As the coach bus pulled up to the corner of 155th Street and Frederick Douglas Boulevard in Harlem on this sunny but breezy Thursday afternoon in mid-July, 18 teenage boys eagerly stepped off into one of basketball’s most legendary playgrounds—Rucker Park.
In town for the adidas Uprising All-American Camp, and selected from the brand’s elite summer youth circuit called the Gauntlet, the young ballers arrived hours prior to the all-star exhibition game’s tip-off as they prepared to partake in one of the liveliest environments basketball has to offer.
And from the very jump it was evident that players on both sides had done their homework on what the legendary park means to the history of playground basketball and the way in which the game is played in such a venue. Throughout the decades, fans attending games at the hallowed blacktop (now featuring a customized hardwood floor) have become accustomed to a certain level of back-and-forth action from the individual match-ups that usually arise over the course of the game. And these players knew all about that tradition and wasted little time in kicking off their respective one-on-one bouts.
Among the individual battles was a good one at PG, where Payton Pritchard (10 points, 3 assists) and Shamorie Ponds (22 points, 5 rebounds) got the crowd going from the very early minutes as they came at each other on consecutive possessions often throughout the game. Ponds, a 6-0 guard at Thomas Jefferson in Brooklyn, shook off Pritchard in one particular play with a behind-the-back crossover at the top of the key before driving to the rim and finishing with a lay-up in traffic. In another possession, a series of crossovers gave him just enough space to sink a three-pointer over Pritchard—and he did it again, similarly, over five-star guard Mustapha Heron (20 points, 11 rebounds) during a different play. The lightning-quick guard even lobbed it to himself off the glass for a crowd-pleasing two-handed jam later on.
Another local product that had the crowd buzzing was Rawle Alkins. At 6-5, 230 pounds, he practically got to the rim at will. Combine his almost pro-ready physique with the traditional Brooklyn guard skills, explosiveness, impressive court vision and high basketball IQ, and you get one of the most complete prospects the Class of 2016 has to offer. Whether it was muscling his way to the rim for a two-handed windmill dunk, hitting defenders with an in-and-out crossover on the right baseline as he attacked the basket, lobbing the ball to himself off the glass for a dunk after Ponds had done the same exact move on the opposite end of the floor just seconds prior or even sinking step-back jumpers from behind the arc, the BK native showcased his full repertoire. And when he wasn’t filling up the points column, he was connecting with the likes of big man Edrice Adebayo on alley-oops for easy baskets in the lane. Alkins, who finished regulation with a game-tying dunk to send the game to overtime, tallied up 24 points and 8 assists for the night.
Adebayo, Alkins’ teammate on the Black squad, was just too big, strong and athletic to be stopped. From put-back dunks and windmills to rim-rattling jams off the dribble, the 6-10 five-star power forward found himself racking up flight mileage as he spent most of his time airborne on his way to a game-high 27 points and 8 rebounds. But behind the play of a versatile guard like Georgia’s Kobi Simmons, who finished with 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists while catching defenders looking as he faked a behind-the-back pass on his way to the rim or split defenders for a tomahawk finish at the basket, Team Gray was able to pull away with the 103-97 OT victory.
“It was just a great experience with the crowd getting into it,” said Adebayo afterward as local rapper Troy Ave prepared to take the court for a post-game performance. “I loved it—just glad I could be here to do it.”
Franklyn Calle is an Assistant Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @FrankieC7.