Think of an art form where disenfranchised black youths battle each other, using their creativity as their greatest weapon, freestyling and attempting to embarrass one another with distinct techniques, yet ultimately leaving it up to the crowd to decide whom the people’s choice is. It’s an alternative to street life and, with enough luck and skill, can prove lucrative to those that work hard at it. It might even gain the artists fame in their neighborhood. It may sound like hip-hop, which we’ll get to in a second, but we’re talking about street ball.
New York is the mecca of street ball. Whether it’s Brooklyn’s Soul in the Hole or The Cage in Greenwich Village, there are more bustling ball courts in NYC than you can Harlem Shake at, but, without a doubt, Rucker Park takes the cake. Known around the world for being a hub of top talent, the Uptown house that a Parks & Recreation employee built is still known to this day as the epicenter of the street ball universe.
It shouldn’t be any surprise then that hip-hop and Rucker Park have constantly crossed paths throughout the years. Never meant to be corporate, rap and street ball were both outlets for troubled kids to prove their genius amongst familiar faces. That’s what Holcombe Rucker set out to provide when he started the Rucker Tournament in the 1940s, hopping from court to court until it permanently landed on 155th Street, nestled between Frederick Douglass Boulevard and the Harlem River Drive, where it remains to this day. It would become the home of the Entertainment Basketball Classic (EBC), whose first game, though not at Rucker, was in 1982 between two rap squads: the Disco 4 and The Crash Crew. Mr. Magic even announced the game during his show on the radio (conflicting myths claim that the Crash Crew themselves issued a challenge live on-air). Groups like the Sugarhill Gang and Cold Crush showed up to 120th St. and Madison Avenue to spectate. Crash Crew got blown out by almost 60 points, but at least they still had ‘High Powered Rap,’ and so the marriage of basketball and rap began.
When the EBC expanded to Rucker Park in the late ’80s, it took not only its talented street ballers with it, but its animated emcees, too. Legends like Boobie Smith, Honorable Hannibal, Al Cash, and Duke “Tango” Mills weren’t rappers, per se, but they brought their own comedic showmanship to the park and helped move the crowd just like any musician or baller could. They were, according to Vincent Mallozzi, author of “Asphalt Gods: An Oral History of the Rucker Tournament,” “half Marv Albert, half Jay Z.”
Just across from the Harlem River, less than two miles away, sat 120 Sedgwick Avenue, commonly known now as the birthplace of hip-hop. August 11, 1973 is inscribed in the history books as the date that Kool DJ Herc extended a drum break and began talking over it in his building’s rec room. Those kinds of parties would soon grow legs and walk outside into parks, plazas, and any open space that had a lamppost with an outlet. Hip-hop, like street ball, was an escape, a diversion from a life of crime, drugs, and downright depression for many trapped in poverty’s cycle.
Since the ’50s, Rucker Park had always attracted high-flying talent. Everyone from Wilt Chamberlain to Julius “Dr. J” Erving graced the pavement, and the park eventually became fertile ground for scouts to observe potential prospects. It would also prove to be something of a platform for broken dreams, as many players peaked at Rucker without ever seeing the NBA hardwood.
The park hit a rough patch in the mid-80s, suffering from lack of funds. Greg Marius, original Disco 4 member and founder of the EBC, managed to reenergize the place, however, when NBA All-Star Dominique Wilkins judged a slam-dunk competition in 1987.
By the early ’90s, companies began to realize the marketing and promotional opportunities that Rucker Park and the EBC offered. Rucker was unlike any other street ball court in the world, and Marius understood. In Asphalt Gods, he explains:
“People kept telling me that if I wanted to be successful, I had to have a tournament like the one on West Fourth Street, where the games are very closely officiated. But I let the guys playing in my league do all the stuff they wanted to do out there with the basketball, like the fancy dribbling, for the sake of entertainment.”
Marius was also beginning to see how hip-hop could help support Rucker Park, and vice versa.
The EBC head knew that it was more than just the sport itself that drew unusually large crowds. It was the lack of rules and the total freedom that a player felt when they stepped on that court and knew that they were around likeminded people. Like hip-hop, street ball at the Rucker said, “fuck the rules,” not only because it was entertaining, but because it was revolutionary. The stiff, indoors ball that many traditionalist played was all about squaring up and shooting. It was slow. The basketball that blacks played at Rucker, though? Run and gun. Flashy. High octane. Electrifying.
Community also played a vital role in both street ball and hip-hop culture. Seminal groups like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions felt a responsibility to speak for those who would never be heard. Hip-hop’s pioneers also never failed to tip their hats to black music legends that preceded them; Afrika Bambaataa even recorded “Unity” with the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown. Holcombe Rucker and Greg Marius both understood that basketball was more than just a game; it was something that kids could get passionate about. Marius shared the respect for tradition by refusing to charge onlookers even as he began to funnel money into massive renovations of Rucker Park. “Our fans don’t pay. That’s a park tradition,” he said. “It’s a community thing.”
Puff Daddy had been a part of that same community for some time. He grew up on 145th St. and Lenox and was going to ball games over at Rucker before he even dabbled in hip-hop. “I just think that it’s such an incredibly positive thing for the neighborhood,” he told Mallozzi. “Up there, people are yearning for positive recreation. Not all of them have such easy lives, and this makes their lives a little happier.”
When he formed his label, Bad Boy Entertainment, Puffy was one of, if not the first hip-hop industry figure to become a regular presence at 155th Street. He roped in major talent like young NBA stars Ron Artest and Joe Smith and sponsored his own Bad Boy team. He’s seen sitting next to Jay Z in the documentary “The Blackout: Fat Joe vs. Jay-Z At The Rucker.” He even persuaded Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury to play for Bad Boy in June 1996, but Kareem Reid, better known as Best Kept Secret, hit a game-winning jumper to defeat the loaded team.
In that “Blackout” documentary, LL Cool J tells a reporter that he’s there to support the Def Jam team as they play against the So So Def squad. Record labels were realizing they if they slapped their name on a jersey or if an artist performed at the Rucker, the advantage was twofold: crossover exposure in a sports market and genuine street credibility.
In the summer of 2003, though, Jay Z stormed the court in search of reign. Known for his ever-prescient marketing abilities, Jigga masterminded an expansive campaign that included his new S. Carter shoes with Reebok (don’t forget that commercial), the 40/40 nightclub, and his “final” album before “retirement,” The Black Album, scheduled for the fall. Seeing how Fat Joe, Diddy and Ja Rule had teams, Hov figured that he was also fit to manage his own squad, and he immediately began building, what else, a dynasty.
He poached street ball all-stars like the late John “Franchise” Strickland and Reggie Freeman. Jay’s name alone sent them running from wherever they were posted to join the S. Carter team. Then he reached out to NBA hot shots like Lamar Odom, Tracy McGrady, Antoine Walker, and later Jamal Crawford, Eddy Curry, Kenyon Martin, and local high school star, Sebastian Telfair. To put the icing on the cake, he had a certain 17-year old tag along to games and sit on the sidelines: Lebron James, fresh off his 90 million dollar Nike deal. King James was yet to sign with the Cavs and wasn’t confirmed to play for Jay Z, but his presence next to the Roc-A-Fella don lent an air of royalty to the team, and it generated tons of buzz.
There was nothing tangible in it for Jay Z, no trophy, no televised event, no prize money, though he had commissioned Fab 5 Freddy to film the entire season and make it into a documentary, assuming they would win the championship. Jay knew how cutting-edge every facet of his marketing strategy was. He even slapped a huge picture of his Reebok shoe onto a bus that the S. Carter players would ride up from midtown to Rucker for every game. It was his ability to garner attention that was important; for certain games he even flew back to New York from Roc The Mic tour dates around the nation just to be present. That’s how much import he gave to his own physical presence, and he ended up being right.
In “Blackout”, the connection between rap and Rucker couldn’t be more obvious. During one game, Franchise dishes a ridiculous pass to Smush Parker at the rim, but Smush flubs the dunk. During a timeout (which you can see in this clip), Franchise reams him out, “Finish your breakfast, Smush! Finish your fuckin’ breakfast!” You can see Jay laughing in the background of the video, and a couple weeks later he called Strickland to tell him he’d made the album (you’ll recall Jay rhyming “I check cheddar like a food inspector / My homie Strick told me, “Dude, finish your breakfast” on “P.S.A.”).
Before Jay’z run at the Chip, Fat Joe was the king of Rucker in the early aughts. His squad dethroned Irv Gotti’s team in 2002 to become the crew to beat, with players like Stephon Marbury, Al Harrington, and Alimoe. Bill Clinton and David Stern even came to one of his games, and at the end Stern sported Joe’s Terror Squad chain around his neck. As the two most noted teams in the league, Fat Joe and Jay seemed like they were destined to clash in the championship.
A couple background issues also made tension bubble right beneath the surface between Jay and Joe during the ’03 season. For years there had been rumors that Pun and Hov got into it at a club one night in New York, though former TS Member Cuban Link later cleared that story up. There was also Hov’s right-hand rhyme partner Sauce Money dissing Pun that led to Whoo Kid getting an uzi pulled out on him. Finally, earlier in 2003, Jay had mentioned Fat Joe’s player Stephon Marbury in a line from “La La La,” (“Don’t confuse me with Marbury out this bitch / Pull up on me at the light, you could lose your life”) which referenced Marbury getting robbed and naturally had Step a little heated (it took him six years to respond). The cherry on top was when Shaq placed an infamous call to Hot 97 on the eve of the game to tell Fat Joe that he’d be making a special appearance on Jay-Z’s team the next day. All of that was about to come to a head on Thursday, August 14th, 2003, at the championship game between the two teams. It was more than just a basketball game.
You can watch “Blackout” to get the whole story, but the championship wound up cancelled and Jay’s team had to forfeit the game (none of the big guns showed up without Jay making those calls). Fat Joe was visibly upset, and years later he mentioned the incident on “Lean Back” (he also threw a jab at Jay during the 2003 Source Awards). Speaking to Zack O’Malley Greenburg, Fab 5 Freddy said, “That was the pinnacle of the Rucker, in that period. It got so big, and that was kind of the crescendo tournament.”
Two summers ago, when Nas dropped Life Is Good, I was lucky enough to be at the Rucker for my first time to cover his brief appearance at an EBC game. Jungle was there, along with Nas’ mother, and when Esco walked onto the court smack dab in the middle of the game, the crowd went bananas. Security formed a circle around him as spectators rushed to get close, and none of the players seemed to care that their game had been suddenly disrupted. Hip-hop and street ball had congealed into one huge mass of people. Everyone was happy.
Rappers have always wanted to be ball players, and ball players have always wanted to be rappers, yet they all understand they carry the same ambitions. The swagger, the style, the competition, the creativity – they’re all common bonds between the crossover and the punchline. Rucker was where both worlds collided, and will continue to collide, not only for the betterment of New York youths, but for the joy of ballers, rappers, and music fans around the world. History always repeats itself.