get one, but it was a place where the restrictions of Jim Crow could not really get a foothold. You felt good there if you were a black American.
“It’s changed. It’s not the same. It’s gentrified; it’s no longer a black community. The majority of people that live there are not African-American. But Harlem gave Black Americans a place to be proud of and a place where they could go and try to realize their aspirations. I think that’s very important. Harlem shaped me in giving me the understanding of achievement, to know that Duke Ellington was highly respected, to know that Langston Hughes was highly respected. That made a difference to people. And I think we can’t ignore that.”
Bamba said he wears being from Harlem “on his sleeve” and he can tell if someone is from there by the way they speak. He misses the “chopped cheese” sandwiches, which are chopped hamburger meat and cheese on a roll. He enjoyed his time at the famed Apollo Theater and has eaten Southern comfort food at famed Sylvia’s Restaurant.
“Within a minute of meeting somebody, I tell them I am from New York, then I tell them I am from Harlem. Yeah, we definitely got [an accent]. As soon as you tell somebody you’re from Harlem, they like kind of tilt their head back and, ‘Ah, you from Harlem.’ “
The 20-year-old Bamba was born in Harlem to West African immigrant parents Lancine and Aminata Bamba. The Bambas lived in a housing project in a tough neighborhood. Bamba played nearby at a legendary Harlem playground nicknamed “The Kingdome” on 115th Street between Malcolm X Boulevard and Fifth Avenue. A summer streetball tournament called “The Kingdome Classic” featured players such as Rafer Alston, Metta World Peace (formerly Ron Artest), Berry and Ed Pinckney.
That neighborhood was also known for drugs and violent crime. Bamba, who is now 7 feet, 1 inch tall, said he was treated like he was older because of his height. He said he was forced to grow up “super fast.”
“Your skin is a lot thicker than people’s who were not from Harlem because of the things you see day to day,” Bamba said. “But you kind of become numb to it, but you definitely grow up fast and you’re forced to make decisions that most 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds don’t really face.”
Bamba got away from Harlem from sixth grade through high school by attending an all-male junior high boarding school in Canaan, New Hampshire, and finishing high school in Westtown, Pennsylvania. The kid from Harlem then starred at the University of Texas for a season before declaring pro.
The 2017 McDonald’s All-American selection has fond memories of his elementary school, Public School 208, which is also known as the Alain L. Locke Magnet School for Environmental Stewardship. Bamba has a strong relationship with P.S. 208 principal Susan M. Green. The third- through fifth-grade school’s goal is to instill “a sense of personal pride, responsibility, and commitment to excellence, while simultaneously teaching the concepts of sustainability, interconnectedness, activism and making a difference in the world through a lens of environmental studies.”
Twenty students chosen for their good grades and behavior are expected to attend the NBA draft Thursday in Brooklyn. The school also will host an NBA draft watch party.
“It’s definitely a place that always will hold a special place in my heart just because of my involvement there when I was a kid,” Bamba said. “A lot of things kind of paved the way after that. I was very young, but I came into terms with who I was. That was the first time. Coming that year, fifth grade going to sixth grade was big for me because I decided to go away from Harlem.
“My message to the kids is just to follow our mantra. Strive for greatness and nothing less. I think, me illustrating my path into the NBA draft and hopefully far beyond, that will be a perfect picture to paint for the kids.”
Rucker Park was named after Harlem teacher and New York City Department of Parks and Recreation playground director Holcombe Rucker. It was across the street from the Polo Grounds, where Willie Mays once played center field for the New York Giants. Rucker started a basketball tournament in 1950 in hopes of getting kids away from negativity on the streets of New York. The basketball played at Rucker quickly became popular, as it was fast, athletic and beautiful to watch with high-flying dunks, trash-talking and fancy dribbling.
NBA stars such as Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Allen Iverson, Connie Hawkins, Kobe Bryant, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Stephon Marbury, Baron Davis, Mark Jackson and Chris Mullin have blessed the hardwood at Rucker. There were also some playground legends in Earl “The Goat” Manigault, “Jumpin” Jackie Jackson and Joe “The Destroyer” Hammond.
Abdul-Jabbar was influenced to work harder on his game when he first watched games at Rucker Park while in the eighth grade.
“My memories of Rucker go back to when it was still relatively unknown,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I got to meet Wilt at one of the games. A friend of mine took me and said we’ve got to go see the Rucker game. I knew nothing about it; I was in the eighth grade. I went and it was amazing. Wilt had like a professional team, associated with his nightclub. It was just an amazing game, people doing things I’d never seen.
“I saw some of the legendary players. It was amazing stuff to see when you’re in the eighth grade and don’t really understand the game that well, and to see those guys play, you have an epiphany at some point.”
The original Rucker Park Tournament became the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic in 1986. Rucker Park was also known for having blaring speakers with comedic play-by-play announcers calling the games. Al Cash, Duke Tango and Boobie Smooth would keep it real about how you were playing. And if you were great, they gave you a nickname.
Elie was nicknamed “Jedi.” Hodge said he was given the nickname “Jules of Harlem” after he made his Rucker debut at age 14. Erving’s nickname “Dr. J” became famous at Rucker too.
“We had the best basketball tournaments growing up with 3,000 to 4,000 people there,” Elie told The Undefeated. “We had games at King Towers in Harlem and at Rucker. You had guys from all over the city who gravitated to Manhattan to play in these special parks. Rucker had a lot of great players: Kobe, Baron Davis, Ron Artest, myself. A lot of pro players blessed the court.
“Joe Hammond was a Rucker Park legend. You couldn’t get in the park when he was there. You had to climb the fence to watch the game because there were so many people. They called him ‘The Destroyer,’ and he would get 60 or 70 points in a summer league game. He definitely had defendant talent, but a lot of these top guys felt that drugs were more important than making it to the NBA.”
Bamba recalls the days he spent watching basketball at Rucker Park and seeing current NBA stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving playing on the blacktop there.
“I used to watch a lot of those games,” Bamba said. “I met a lot of NBA players coming out of there going to the Rucker. It was cool. I remember meeting K.D. when he was kind of blowing up. I think it was like 2011, 2010 when he started becoming a superstar. That was probably the biggest one. Kyrie came through a bunch of times.”
Bamba is projected to go in the top five in Thursday’s NBA draft. The skinny 7-foot-1, 225-pounder has a 7-foot-10-inch wingspan, which is 1½ inches longer than Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert, who currently has the longest wingspan in the NBA. Bamba recently caused a stir on the internet with a video showing how he has improved his shooting and skill set to pattern Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid. Bamba averaged 12.9 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.7 blocks per game for the Longhorns last season.
“I have been working a lot on my 3-pointers,” Bamba said. “Some other kinds of 3-point shots. Getting good consistency on my range. Working a lot on my lower body, finishing through contact. Working a lot on my low-post and mid-post moves. It’s all coming together pretty well.”
One longtime NBA scout said Bamba could end up eventually being the best player from this draft.
“He is so long, athletic, can run the floor, and he will be able to do all the things you need a big to do with size,” the scout said. “He is so long. He can impact a shot. I love this kid. He’s young, long, athletic and a smart kid. People talk about [Deandre] Ayton and [Luka] Doncic, but he could be the best player in this draft five years from now.”
After a dry spell, New York City had two 2018 NBA All-Stars from the Bronx in Kemba Walker and Andre Drummond. There have also been disappointments who received major hype in New York City in Sebastian Telfair and Felipe Lopez. A strong argument could be made that Seattle produces more basketball players than New York City now.
So why isn’t the Big Apple producing more basketball stars