Liberty Honor Rucker Park Legends

When Rucker Park comes to mind nowadays, most think about Rafer Alston skipping down the court in the first And1 Mix Tape, rappers and celebrities making their way to Harlem to catch some summer hoops and current NBA superstars playing a game or two against rugged streetball players in hopes of earning a nickname for themselves.

What many don’t think about is the rich history of the Rucker Pro League, which was founded by Bob McCullough Sr. and former Knick Fred Crawford, who continued the legacy of the Rucker League created by the late Holcombe L. Rucker in 1950.

“Mr. Rucker’s idea of having this summer tournament was to use the facilities of the park department to get the kids off the street and give them something to focus on that was positive,” said Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a Manhattan native who played in the summer league in 1965, a year before his college career began at UCLA.

It’s probably safe to say Mr. Rucker, a New York City Parks and Recreation Department employee, would have never expected Abdul-Jabbar, the now NBA all-time leading scorer, and other future NBA legends playing in his tournament against local basketball players when the idea first came about.

“The competition was very intense,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “Even though some of the players did not have the academic standing to go to college, they were world class players. If you went out there on that court and had to play against them, you would get some surprises.”

Crawford, who, aside from being the founder of the pro league, played for the Knicks from 1966 to 1968, experienced firsthand how good the competition was on the court.

“One year I was on a team with Willis Reed, Nate Bowman and all the NBA guys, and all the local guys from the local bar beat us. They had a parade around the community and all the people were screaming,” recalled Crawford of a game in the late ‘60s. “We had everybody - Bill Bradley and a whole gang of (NBA) guys - and the local guys jumped on us and that was it.”

Among the other NBA greats to showcase their skills at the “hallowed ground” courts located at 155th street and Frederick Douglas Boulevard over the years were Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, Wilt Chamberlain, Tom "Satch" Sanders and Julius Erving.

Knicks President Donnie Walsh, Liberty President & General Manager Carol “Blaze” Blazejowski and former Knick great Cal Ramsey also played at Rucker and were honored, along with Abdul-Jabbar, during a memorable halftime ceremony at Friday’s Liberty-Sky game at Madison Square Garden. They were each presented with a plaque.

“Having played at the Rucker League, I have a great deal of pride knowing that I was able to share the same court with so many legends - including Madison Square Garden's own Carol Blazejowski, Cal Ramsey and a host of others," said Walsh.

Today, the Entertainers Basketball Classic tournament occupies the Rucker Park blacktop each summer. The atmosphere at the park isn’t quite like it was when local residence and fans sat on bridges and climbed fences to watch their heroes play, but there is still a certain excitement whenever a game is going on.

“The music is going on and all the rapping, so it’s a different era,” Crawford said.

It may be a new era, but the stars of today are still finding ways to make it to the most famous outdoor court in the world. On any given summer night you can find players like Ron Artest and Jamal Tinsley going up against the local streetball talent.