Entertainers Basketball Classic
Welcome to the greatest streetball show on earth.
by Franklyn Calle
Every summer, New York City’s parks are brimful with organized tournaments. From youth leagues to pro-leagues, the city bursts with its basketball frenzy atmosphere. Its unlimited division or “Pro division” in tournaments throughout the five boroughs attracts professional players from the NBA and overseas to college players and even an elite number of high schoolers. You probably heard of West 4th, Nike Pro City, Dyckman and Hoops In The Sun. But there is only one park, one tournament, that is just on another plateau. One that for long has separated itself from the pack.
For the past 29 years, Harlem has been witness to the greatest street ball tournament ever put together. On 155th St. and 8th Ave., while every summer new tournaments rise while others fall after only a short juncture in existence, the lights in this park are always shining bright, Monday through Thursday. Year in and year out. Recession or no recession. You can count on watching a high level of competition on the blacktop. Or should I say on its $45,000 rubber surface basketball court.
You probably already know which event I’m referring to but for those not familiar….Welcome to the Entertainers Basketball Classic at Holcombe Rucker Park.
Founder and CEO, Greg Marius, has seen his once community tournament rise into a global showcase. Today NBA players are regulars to team rosters as are celebrities to the park’s bleachers. What started as a basketball game between two rival rap groups has turned out to be probably the most prestigious basketball event of the summer.
Marius, a member of The Disco Four rap group along with Ronnie D, Cool Gee, Mr. Troy, Country and DJ Al Bee, played rival group, Crash Crew, in the summer of 1980 after both teams said they could take the other. From there the tournament was born. It would only be a matter of time until top collegiate and professional athletes got involved.
LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Allen Iverson are among a list of seeming endless basketball stars that have ran up the floor at the Rucker, former site of the Polo Grounds. Rap mogul Jay-Z, NBA Commissioner David Stern, former President Bill Clinton, actor Denzel Washington and R&B superstar Mary J. Blige are just some of the many non-athlete superstars that have been spectators.
This year it will be no different as EBC brings back top-notch competition to the court once again. Participating teams include last summer’s champions Sean Bell All-Stars as well as runner-up Primetime. Also participating will be R&B Star Chris Brown’s Chris Brown All-stars; NBA Star Ron Artest’s Tru Warriors; R&B artist Ron Browz’s Ether Boy Records; Rap Star Maino’s Hustle Hard; “Voice of New York” Radio Personality Angie Martinez’s Angie Martinez All-stars; Rap Superstar JadaKiss’ Team 914; Well-known “Chicken Noodle Soup” DJ & Producer, DJ Webstar’s, Team Webstar; Diplomat’s Founder/Rap Star, Cam’ron’s Team Cam’ron; Evil Training, and Danny All-stars.
Last year standouts included Lamont aka “Yada” Gaines, Steve Burtt Jr., Lance Stephenson and Brandon Jennings. Thus far, Adrain aka “Hollywood” aka “A Butta” aka “Whole lotta game” Walton, Anthony aka “Africa” Pimble, Adris aka “Too hard to guard” Deleon and Lamont aka “Yada” Gaines have been impressive this season.
MSG (Madison Square Garden) Network has signed on to bring the EBC to your home and more than 10 million others nationwide. Tomorrow night at 7PM (EST) will be the first installment and it will be aired every Thursday until September 24th.
The man behind of it all, Mr. Marius, spoke to SLAM about everything from the tournament’s early days to where his brand stands today.
SLAM: What did you envisioned doing when you were younger?
Greg Marius: I envisioned playing basketball. I really loved football. That was really my sport. I broke my leg when I was like 12. I was always playing with older guys and hit somebody who was like 18. I broke my leg and I wasn’t trying to hit as hard anymore so I turned to basketball. I loved basketball but I also learned how to play the piano. So I was also a music person. And it just happened that I met some guys that were into hip-hop. I taught them how to drive and they taught me how to rap. It was just in anything I do, I always try to be the best at it. I walked us into a record label and we got a deal. Then we started a record label with Teddy Riley. I did a lot of things that I just accomplished. I’m happy about it. You got guys trying to make albums again. People always asked me ‘why you don’t make a album?’ I would tell them I was satisfied with what I accomplished and whatever I didn’t accomplished, I was satisfied with that as well.
SLAM: How did EBC start?
Greg Marius: It was in the summer of 1980. Basically the first year they were all rappers. But then it just funneled off with some of the guys starting to bring real ball players and with my affiliation of playing with Riverside Church I was able to bring the top ball payers like Dwayne “Pearl” Washington, who was at Boys & Girls High School and highly recruited at the time, Walter Berry, Richie Adams, Kenny Hutchison, who went to Arkansas, and Greg Springer. I had the top five ball players in the city on my team the second year. And that’s just how it went off to the third and fourth year and continuously into just real college players and NBA players.
SLAM: What were the first locations of the tournament in the early days?
Greg Marius: We started at 120th street and Madison Ave. which was called Mount Morris Park and is called Marcus Garvey Park now. That was our first location and we were there for two years. We didn’t do it the third year and then I came back because people in New York City were seeing me in the streets and saying, why I ain’t do the tournament, ‘the summer is boring now,’ and I just felt the same way. I started it back up and I started it closer to where I lived at which was 139th and Lenox Avenue and that park was called Fred Samuels Playground and we were there for two years. I had Dominic Wilkins who the slam dunk champ, to actually judge our slam dunk contest. That day in itself, the crowd was like three or four thousand people. So we kind of outgrew that park and they told us we had to choose between 145 & Lenox or 155th and 8th avenue. I really wanted to go to 145th because it was closer but they only had one way in and one way out. And the way the community was back then it wasn’t safe to be in an environment like that. So I chose Rucker Park, which had three entrances, in and out. It just happened to be a legendary park at the time…well back in the 70s, not at the time because there wasn’t anything going on at the time. So when we took over the park, just being in the park, people always confused it with the tournament that was there back in the 70s, which was the Rucker. But we are not the same tournament. We didn’t take over the tournament. We didn’t start at the tournament. We are the Entertainers Basketball Classic. It just happened to be in the same park that was named after Holcombe Rucker.
SLAM: What are your favorite EBC moments?
Greg Marius: I have about four of them. Tookie Wilson, who is no longer alive, hit 61 points in our tournament. My second moment was when Master Rob hit a three point shot that brought his team into the championship game and then the same shot that summer, his team loss with him missing the shot. The same exact shot. Then my next moment was when Kobe came. And then when David Stern and Bill Clinton came together. And when Steve Burtt Jr. scored 66 points last summer and broke Tookie Wilson’s scoring record.
SLAM: What went through your mind when you found out that the President of the United States was going to be present at the EBC?
Greg Marius: What went through my mind was getting on the mic and telling the whole world he was coming. But then I got a call from Secret Service which informed that I couldn’t do that so it was just one of those things. I found out the day before.
SLAM: How far have you seen streetball come?
Greg Marius: I feel streetball has come a long way. The Pro Rucker was the first to have NBA players play on a street playground back in the 70’s but the tradition had been lost because of the NBA trying to market their league and the requirements in the contracts that these guys couldn’t come and play. And then here comes the Entertainers Basketball Classic. We brought a new type of basketball to the market place. A lot of guys from the 80’s were the same type of guy I was, I loved basketball and I loved hi hop. So it created an opportunity for a new type of basketball and a new type of thinking out of guys. So when you got these guys who are making the league and playing in the NBA saying, “ Hey, I don’t want to wear the suit. I want to play in the parks that I grew up in. I want to do this. I don’t care about my contract. I’m going to go play. And actually coming over there, the Kevin Garnett, the Joe Smith, the Allen Iverson, the Stephon Marbury, and saying, ‘ yo ‘F my contract I still gotta come to the hood.’ That’s what put EBC on the level is on, because of that type of thinking.
SLAM: What about AND1?
Greg Marius: And then came along And 1 and these are the same guys I approached with, ‘Hey I want you to sponsor what we’re doing because I see that street basketball can help you with what you doing,’ and they turn around and say it’s not national enough, meaning they wasn’t interested in doing it. And then they turned around and went to these guys secretly and say, ‘Hey, let me sign you to a $5,000 contract for the year,’ and just limit everything I did. To me they hurt it [basketball] because instead of being a company and just signing a group like ours to help market what they were trying to do, which was to sell sneakers. They thought they could turn around and just mimic what we did. And of course you can mimic something. All you gotta do is watch how ours was done. But you can’t continue growing if you don’t have the vision to take it to the next level. What about the next step? That’s why the tour kinda was great for a minute, for them, but after they peaked, they just fell off the planet earth with what they were doing because they couldn’t go anywhere else. So when they tried to really take it back to what we were doing, we weren’t the Globetrotters doing tricks, we were truly basketball players playing one another. And it just happened to have an extra flare to it. They couldn’t understand that. They didn’t know how to do that. They kinda hurt basketball for a while because the NBA and college coaches were getting upset because here you got guys that are no longer learning the fundamentals of basketball. They are watching these tapes and trying to do tricks that if you really watch an And1 tape, the guys are walking and holding the ball, you know, they are not playing basketball. That’s not what you will see if you watch an EBC tape. It kind of helped globally in that corporate America was now able to understand it to a aspect because And1 was able to get into the market place to such a large level but they should of just have done it with the first group that had ever done it and they could probably still have it going on because we would have kept it truth. We would have kept it real.
SLAM: What are the down sides of street ball today?
Greg Marius: Right now what you are seeing is in every community, every 10 blocks someone is trying to do a tournament now. That’s killing it because you got guys that instead of coming to West 4th Street or Nike Pro City or EBC, now they going to 119th St., 120th St., 130th St. They trying to play in 100 tournaments. And it’s watering it down because there are not that many great players right now. They are not understanding the corporate world so if you was getting five or six figures to do what you need to do for your tournament, you got guys coming along that don’t need the same dollars because they don’t have security and all the other expenses that are associated with a tournament because they are just starting it up. So they’ll take three or four figures and a company saying ‘Hey, I can touch ten tournaments with the money I gotta give this one tournament, let me do that right now.’ Even though at the end of the day they still have to come to EBC because this is where television wants to come. This is where tourists want to come. At he end of the day, these other tournaments may run for two or three years but they fizzle off, so you still have to come right here. But those other tournaments are kind of putting a strain on us for a minute but we’ve been here 29 years and we already have a vision of doing another 10 or 20 years.
SLAM: How was security around the park the day David Stern and Bill Clinton walked in?
Greg Marius: If I was to move security and wouldn’t use them anymore, people are so accustomed to coming to this park and being searched, not smoking weed, not smoking cigarettes, not drinking, it’s so secured right now. Because is a protocol now, they understand. Where can you find a park where 2,000 people are in it and are not even lighting up a cigarette in it? You can’t find that. I’m talking about a cigarette, much less weed, we talking about a cigarette. They got so use to it. So when David Stern came, it’s like ‘Hey that’s David Stern.’ They are not going to run over there, they are just going to be excited that he’s here. We even got him a Terror Squad chain on and took a picture of it. My staff has done a great job, from security to the guys that set up the equipment and keeping this park at a certain level for over the past 20 years.
SLAM: Do NBA players turned down offers to play at the EBC because of fears of being exposed?
Greg Marius: The guys that know they are going to get exposed they don’t even show up. Because they know what kind of games they got. You already know that guys like Allen Iverson can definitely hang out here. He demonstrates that on the hard wood. But an average player that just comes down, shoots, dribbles, the basic fundamentals, he is not going to come down here because he may be NBA qualified, he may be in the league, he may be a top player, but we are talking about a whole different type of player that is down here. That’s like a big man trying to be a guard. It’s not going to work. You’re not going to try to be something that you are not. So you are not going to get certain guys to come down here. I don’t care how great they are. Like Skip never has a problem, he’s proven that. Ray Allen, one of the greatest players, he didn’t really shine out here. He’s a great player. I’m not saying that he’s not better than the players out here. But he was the basic come down and shoot. So he didn’t really look too good. Same thing with Jerry Stackhouse. He thought he could just come down here and be Jerry Stackhouse and someone had to show him different.
SLAM: What do they say if they don’t want to show up?
Greg Marius: The first thing they say is ‘I don’t play in concrete.’ We don’t have concrete. We have a rubber surface. We paid $45,000 for it. A lot of people don’t even know that. We invested in a rubber surface. The same surface they use in the US Open. The same company did our ground. It helps with the absorption of the shot when jumping and all of that. And when it rains it’s not slippery. The ball will slip out your hand before you slip on the court.
SLAM: Do you think it’s a mental thing?
Greg Marius: I just think it’s where you come from. If you come from an urban environment, you already played with those types of guys anyway. Kobe knew what to do when he got out here. He’s a superstar. He’s going to shine no matter where he plays.
SLAM: Take us a bit behind the expenses it takes to put this tournament together?
Greg Marius: Security alone is like forty something thousand for the summer. Guys are working eight-hour shifts out here, so they come out here to set up around two o’clock and they don’t leave ‘till ten. We have a staff of around 30 people. We have to rent the bleachers. The bleachers are 12,000 thousand a year. We have to get insurance. Everything we do in this park, we do ourselves. We don’t ask city to help. We don’t ask the parks department to help. We just invest ourselves. I would love for somebody to come and donate the bleachers so I don’t have to rent them every year. We are trying to do things like that. We are trying to find companies to come in to buy into the league instead of sponsoring the league. Buy into it. Let’s be partners. Let’ be marketing partners for a couple of years.
SLAM: What new programs are you now trying to implement?
Greg Marius: We have the youth division. I’m looking at the ball players and like I said earlier the pool of talent is not as strong as it use to be. So we have to start with the youth and get them playing up here. We have a 10&under, 12&under, 15 &under, and the 17&under now. So that’s going to be our next unlimited division. Those same guys. Which was for us in the past because we had Erving Walker when he was 11 or 12. We had Lance Stephenson when he was 11 or 12. We had Skip when he was 15. So we decided its time for us to start our own youth division and go back to that. We did start it six years ago but we didn’t really focus on it. Now we back at it strong. And we are giving them the same attention with the commentator on the mic, giving these kids nicknames. Also we didn’t do t-shirts. We got uniforms for them. They got the same type of uniform that the men’s wear so they could feel just as important as these guys. So that’s how we taking it.
SLAM: Do you feel the EBC has accomplished everything it could has or do you feel there is still more out there to get?
Greg Marius: I feel we actually hit every goal that many tournaments will never ever reach. We’ve had the Denzel Washingtons, Grabriel Union, you name it. We had Don Cheadle. We had every major celebrity in here. So in the movie pit-bull, we cover that basis. That will never happen in a park. We had the president, the commissioner. So we’ve had everybody in the park. We even got the greatest fans in the world. We have tourist from all over the world come see the games. So we hit every aspect. We even have had top fashion people in here, top boxers, Mike Tyson. Mary J. Blige. Shane Mosley. So if you can show me a list like that in any other park then I have to reach further for more accomplishments. But my next accomplishment is these kids now. We really want to reach into creating the best youth league but also having the best outlets to get these kids into high schools and colleges. But we want them to focus on school first. Not basketball. Basketball is only a tool to get you all the other things because is hard to get student loans and scholarships now. That’s what basketball can do for free. And take you around the world to meet people. So that’ our next goal. Everything else we accomplished already. Everybody else is trying to accomplish that but we accomplished it already.