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The Court of Hope

Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies 402

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There were many papers done during my collegiate career. So much time went into doing them with research, primary resources, and putting it together. This paper below was one of my favorites that I did for an African American history class in the fall semester of 2006.

Zack Cimini

African American History Post 1865

Student ID: 993893310

TTH: 10:40-11:55

The Court of Hope

Sixty years ago, the streets of Harlem, New York were transformed forever. Simply by a man named ,Holcombe Rucker, who wanted to better his community. His idea was to have youths and adults in the neighborhood spend time on the basketball court during their free time. This extra time would turn into day and night affairs that surely changed the lives of thousands of youngsters and even older adults. Today, people know the name, Rucker Park located at 155th Avenue and 8th Avenue in Harlem1 , but the story of its background has been lost over the years. Talk to anyone from the Harlem area though and the story of legends and Holcombe Rucker are talked about as if those days were yesterday. Most of the youths that played their days on the court struggled with the troubled streets that lurked at pitch dark night time. No matter what happened throughout their lives they credited the man that gave them the right path to take in life. They do not want the history of the parks true origins to fade, and it does not look like that is going to happen any time soon.

The story of Holcombe Rucker dates back to his birth on March 2nd, 1926. Like most people born around this age, war time meant heading out to serve your country. He dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Army for World War II. After serving a few years he was back to his same roots in Harlem, New York. As soon as he got back he went and pursued his general equivalency diploma and then enrolled in a nearby community college. He was motivated in the classroom and ended up completing an arts degree in a three year span. Once completed with college he pursued jobs in his local area.

A busy man, he worked three jobs, all of which tied into his inevitable long term career. He was a recreational director for the New York City Department of Parks, as well as a basketball coach at a local community center, and a junior high English teacher1 . While coaching a team at the community center he helped organize tournaments for his youth team to play in. Right off the bat his passion shined almost immediately into his players. A famous story still told by the youths of that team, started with them being down thirty points at halftime to a local YMCA team. Most of the kids had been clowning around and not putting in a quality effort in the first half. Rucker let out his emotions at halftime in which he actually cried, and that was the beginning of a turnaround for that team. They went out in the second half and ended up winning by thirty2 .

When summertime approached in 1946, Rucker decided to setup an outdoor tournament at a local Harlem Park. This idea did not fare well in the minds of the Parks and Recreation Department, so they did not support in any financial way to help Rucker. Literally by himself he went through finding youth organizations to come out to the courts, and he scrapped of the funds for whistles and basketballs. Rucker was helped with uniforms and shoes by a local hustler named, John Hunter. From the early outsets of his tournaments kids were playing teams outside their ethnicities. Blacks, Italians, irish, and latinos all were a part of Rucker’s tournaments.

By the early 1950’s Rucker was practically living at the park. He would spend fourteen to fifteen hours a day at the park1 .People that did not even play basketball would come around to talk to Rucker for advice. Holcombe made time for all of the youths that crossed his way, which patterns after his main motto, “Each one, teach one,2 .

Before long, Rucker would be the man any college scout could trust or seek out. New York City was known for having a plethora of basketball talent, and Rucker was the source of knowledge. Often times, Rucker himself would place calls to colleges and land deals for kids without the scouts even seeing the teenager play. That’s how powerful Rucker’s words were and how strong of a trust he had built so quickly. “It was estimated that over 700 disadvantaged youngsters had been helped, tutored, coached, and sent to college by Rucker, and over 150 professional and semi-pro players owed their careers to him”3. This all came over the course of seventeen years, which proves even more that Rucker had to of been living day and night for those numbers to be accomplished.

The crowds that were arriving to witness games played at Rucker Park were in the thousands. They would climb into the trees around the park to get an aerial view. Sometimes, cops would have to close down that section of the street because of double parked cars all over the place. All of this hysteria over games was caused by the entertainment value of watching incredible talent for free. This tradition still is alive today even though the possibility of making money off of selling tickets would be huge.

With the overwhelming amounts of youths participating in his tournaments and audiences expanding, Rucker brought on a few kids to help him out. One, was a kid named Richard Reed. “This man did so much with so little. He’d pay me for a full day’s work in the park with a soda, and you know what, I appreciated it because I knew that was all he could afford to pay me”1 . All of the kids were soaking in knowledge and learning great traits that they would carry on for the rest of their lives. “Holcombe didn’t believe in just coming to he park, putting in his time, and going home. When one of us needed him, he was right there, right where we could find him. He had those special qualities, the ability to teach and educate, and if he felt he could help you, he’d seek you out. The last thing he wanted was for one of us to ed up on the streets and in trouble” said Stanley Hill.

Years of smoking heavily, had caused Holcombe Rucker to be stricken with lung cancer. He did not even reach the age of 40 when he passed away in March of 1965 at the age of 38. “I was just a kid when I met him, At the time, I thought Holcombe Rucker was just a guy who ran tournaments in a park, but years later I realized he was far more than that. Sometimes, when you’re in the presence of great men, you don’t always know it”, said Donnie Walsh now president of the Indiana Pacers 2. Even though his life was cut short, the people that were a part of Rucker’s early day start ups, would keep his park and tradition alive.

The Holcombe Rucker Memorial Committee was formed which did many things for the locals in Harlem. It sent hundreds of Harlem basketball youngsters to college on scholarships. The scholarship money for the kids was donated by local banks and the city government. The committee also formed an each one teach one center, following Rucker’s motto. At the center there were often many guest speakers that poured in from all different job fields to try and teach kids how to pursue and achieve their own goals.

Through all of this effort not having Holcombe Rucker available really started to show, as more youths that played at Rucker started to get in trouble at a higher rate off the court. As the late 60’s and 70’s approached some big time superstar athletes played at the Rucker Park. In fact, when the NBA held its fiftieth anniversary in 1996 and voted for the top fifty players of all time, nine were Rucker Park alums1. There were two different categories these athletes would eventually fall into. Super star status outside of Harlem in the ABA or NBA, or local memory talk status as they fell victims to drugs and criminal activities.

Earl “The Goat” Manigault goes down in Rucker Park history as maybe the best ever to play there. Manigault was the first type of guard that was short in size but could play with any big man. At 6’1 and only 175 pounds his biggest asset came with his leaping ability. A vertical leap that was reportedly fifty inches. “I was probably the first player to lead the guards from the ground to the air, I took them from weak layups to strong dunks,” Manigault said in Double Dunk 2. His talent at the time went hand in hand with his neighborhood star basketball friend in Lew Alcindor, who is known in today’s world as Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Jabbar was from the Manhattan area where it was not as rough, and he stayed in school. “Earl didn’t have a strong fondness for school, and some of those guys that he was hanging around with were headed for a bad ending. They were into drugs and a lot of gangster type things,” said Jabbar.

Manigault had such poor grades that Holcombe Rucker sat down with Manigault’s mom and they decided it’d be best for Manigault to go to a prep school. He went to Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina where he could get his high school diploma and not lose any years of college eligibility. A second chance of being recruited by major colleges still was not enough to get Manigault to work harder in the classroom. Even though big offers came from big schools like North Carolina, Duke, and other schools, Manigault was worried to attend any of them. Once again he discussed with Holcombe Rucker on what to do, and they decided going to a smaller school where he could concentrate on school work would help him. So, Manigault decided on attending Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina near the prep school he attended.

It was a bad move from the get go, as Manigault did not even last a year at the school. He did not get a long with the coach and was performing poorly already in the classrooms. As quick as that had all formed for him, he was dropping out and headed back to his old neighborhood. While this was happening, Kareem was off to UCLA and their paths would grow further and further apart from there. Depressed from all of the happenings over his past few years, Manigault sunk to the life of drugs on the streets of Harlem. Manigault was doing cocaine, marijuana, and addicted to heroin. It was so bad that his habit of heroin was costing him a hundred dollars a day1. By 1969 he was in jail for possessing drugs and served sixteen months in a New York prison.

While in prison his name was being talked about and written about, and it seemed like Manigault would be given a chance again in basketball. The American Basketball Association was having some success and one team the, Utah Stars, were interested in giving Manigault a tryout. The years of abuse and the prison stint seemed to have ill effects on Manigault’s body. “It was too late for him, his body had been through too much. He couldn’t take the pace,” said Willie Mangum a high school teammate of his 1Manigault was cut not even half way through the Star’s preseason, and was on his way home again.

This time though he had a mental change over and decided himself he needed to change. Since he was still a household name in Harlem he used that to give back to the community, the way Holcombe Rucker had taught him. After staying clean for quite some time, the “white lady” as Manigault referred to it as, started to become a part of his life again. His heroin usage was at a high rate again, and him and some other guys were busted for attempted robbery. “We had a plan to steal $6 million, and I got two years” said Manigault 2.

After he got out of prison, he decided to move to Charlotte with his family and try to build a new life. Not soon after he was home sick and they moved back to New York City. He started a basketball tournament, called the Goat tournament. Manigault once again had to kick the habit of drugs to keep his face at the park everyday. “It was killing my body, and I was tired of looking the same way day in and day out. It took a lot of guts and a lot of pain, but I did it. I came out of it the way I went into it. No medication, no hospitals, no counseling,” Manigault said 1. The years of abuse drugs and alcohol put on Manigault’s body was too late for him to recuperate from. He was frail and weak, and in 1998 he passed away at 53 due to heat failure. The person with him at that hospital until his last breath was Joe “The Destroyer” Hammond. Hammond’s story is eerily similar to that of Manigault’s.

Hammond was a lost soul as a dropout in seventh grade. His mother passed away when he was just a boy and his father was just barely surviving on the streets. So Joe, lived with his grandmother and the nights he did not come home he stayed in the streets. He fell in love with basketball and would play indoors and outdoors constantly. “It’s rare to see a young an orchestrate the other for players on the court when the ball is not in his hands, but that’s what Joe would do,” said Steve Evans2 . Living and learning on the streets Joe soon got caught up in the gambling circles of rolling dice. “ You could jump in a game with fifty dollars, get hot, and work your way into the thousands, it happened to me plenty of times,” Joe said. He was able to save up enough money that he had stashed away thousands of dollars at his Grandma’s house and was also helping her out with monthly rent.

By the age of 19, Joe was playing for a professional basketball team called the Allentown Jets and also one of the best players at Rucker Park. As his name was building more and more, Joe found out that he could use the extra money he was making and make more by selling drugs. “I started selling drugs when I was like nineteen or twenty. I took advantage of my popularity in that I knew everyone would want to buy off me, because everyone wanted to be around me. Before long I was making a small fortune” Joe said 1. Joe’s name was picking up so much for his play for Allentown and at the Rucker that he received an invitation to tryout for the Los Angeles Lakers. This was a team that already featured Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlein, and Pat Riley.

At the tryout Hammond played as if it were any other normal day. Hammond practiced with the team and then was told to stay after practice along with Pat Riley. They were around the same size and the coach had them play one on one. He torched Pat Riley, and was told by the Lakers that they were going to draft him. They did do that and offered Joe a one year contract for $50,000. “I was dealing drugs and shooting dice on the street for so long. I had over two hundred thousand dollars stashed in my apartment by the time the Lakers made their offer. I was making thousands of dollars a year selling marijuana and heroin. What was I going to do with fifty thousand,” said Joe2. So he squandered the opportunity of a lifetime to stay as a hustler and ballplayer in his own neighborhood.

The selling of drugs and living the life he was finally caught up to Joe in the mid 80’s. He was caught trying to deal drugs and had to serve three years in prison from 1985 to 1988. At a prison facility that did not allow inmates to play basketball, he soon talked prison officials into allowing a prison league. Hammond would soon be a legend in the prison courts and would hustle many guards and prisoners in bets. Shooting contests, one on one, and other games he’d be challenged in and always win. Cans of tuna fish were the most popular in the jail cell to have, and when released in 1988 Hammond had over 500 cans in the corner of his cell from winnings. Once out of prison he drifted and resorted to using crack cocaine, and went from crack house to crack house in the early 90’s.

In the late 60’s the other youngster that was playing at a high level with Hammond was Richard “Pee Wee” Kirkland. He had amazing skills and like Hammond went to college in North Carolina. While at Kittrell Junior College he averaged 41 points a game before transferring to Norfolk State 1. Kirkland was actually drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 1968, and Kirkland was willing to take the chance. Once he arrived in Chicago he never fell onto the good side with the coach. So he bailed out on the team and headed back home to continue running with thieves and making money that way.

Kirkland still would show up at Rucker Park to play basketball. “In those days, it was said that Pee Wee had a little satchel he’d bring to the park with him and slip under the bench before he stepped onto the court,” said Pete Vecsey. “People use to say Pee Wee had a gun in that satchel” 2. No matter what type of criminal activity Kirkland was involved with he did not let that affect his play on the court. The NBA was soon calling for his services again, this time it was the local New York Knicks. Just before he was supposed to try out though he was busted for selling narcotics and sentenced to ten years in prison.

The similarity of Hammond and Kirkland’s stories continue. While locked up Kirkland was on a prison squad basketball team that was dominant. In one game against a team from Lithuania, Kirkland scored 135 points in his teams 228 to 47 win 3. “The first thing prison does to a man is make him feel like a loser, I took thirteen guys who had no confidence in themselves, no hope for their futures, and I gave them something to strive for, something to be proud of,” said Kirkland. The long stint in prison sure changed Kirkland for the better. Once he got out he began serving as a coordinator at a baptist church to teach youngsters every weekend skills in life. He has even taught a few classes at Long Island University and been in Nike Commercials, along with the movie “Above the Rim”.

Hawthorne Wingo was another New York City product from Rucker Park that made it through and into the NBA with the New York Knicks. Wingo actually got his start by teaming up with Joe Hammond on the Allentown Jets, after meeting him at the Rucker. After playing for the Jets he then toured with the Harlem Wizards. The attention on him continued to grow, as scouts started to come to Rucker Park more and more to see him. At 6’10 he had the size and matched it with solid skills for a big man. Soon enough the Knicks were calling and signed Wingo. He was always the last man to get any playing time for them, but was a fan favorite. He played for the Knicks for four seasons, including a championship in 1972.

During the course of the 1976 season the Knicks traded for a big man in Spencer Haywood and Wingo’s days as Knick were presumably over. He ended up playing several years overseas for Italian and Swedish teas, and even a few in Argentina. After his basketball career was over is when the slide in his life began. He separated from his wife and was spending money left and right on drugs, alcohol, cars, and things for his so called friends. Things got so bad that Wingo was living in run down tenements and that eventually led him to being checked in at a psychiatric hospital for drug and alcohol abuse. Luckily that help was what he needed and today he is working the daily life as a security guard for a nightclub.

It was not rare to see white people sprinkled in with a sea of blacks in the crowds at Rucker Park. What was rare was to see white players on the courts excelling and making a name for themselves. This all changed when a guy named Billy Rieser started to appear and shock crowds at Rucker. He was 6’4 and came from east Harlem and possessed a forty four inch vertical leap. Rieser would arrive at the courts and dunk on anybody he felt like. His one rule was to not dunk unless there was a purpose. Meaning if he was wide open he’d just lay the ball in. He would not dunk unless there was someone in the way.

Angry black fans at first would throw the metal chairs they were sitting on in Rieser’s direction. Soon though the crowds were praising him for his abilities and started to nickname him “White Jesus” 1. The school Rieser was attending was a little known school and he was not drawing any attention from scouts because of it. So he transferred to an inner city school, where he was one of four white kids in the entire school. “When I first got there, I was threatened at knifepoint and gunpoint, and I can’t tell you how many guys I laid out in those hallways just to help keep myself alive,” said Billy2. After the school witnessed his basketball skills things like that stopped happening.

Ironically Rieser turned down offers all across the country to go to Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana. The real reason he chose the college was because an oil baron from that area liked him and always gave him gifts and a wealth of money. The initial deal gave Rieser a Cutlass and cash, with more cash on the way based on how he played for the team. This of course was against NCAA rules but was never told until Rieser told the New York Daily News in 1994. Unfortunately, during his sophomore season he blew out his knee and never was able to regain his form.

“They didn’t scope you back then, they cut you,” said Rieser 1. He ended up going to Eastern Kentucky to finish out his collegiate career but never was the same. He went back home and for bits of times was able to show flashes of his old self even on a bad knee. His play caught the attention of some overseas scouts in attendance at Rucker Park but he knew that he could not sustain a rigorous full athletic season.

One guy that made his mark in the early 60’s and was a huge part of the Harlem Globetrotters was Jumping Jackie Jackson. In one of the most legendary stories of Rucker Park, it involves Jackson getting the better of Wilt Chamberlain in a crazy sequence. Chamberlain had went for one of his hook shots and out of no where Jackson pinned it against the glass. Then Jackson threw the outlet pass and began racing down the other side of the court with Chamberlain pacing him. Jackson then received a pass, went left and began to takeoff from inside the foul line to dunk. Chamberlain was ready to send the ball back, but had to adjust to seeing Chamberlain’s hand ready to swat the ball. So in mid air he pulled the ball back, floated to the other side of the rim while twisting his body and slammed it home. The game was stopped for nearly twenty minutes as fans raced the court, and this event only ticked off Chamberlain. When play resumed Chamberlain dominated the rest of the way in his fashion.

In the areas of Phoenix, Arizona and Rucker Park the name Connie Hawkins is not a name that you have to think twice on. While in high school in the early 60’s, Hawkins was known as one of the best high school players in the country, along with another local kid in Roger Brown. They played a few games at the Rucker and Hawkins was known as a man beast. He had huge hands and incredible skills. He accepted an offer to play college basketball at Iowa, but that would not last long. Hawkins and Brown were involved in a point shaving scandal that was led behind a mastermind named Jack Molinas 1. They were banned from playing collegiate basketball and also from the NBA. Both ended up playing in the ABA until Hawkins protested his abandonment of the NBA. He was then allowed to play and signed with the Suns where he played for four seasons, he still is a part of the organization as a part of the Suns community relations department.

One of the most bizarre stories of karma that circles directly through Rucker Park and college basketball involved Stanley Hill. Racism was still a high issue in the late 50’s and 60’s as college basketball was trying to group together classes of races at the collegiate level. Still, numerous athletes that left Rucker Park and their high schools faced extreme racism at the college level. Hill who had accepted a basketball scholarship to Iona was traveling with his team to compete against Mississippi in a tournament game. When they arrived the games announcer announced that the game had been canceled. The reason being because the governor had called the game off because of Hill being black. Iona won by forfeit that time, but almost fifty years later the ironic twist of this event came back around. Iona was facing Mississippi in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Missouri.. Before the game there as a brief ceremony for Hill and he greeted players and posed for pictures.

Though the majority of the big name stars at Rucker Park never blossomed fully in potential outside of the park, there were plenty of big time athletes that came through the Rucker. During the late 60’s and 1970’s basketball stars came into the Rucker to play games all the time. It was a common thing, and stayed that way until ball players started making significant money with big contracts. Once that happened the decline and a down period happened in Rucker Park in the 1980’s1. Avoiding injury was the top priority on the professional players lists, even though they missed venturing out to Rucker Park. The days when athletes as big as Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar playing at the Rucker Park on a regular basis were figured to be over.

Then Greg Marius stepped into the fold in the late 80’s to turn things around for the better. He got players unified uniforms again and started the EBC tournament. The tournament has picked up tremendously and is ran by many hip hop artists sponsored squads. Owners like Puff Daddy, Fat Joe, Ja Rule, The Game, and other prominent rappers get their squads to face off for a championship 2. Often times the rappers are able to pull in big time NBA players to come on their squads. Players such as Stephon Marbury, Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Jason Richardson, and others have played on the court of Rucker. While the professional athletes that have came along have picked up so has the natural talent in the area. One guy named Rafer Alston ended up actually making it into the NBA and is the starting point guard for the Houston Rockets. What Marius has done has revitalized Rucker Park and also brought in a lot of money for his staff and himself.

What today’s version of Rucker Park is might not exactly be what Holcombe Rucker wanted. Over time everything can not be kept exactly the same. The key ingredients of what Rucker started are still there. The park, the game, and teaching youths all around the Harlem area valuable lessons. The outstanding job Holcombe Rucker did for all of those kids is remarkable. To see and hear his past youth athletes still praise him over forty years after his death shows that he was something special. Today, Chris Rucker, Holcombe’s grandson carries on the tradition of keeping his grandfather’s name alive and believes he should be in the basketball hall of fame 1. No matter how bad certain individuals lives from the courts started to head, they would at some point get back on their feet. Once that happened they had matured enough to go back to their roots and pass on the teachings of Holcombe Rucker.








Primary Sources

Anxthelm, Peter. The City Game. University of Nebraska Press. 1999. Pgs 43-81

Beckham, Barry. Double Dunk: The Story Earl “The Goat” Manigault. Beckham Publishers Group. 2005. Pgs 10-164

Mallozzi, Vincent. Asphalt Gods. Double Day. 2003. Pgs 5-254

Nelson, George. Elevating the Game (Black Men and Basketball). University of Nebraska Press. 1999. Pgs 60-67

Wolf, David. Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story. Warner Books. 1972. Pgs 22-38


Entertainer’s Basketball Classic at Rucker Park, The Second Season. 2003

The Real: Rucker Park Legends. 2006. Bahmekka


Mallozzi, Vincent. Playground Legends in the Making At Rucker Park. New York Times. July 11th, 2006. Section D, Column 1, pg 7.

Mallozzi, Vincent. The Legend of Pee Wee Kirkland Grows. New York Times. January 12th, 1997. Section 8, page 6, column 1.

Internet Sites

Wikipedia Access Date November 17th

Jackson, Scoop. Time to enshrine Mr. Rucker. Access Date: November 21st





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