Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The full-court Rucker Park experience

The symbol of Rucker legend
Part 1 of 4.

So before we start, you and me, on this journey towards relevancy, let me clarify one point: I am not from the hood. This should help you place the context of my emotions better. Because let me tell you – I was scared. Not pee-in-my-pants scared, but jump-at-every-noise scared. After all, it was Harlem. As strongly associated with “crime” and “danger” in my mind as Snooki is to Jersey Shore, or John Song is to hilarious. But that's what Peter does -- Live On The Edge (c). So on August 8th, 2011, I decided to venture way, way uptown, cuting short my last day of work at my publishing company to visit the court where legends are created.

Rucker Park is located on 155th street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. It’s not hard to get to: on the B train, it’s a straight shot up, probably around 30 minutes from 42nd street. When you exit the subway station on 155th, the park is a block away. Yet for the Internet Age, Rucker is not an easy place to visit. Google it: the best you’ll do is a Web 1.0 website with screaming banner ads and poor design, without a main page to direct tourists, and a bulky embedded Google calendar app listing the month’s games. Deeper down in the site’s architecture are directions; the most distinctive sentence reads, “Although you can take the 1 or 9 train, InsideHoops.com very strongly recommends that you use the B/D train.” Yup, that's walking through the ghetto for you.

Rucker is the self-proclaimed “mecca” of basketball. Kobe Bryant has played there. In the 60s, NBA players showed up to practice. Just last week, MVP Kevin Durant scored an absurd 66 points at the night game. But the stuff of legends is necessarily slippery. Who’s going to be playing today? Could I even watch? On Quora, I asked the question, “Can an average Joe like me visit Rucker Park?” Nobody answered. It seemed as though no one knew; or, that nobody wanted to let me show me the rite of passage.

But I had a location, and I had $2.25 for a subway ride. So, after telling my manager at Abrams I had to leave work early (no explanation provided) at 4 p.m., I left at 4:20 p.m. (after getting roped into making photocopies of one last sticker design), and hopped on the 1 train uptown. The race balance tilted more African-American with every stop. I was a bit anxious. Then I got off the train at 155th and saw a European family with a 5-year-old in tow, smiles all around. OK. This wasn’t going to be that bad.

Outside were the usual tenements of the ghetto: a police car, unattended; a police crane lookout; and a truck with its backside open, 500 watermelons piled on the platform, a kid sitting on top of all of them, looking bored. I have to admit, I could see the park across the street, but I was scared to walk out of the subway. I had a niggling fear that as soon I “exposed” myself, I would be jumped by three guys who wanted the $6.75 I had in my pockets (no credit card today). Black Escalades with shiny new rims were rolling down the wide streets pumping steady doses of base, shaking all the fluff from the air, and the block had a distinctly urban feel, but I was literally 100 feet from the park. My fear was totally irrational.

After looking around for 30 seconds, I managed to pick up what's remaining of my manhood and followed the lead of three other tourists. We approached the wholly unimposing wire cage of Rucker: no barbed wire, no graffiti, no litter. The only entrance was at the south-east corner, and stationed in front were two guards, both dressed in bright orange shirts labeled SECURITY. It was barely 5:30 p.m. There was no line. As I walked up, the man gave me a thorough pat-down I didn’t mind at all, because it meant everyone else got the same treatment. As I walked into the grandstands, which go 8 rows back, measure the full length of the court, and were present on every side of the court, I noticed there were other tourists. Namely: a German couple holding hands behind one of the backboards, an Indian teenager with an expensive camera slipping onto the court during breaks snapping pictures, a Chinese national sitting in the front row with an equally fancy camera, and two more fit Caucasians further down.

I saw a sunny, plain space on the top row, and bounded upwards in order to sit 5 feet above basket level, making sure to wedge my bag between my back and the pole so it doesn't slip through the cracks. I fixated on the game below: it’s a group of 6th graders playing! All of them were black and skinny, and none of them could dunk, but the play was exciting nonetheless: fast breaks happened on 50% of the possessions, and in particular, there was a slight, spiky-haired boy that controlled the action for the blue team, jerking in and out of haphazard double teams at half court and double-pumping layups to finish offensive sequences. I was impressed. I also realized that I wanted to take notes, but didn't have a pencil. The nice elderly couple next to me didn't have one either. So, thirty minutes into my Rucker experience, I decide to leave temporarily and enter Harlem to find a writing utensil.

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