Eventually—inevitably—Hammond got hooked on the drugs he was selling, and became an addict. His slick drug dealing got sloppy and in 1984 he was busted for conspiring o sell narcotics. He’s been in and out of jail ever since, serving three prison terms: from 1985-88, he split time between Camp Gabriels prison in Lake Placid and the Clinton Penitentiary in Dannemora, NY. “I damn near froze to death in Lake Placid,” he says. “It got so cold up there, your spit turned to ice before it ever hit the ground.” But the chill wasn’t enough to scare him straight—in 1991 he spent 6 months on Rikers Island.
Hammond’s misfortunes have left him virtually penniless. All his belongings, even his hundreds of trophies, were sold while he was in prison. After his first two jail terms were completed, Hammond returned to beg on the streets he once owned, selling stationary cards, stolen clothes and whatever he could get his hand on to support a drug habit he couldn’t kick. “It hurts to have the people I know see me this way,” he confessed two years ago in East Harlem, after pleading with me for $2. “This is not the way I want them to remember me. To most of them, I’m still a legend.” But the legend was back behind bars in late 1992, a parole violation having landed him at Wallkill Correctional Facility for nine months.
Since his release from Wallkill in July, however, Hammond has managed to stay clear of drugs. He says that frequent visits to the Addicts Rehabilitation Center helped get his life on a straighter path. “I got a lot of counseling at ARC,” he says. “It makes me forget about wanting to do the bad things and it keeps me off the streets. When I leave that building, I go over to Uncle Willie’s and we hang out. We watch TV, mostly sports. When we heard Jordan was retiring, we almost fell off the couch. Another legend—gone.”
After reminiscing with Willie and the guys for a while, Hammond breaks from the huddle and heads over several blocks to the Wagner Projects to visit his childhood sweetheart, Beverly Seabrook, and their 18-year old daughter, Joy. Hammond, who has never married, has four children (from three separate relationships) and four grandchildren. Still carrying his garbage bag, he shuffles across Pleasant Avenue to the entrance of the housing development. Parents sitting with their children on weather-beaten green benches immediately recognize him.
“Hey, Joe, how you doing, baby?” asks one woman.
“Hanging in there, baby doll,” Hammond shoots back. “Wanna buy a tape?”
One father calls his teenage son over and rushes him toward Hammond. “Jamaal, this is Joe Hammond, the guy I’m always telling you about, the guy they used to call The ‘Destroyer’. He scored 50 points on Dr. J. one day.”
Jamaal shakes Hammond’s hand. “I heard a lot about you,” he says to Hammond.
“My father always says that you were the greatest.” Hammond looks at the father and his son gives them a shy smile, says thanks, and scoots into an open elevator and up to Seabrook’s apartment.
“People always talk about me in the past,” says Hammond, gently dropping his garbage bag and banging the elevator door with a clenched fist. “Sometimes it’s frustrating. I hear all these stories, and after a while, I get the feeling that people are talking about me like I died or something. I’m still alive. Still trying to survive.”
Seabrook, who met Hammond at P.S. 45 on East 120th Street when the two were teenagers, rushes into the bedroom to get an old photo album, the pages filled with newspaper clippings and old photos of Hammond, Pee Wee, the Elevator Man, and the rest of the troop that went down in a blaze of glory to the Westsiders two decades before. There’s a picture of Joe with Harthorne Wingo, his friend and former Allentown Jets teammate who went on to win a World Championship with the New York Knicks before succumbing to drugs himself and fading into oblivion. There’s Herman “Helicopter” Knowings, who died while driving his own cab in April, 1980. “The Helicopter could really fly,” says Hammond shaking his head. “Goddamn shame.”
The pages turn, and there’s James “Fly” Williams, net to a smiling Ronnie “The Terminator” Matthias. There’s Beverly giving Joe a hug after a tournament game in the LaGuardia Memorial House on East 116th Street, where Hammond’s name is still listed on a huge gold wall-of-fame plaque that includes marquee talents like Kevin Williams, Walter Berry, Malik Sealy and Chris Mullin.
“I knew Walt when he was a baby,” says Hammond. “I got to give him a call and I promised Pee Wee I’d call him, too. I still got all their numbers right here.” Hammond pulls out a tiny Bible with scraps of old paper and business cards scattered throughout the pages. “I got all my real friends, including the good Lord, all here in this book,” he says. “Who needs a wallet?”
Seabrook smiles fondly and returns to the album. She turns to a picture of “The Goat,” Earl Manigault, another famed playground hero who allowed heroin to get in the way of a promising NBA career. As a boy, Hammond idolized The Goat, even while The Goat was shooting dope into his veins. Running around Mount Morris Park on 124th Street, playing ball from sunup until well after sundown, young Hammond was known as “Dirty Hand Joe.” (“After dribbling that ball for hours, he’d come home at night and his hands would be black as tar,” says Willie Hammond.)
“The Goat always wanted Joe to learn from his mistakes,” says Seabrook, herself a substance abuser. “When Joe was on the way up, Earl used to come stumbling into the parks all strung out with a bottle of booze in his hands. I would be hanging around like always, waiting for Joe to finish, and I’d see Earl go over to him and hear him say ‘Joe, don’t fuck up like I did. Stay in the game, and you’ll make the money.’ But Joe wanted to do things his way.”
Seabrook, her voice starting to crack, closed the album and took a deep breath, trying to find the strength to speak without showing emotion.
“I was the homecoming queen of my school, and he was this big basketball star everyone used to make such a fuss over,” she says, her eyes welling with tears. “It doesn’t seem so long ago that people were treating Joe like a king. For the two of us, I thought it would all work out like a fairy tale.”
The king and his queen, still together, got up and held each other tight, and the album of the past fell to the floor. As they embraced, they realized the fairy tale was long over. After all, it has been 22 years since Joe Hammond played basketball in his spare time, turned his back on the Lakers and Nets, made a fortune selling the drugs that would eventually ruin him, and scored 50 points on the Doctor himself while only playing half of a game.
“You tell me,” says Hammond, shaking his head in disgust as he watched Seabrook pull video tapes from his garbage bag. “Is that the stuff that legends are made of?”