The Inimitable Rodney Parker
Reflections on the life of an NYC streetball giant.
by Joseph Vecsey
Everyone knew Rodney Parker. That’s what his nephew Torin Archbold remembers about their relationship. Everyone from Rick Pitino to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar showed Rodney respect and knew he was an excellent judge of talent.
Rodney James Parker helped hundreds of kids get into schools to play basketball. Anyone who really followed New York playground basketball from the ’70s-’90s, or went to tournaments and leagues during the summer, knew who Rodney was and what he did for others.
What’s more, if you ever bought sports tickets off the street, particularly outside of Madison Square Garden, then you might have known Rodney from that world as well. Rodney was a ticket scalper by trade, but his passion was helping young kids who had the potential to play basketball at the next level but wouldn’t necessarily get the opportunity. He always said, “I do it because I can.” It was somewhat of a compulsion to help kids after he had a tough childhood, and Rodney may have gotten as much out of it as the players he helped.
Rodney Parker didn’t receive any education past high school and began shining shoes at the age of eight years old. With his father not in the picture, Rodney used shoe shining to take care of his family with food and money. He eventually got introduced to ticket scalping by Bob Kalich, an accomplished novelist. As the story goes, Kalich was 20 yards away from the “Old Garden,” headed to a college game, when he sees this guy shining shoes. The first thing he noticed was that the man was smiling and sort of laughing as he made opinions about women and players of the game. Rodney seemed to hold court outside the “old garden” or as he told Kalich, “I give the best shine in New York and I know the game.”
Kalich was so intrigued by this man that he stayed out in the freezing cold talking and listening to him. Just before gametime, when Kalich was headed in, he remembered he had an extra ticket so he gave it to Rodney. Rodney told him he would see him inside. Of course, Rodney never showed. The next time Kalich saw Rodney was outside another college game and asked him, “what happened?” Rodney replied, “You started me off on a new profession.”
Bob and Dick Kalich, an award-winning novelist as well—along with many of Rodney’s friends from Brooklyn—recognized early on how much enthusiasm Rodney had for the game and how much he wanted to help kids get into programs. Rodney began going to every park and any tournament he could find to watch kids play.
Rodney not only took kids around to play basketball, but he became a father figure and role model. Being that Rodney grew up poor and in the inner city of Brooklyn, he had seen his share of violence and drugs and knew what that poison did to people. Sal Maisano, an incredible ball handler was one of many kids that Rodney would take all over the city and play. During the summer, he would have a group of 12 or more kids following him to different parks. He would have kids playing on the Lower East Side, then somewhere in Midtown, and finish the day playing uptown. He would also buy these kids food, subway fare, clothes and drinks.
Once Rodney liked a particular player, he would promote the hell out of him. People knew about Smush Parker before he really did any damage in organized games. Rodney once got Smush Parker on a five story billboard for Nautica at the age of 15 before people really knew he could play.
The most common things you would hear if you asked people about who Rodney Parker was would be that he knew everybody, helped everybody, and never wanted anything in return. Unfortunately, he never received any help when he needed it most. Many coaches would call Rodney and tell him what kinds of players they desired and could he take them around to the best parks. This was before all the camps and heavy recruiting services that exist today.
Rodney made kids better basketball players as well as getting them where they needed to be. “Rodney always believed everyone was better than they were,” says great friend Phil Herman, who traveled everywhere with Rodney during the summer.
Another factor that lead Rodney (far right, with beard, in playground photo) to become a legendary figure was when Sports Illustrated sent writer Rick Telander (who currently writes for the Chicago Sun Times) to do a magazine piece on street ball wizards on the playgrounds of Brooklyn in the summer of ’74, which would eventually grow into a book, the classic Heaven is a Playground (Excerpted in SLAM last fall and run here on the site then, too). A specific player he was looking for was James “Fly” Williams, but to get it to Fly, Telander had to go through Rodney. As Telander began to follow Rodney and Fly, the character of Rodney Parker took over the book. Rodney served as the centerpiece and connection between Telander and these playground ball players that Rodney was trying to get into schools. Being that Rodney was one of the all-time characters with his great sense of humor, fantastic abilities to play chess, strong opinion on basketball players as well as the arts, he took over the book’s original direction. Heaven is a Playground became largely a story about following Rodney Parker around to famous parks like Foster Park during the summer and what his life was like and how he helped youths succeed.
Being that Rodney had such a good heart, most people took advantage of him rather than appreciating what he did for them. Some stole, and others, once they made it to a certain point, turned their backs on him. For what Rodney did, he shouldn’t have had to ask for cash or for help, but many guys didn’t appreciate what Rodney did and left Rodney struggling when he could have used some help. “If they wanna give me something, they will,” Rodney always used to say. “There were rumors he took money from coaches and agents, but he never took a dime,” Phil Herman says.
Friends like the Kalich Brothers and Phil Herman were constantly telling Rodney to ask for something in return from these players that were doing well for themselves. The Kalich brothers wanted to start a company with Rodney so he could finally make some legit money off all the good he was doing. Rodney would just change the topic and never wanted to go through with it. “He did everything on a handshake. I also think Rodney was intimidated of structure,” Bob Kalich says. He never made any money off of the film Heaven is a Playground, or the six-week series on MTV called “Battlegrounds” which showed high school players from New York and Chicago getting ready for a game against each other. Rodney and Thomas “Tippy” McTernan (another living legend who’s gotten countless kids into junior colleges all across the country) got six out of the 12 players that were on the team. Furthermore, Rodney took the producer all around New York City to recruit kids for the show and to observe the different cultures in various neighborhoods. The producer loved every minute of it since Rodney was taking him through places he never would have gone or knew to go. The series was a hit, but the producer never took care of Rodney as promised.
Smush Parker, who Rodney mentored for years, became one of Rodney’s biggest success stories when he played at Fordham and then moved onto the NBA, but sadly, he’s also one of the most unappreciative. Rodney was always on the phone with Smush and his mother, helping out and keeping Smush out of trouble, but friends of Rodney’s say the help was never truly acknowledged.
After being diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, Rodney Parker passed away at the age of 71 from complications from the disease. He left behind quite a legacy. “He’s helped more kids successfully and gave more kids careers in a lifetime than anybody I knew,” says Bob Kalich. At the funeral, people were coming in “flocks” as Dick Kalich puts it, and Rodney is probably just as of a mythical figure as he was to people when he was alive. Even though Rodney loved telling people who he knew and what coaches he had talked to that day, he still remained a centered individual who went against human nature by having no ulterior motives. It didn’t matter if anybody did come through with money because Rodney still would have gone on to help kids get into schools because, ultimately, that’s just who he ultimately was.
As Tippy McTernan said of Rodney: “He was definitely an inspiration for me.”