According to Kookoo and other fans in attendance that day, Hammond was nowhere to be found as the other players warmed up. Milbank stalled as long as possible, but the referees insisted the game go on as scheduled. With chants of “We want Joe, we want Joe” cascading down from the tree limbs and the bleachers, the game started anyway. Without Hammond, the first half was cruel to Milbank, as the Westsiders controlled the tempo, dominating on both sides of the ball. Erving, an acrobatic scorer with a prolific Afrom—the Jordan of the bell-bottoms generation—delighted the crowd with his extraordinary moves to the basket. But the fans wanted their local hero, and as the first half came to a close with Milbank trailing the Westsiders by double digits, it seemed as if Erving vs. Hammond, rising star vs. rising star, super pro vs. super playground, would not happen.
“I remember everyone being really upset because Joe didn’t show,” says Kookoo, who was eight years old when his father took him to that game. “But all of a sudden, just before the start of the second half, you hear this roar go through the stands and people started clapping and stomping their feet. It felt like an earthquake or something. My father put me on his shoulders so I could see what all the commotion was about.”
Across Eighth Avenue, Joe Hammond was getting out of a limousine. Before he could get both feet out of the car, he was swarmed by kids seeking his autograph, friends wishing him well, women simply trying to make eye contact, and reporters from The Amsterdam News and other newspapers inquiring as to why he had missed the first half. With police holding back the crowd, Hammond seemed more like a movie star heading into an Academy Awards ceremony than a basketball player 24 minutes late for a pickup game.
With the crowd at a deafening roar, Hammond ran toward his bench, pulling off his street clothes and yelling, “I’m here, coach, I’m here!”
The Westsiders began the second half with Scott guarding Hammond, but it was to no avail. On his first trip down the court, the ball quickly found Hammond’s hands and whap—he hit a jumper. Scott looked at him and shook his head. The Westsiders got the ball but Kirkland made a steal and shoveled it behind his back to Joe, who broke away and wham—he dunked the ball so hard, people started dancing in the stands and spilling out onto the court. Order was restored, then it was Dr. J’s turn. He took a pass at the top of the key, burst across the foul line through traffic and with long, graceful strides, ball held high above his Afro, swept down on the basket, slamming it into the hole as if to say to the Harlem faithful, “Take that!”
The Westsiders, watching ther lead disappear, made one defensive switch after another, finally putting Erving on Hammond, and sending the crowd into the outer limits of hysteria. “It was a little different when Doc got on Joe,” says Kookoo, patting Hammond on the back for positive reinforcement. “Believe me,, Doc was getting his, and Joe had a tough time stopping him. But when Joe got the ball, Doc couldn’t stop him either. It was all offense. Doc would throw it down on Joe and then Joe would come right back and slam it in Doc’s face. It was like a ‘Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.”
Hammond, who says he scored 50 points to Erving’s 39 though Vecsey says it was more like 40 points apiece), won the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award, but the Westsiders pulled out the victory in double overtime. Despite the loss, Joe Hammond had taken his respective place in the heart of Harlem folklore. Twenty-two years later, the game is still remembered as the best basketball Harlem has ever seen.
“After the game, the Doctor made his way through the crowd and came right over to me,” says Hammond, who grabs Kookoo’s hand to reenact the scene. “He shakes my hand and says ‘Joe, everything I heard about you is true.’ It was the greatest shootout in the history of Harlem.”
“Joe was an outstanding player who could have easily been a pro, but he wasn’t in Erving’s class,” says Vecsey. “But it was a phenomenal game, more exciting than anyone could possibly imagine. You think trash talking is an issue today? You should have seen and heard the taunting that went on in those games.”
Hammond, Kookoo and Mingo climb into the jeep and speed down the FDR Drive, on their way to East Harlem, where Hammond is living with his Uncle Willie, who is eight years his senior, and for whom he once ran drugs. “Me and Willie did a lot of shit together and got ourselves in a lot of trouble, says Hammond, “but he’s good people. And these days, he’s the only people I got.”
A few months after he performed hoop surgery against Dr. J. and the Westsiders, Hammond earned a spot in the Eastern League’s all-star game (“The 6’4”, 180 pounder is one of the most exciting payers in the game,” reads the media guide). The legend of Joe “The Destroyer” Hammond, renowned for the ability to destroy any opposing defense, had traveled clear across the continent.
He was pursued by the Los Angeles Lakers: the Lakers of Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West; the Lakers of a league record 69 wins, of 33 straight wins’ the World Championship 1971-72 Lakers. They selected Hammond in the NBA hardship draft of 1971, held for a handful of top players who didn’t finish college.
Jack Kent Cooke, then the owner of the Lakers, offered Hammond $50,000 to play for his team. In fact, Laker coach Bill Sharman, whose team was in town to play the Knicks, assembled his players on an off day at Pace University to hold a special tryout for Hammond—the mountain came to Muhammad.
“To the very best of my knowledge, that has never happened before,” says Vecsey. “That’s how talented a player Joe was. The Lakers actually came to him. But Joe didn’t care about basketball or the Lakers or anything else because he was too busy making money on the streets.
Indeed, there was more than just a contract dispute that prevented Hammond from signing with Los Angeles. He was also a star player in another league, an all-star league of drug dealers led by his Uncle Willie that mad a mint in a lucrative business on the Harlem Streets.
“They thought they were offering the world to this poor kid from the ghetto, but I didn’t need the money,” says Hammond. “I was dealing drugs and shooting dice on the street from the age of 10 and by the time I was 15 I had my father hiding $50,000 for me in his bank account. By the time the Lakers made their offer, I had over $200,000 stashed in my apartment. I was making thousands of dollars a year selling marijuana and heroin. What was I going to do with $50,000?”
“I was making guys like Dr. J. look silly,” Hammond adds. “And some of them were making big money, $200,000 or $250,000 a year. I told the Lakers that I deserved what those guys were making because I was better than most of them, but they refused to pay me. Then I asked them for a no-cut, guaranteed contract, and they refused me again. They couldn’t understand how this poor boy from the slums could be playing hardball with them. And of course, I couldn’t tell them why.”
After Hammond spurned the Lakers, ex-St. Johns coach Lou Carneseca, then with the New York Nets of the American Basketball Association that year, came calling. “Joe had tremendous skills, all of which he learned on the streets, and had a great, great future,” says Carneseca. “He was a precursor to Magic Johnson and guys like that. I offered him a three-year, no-cut contract, and he wouldn’t sign. The ABA was a vagabond league at the time, so I guess he felt he could do better, and that maybe the situation wasn’t right for him.”
Meminger, the former Knick who grew up in New York and competed against Hammond in the Rucker League, echoes Carnesecca’s praise for Hammond. “Joe was as talented a player at the ages of 18, 19, and 20 as anybody in the city or the country at that time,” says Meminger. “But Joe didn’t go through the system, and that hurt his marketability. It’s often very difficult to gauge how good someone is based on his performance on the playgrounds.”
But the Destroyer’s game never got any farther than the playground. Regardless of the league, the team or the type of contract, it never seemed right to Joe Hammond, who was using his time and celebrity to sell dope. While amassing his fortune, he continued to be the shiniest star in the Rucker League’s galaxy of talented athletes. In the neighborhood, his legend still grew. Everyone wanted to come see the kid who turned down the Los Angeles Lakers and the New York Nets. In the streets, everyone wanted to buy his drugs.
“My nephew had a chance,” says Willie Hammond, sitting on a car in front of the project building on 114th Street and Lexington Avenue, where he and Joe now live. “But it’s difficult to see straight with a stack of hundreds piled in front of your face every night and a woman hanging off each arm to spend it on.”
Back in the glory days, Willie Hammond was the ringleader, hauling in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year selling drugs. He’s spent thirty of his 50 years behind bars, and still has an awful lot of gangster left in his voice.
“Joe was young and confused, and I guess I was too busy making money to stop and help clear things up for him,” says Willie, looking up at his fourth-floor window and waving to Michael Jordan, the black alley cat named after Joe’s favorite player. “Joe was such an outstanding basketball player, it makes me want to cry just thinking about it. But every time something positive would come up, like the Lakers or the Nets, something negative would come up. Joe would say, “Fuck it, maybe I’ll sign with the Lakers.’ And some wise guy in our crew, who was probably jealous of him anyway, would say something like, ‘Yo, man, we got a big score coming our way. Fuck the Lakers.’ He was always being pulled in opposite directions.”
Hammond kept drifting in the wrong direction, further from the sanctuary of the courts and closer to the evils of the streets, making the easy money and living the good life.
“People would ask me how I could refuse to get down with star players like Wilt and Jerry West,” says Hammond. “But I owned a nightclub, two apartments and a house. You want to know how fucking rich I was? I owned two fancy cars—and I couldn’t even drive.”