Showdown at the Rucker
Harlem’s Certified faced Team 914 in the EBC Finals.
by Adam Figman / @afigman
At almost 30 years of age, the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic is still going strong. And no other proof is needed than this past Thursday night’s Do or Die Finals game.
At the intersection of 155th Street and Frederick Douglas Boulevard—over a hardwood floor that has remained in place since Team USA practiced at Rucker Park during last week’s World Basketball Festival—Jadakiss’ Team 914 took on Harlem’s Certified, as the two fought for the coveted EBC championship. The winners didn’t receive million-dollar endorsement deals or multi-year contracts, but they did get a reward some are still grateful to hold: true pride.
Well, that and a couple other things. In past years, the champs took home trophies, which, while nice, are probably still sitting on a shelf collecting dust. Members of this season’s top team got something different: a 42-inch flat screen TV and a leather video game chair, equipped with built-in speakers and first-class comfort. The idea was to provide the best squad’s players with something they could bring home to their families and share with their loved ones, EBC founder Greg Marius declared. Last month one publication suggested that it’s been a struggle to keep the league progressing forward, and it seemed a safe bet Marius knew this night could go a long way to proving development was in the works.
Following a few pre-game festivities—including a pair of one-on-one games amongst fans and a shooting contest—the finals tipped off around 8 p.m. With the sun retreating toward West Harlem, both teams struggled to find chemistry early, as turnovers and missed opportunities were the story in the first quarter. After one, Certified led 13-11.
The squads settled in during the second, and a few of the teams’ respective leaders stepped forward. Team 914′s most dynamic guy was Aaron “The Problem” Williams, who was able to take his defender off the dribble at will and kept the D honest with a decent array of deep shots.
Certified, meanwhile, countered by dominating the post: K. “All State” Jones got to the basket in all types of ways, while Iona alum Nakia “Fabulous” Miller was able to use his Pau Gasol-like lankiness and knack for offensive boards to help his group get ahead. But a big shot by Jomo “The Specialist” Belfor towards the end of the second helped Team 914 enter the half leading 31-28.
After a rushed performance by Fred Da Godson, the third quarter kicked off. Maybe my favorite moment of the night then went down, when a familiar looking hefty dude who seemed to know everybody walked by the press section and took a seat. I took a second look and—hey—that’s Anthony Mason, wearing navy basketball shorts, a matching tee, and a set of headphones. He sat courtside at midcourt for three or so minutes (tops), then got up, walked into the back corner of the park, and vanished into the wind almost as quickly as he came in. The admiration was showered down on Mase from all angles, and the fans seemed to really respect the fact that he’d come out. (Worth noting here is that Rucker Park legend Joe Hammond was also in the crowd Thursday night, observing the new crop of streetballers.)
The low scoring dogfight continued through the third quarter, as one of the emcees even went as far as to say: “This game reminds me of Game 7 [of the NBA Finals]—it’s very concentrated, very serious.” And in a sense, he was right. It was a defensive-minded struggle, with each squad fighting for buckets and clawing toward the championship. But there were no zen masters on the sidelines for either team, as the two coaches demonstrated more Stan Van Gundy-ish behavior than that of Phil Jackson. (Amidst a fit of frustration, Team 914′s coach was hit with two technical fouls in the span of 20 seconds early in the second half.)
As the fourth quarter wound down, Harlem’s Certified was just too much for the 914 boys to handle. All State put in bucket after bucket, while Fabulous dominated the paint with an ironically Pau-in-Game-7-esque performance. The team pulled away in the final five minutes, even as—to the crowd’s dismay—Kareem “Best Kept Secret” Reid rode the pine. If the math I did analyzing the scorebook after the game ended was correct, All State finished with a game-high 23 points while Fab put in 13.
The night’s most telling moment came early in the fourth quarter, though. Sitting courtside as the game’s energy level peaked, EBC CEO Greg Marius watched from (literally) the best seat in the house, reclined in one of the leather video game chairs that would be given away later on. His right arm was sprawled over a cardboard box, which held a 42-inch screen TV that would also have a new owner shortly thereafter. But in the meantime, the league’s founder sat with both prizes in his possession. The lights shone down from overhead, illuminating a vibrant and excited crowd packed tightly in the Rucker Park bleachers. From where Marius sat, it didn’t matter which team scored more points. He won.