Playground Basketball is Dead? Hardly

(This is a response to ESPN’s recent feature pronouncing playground ball dead. You can also read Bobbito’s new piece on the playground’s influence on the NBA right here.—Ed.)

Last week, ESPN ran an article titled “Playground Basketball Is Dying” based on their grossly out of touch supposition that outdoor courts in the U.S. are now empty and devoid of talent. The piece infuriated me! How could they make such a misinformed and discouraging claim? Let’s uncover the truth…

The two writers, Myron Medcalf and Dana O’Neil, intensely cover college ball for ESPN, which means they don’t experience the playground year-round. With the power of their platform, they were given access to a who’s who of b-ball including some retired legends. They failed to interview an active “park pick-up player” like me, though, someone who still plays (at age 47) and documents the culture.

Medcalf and O’Neil wrote: “The crowds that used to stand four deep are gone . . .”

In 2011, the Dyckman tournament in Manhattan staged one of the most talked-about matches in recent history. Neither roster boasted any NBA stars. The most recognizable player might’ve been Yatta Gaines, who the Utah Jazz picked up after a 10-day contract in 2010 (then waived the next season). “There were 3,000 people in the park,” Antonio Gil, author of The Game That Changed The History (Ediciones JC, Spain), shared. “Fans were lined up at 2 p.m. for an 8:30 game!”

I was there. I listened to announcer Joe Pope call the game while sitting on a parked car—across the street. There was no room inside the fence. People watched from the roof of the projects behind the court. The 1 train conductor even stopped the cars on the elevated tracks looming above the rim for a second to watch.

That summer also saw Kevin Durant drop 66 in the EBC tournament at Rucker Park.

Dyckman continues to draw big crowds this summer. I started my own tournament Full Court 21™ last Tuesday, and counted 100 in the crowd on opening day. I had barely promoted it.

Medcalf and O’Neil: “The best players, young and old, want to be inside instead of out; they want organized games to showcase their skills, not pickup games to earn street cred.”

In 2008, former Defensive Player of the Year Metta World Peace wanted to improve his long range shooting, so he spent the off season playing pick-up in the Queensbridge Projects where he grew up. “True Warrior” went one-on-five against local pre-teens. Ron Ron wasn’t allowed to shoot inside the NBA three-point line. He didn’t lose one game all summer.

That same summer, World Peace won three outdoor tournament championships, including Together We Chill in Harlem, where his tooth got knocked out in the middle of a game. “True Warrior” picked the tooth up off the asphalt, threw it out of bounds, and kept playing.

The next NBA season, Artest improved to 40 percent from the three-point line and made the most threes in his career. In 2010, he used the toughness he learned on the playground to help the Lakers win their most recent Championship.

Medcalf and O’Neil: “I think a lot of guys don’t think it’s worth it,” said Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry, who just signed a four-year deal worth $48 million.

Lance Stephenson and Kemba Walker, both worthy of NBA Most Improved Player Award consideration last season, went hard on the asphalt in 2013 at Gershwin, Brooklyn’s new tournament that everyone is talking about. Walker is a regular at Dyckman as well.

I wish ESPN had interviewed Stephenson and Walker, young players who recognize the value of playing outdoors and how it continuously improves their game.

Medcalf and O’Neil: “But the appeal of indoor . . . [is] also about safety. It’s easier to control an indoor space than an outdoor one. Buildings have walls and private entrances; you can’t put a metal detector at every park.”

Should we not allow our youth to go to movie theaters in Colorado, or grammar schools in Connecticut, or college campuses in Virginia? Violence is a problem everywhere. It’s a stain on America. Yes, innocent people have been murdered on our precious playgrounds, but I’d be willing to bet that basketball courts nationwide constitute a minority for likely places where gunshots are exchanged. Yes, sometimes a game gets heated and players get out of hand, but 99.9 percent of the activity produces a positive alternative to what our youth can be doing otherwise with their idle time. This was exactly the premise that sparked Dr. James Naismith to invent the sport in 1891. It’s also why NYC Parks & Recreation built 700 asphalt courts from the 1930s through the 1960s.

In the ‘90s, Baltimore founded a midnight basketball league. For the two hours games were played, crime went down 75 percent.

Not everyone has a student ID to access a school gym, or can afford a club membership, or be good enough to play on an elite AAU program. The park is for everyone, open all day, and free. Basketball has saved more lives than claimed it. “The playground is not the problem; it’s the solution,” veteran youth coach Sean Couch once told me.

Medcalf and O’Neil: “Even if the NBA stars are made to feel safe, they aren’t likely to show up . . . The fear of injury . . . has turned pros into occasional visitors . . . ”

ESPN would better understand what pros think than I ever could, but why point out an issue without proposing a solution? Message to NBA stars: don’t believe the hype. Pros are on wood all year round, and can still get hurt. The worst occurrence I can think of would be Shaun Livingston. That didn’t happen on the asphalt. Derek Rose, John Wall and Stephen Curry have all gone down on the shiny floors as well. What’s most important is diet, training, stretching and general health. Metta, Lance and Kemba all seem to be doing fine. Earl Monroe and Julius Erving splashed the concrete in Chucks and both survived. (Monroe has had 30 surgeries since retiring from the NBA, but never on his knees.)

Medcalf and O’Neil“Kids still want to play basketball. They still do play basketball, but not outside, not at playgrounds, not like they used to.”

While making the documentary DOIN’ IT IN THE PARK: PICK-UP BASKETBALL, NYC, my co-director Kevin Couliau and I filmed 180 courts throughout NYC’s five boroughs. I was born in 1966, so I’ve had the pleasure of watching ball outdoors in six different decades. So from a qualified position, I can say that there are more people playing 5-on-5, 3-on-3, 21, etc. in the park these days than in any other era, ever. Yes. And the majority of them are under the age of 21. We have footage to prove it! Watch our project on Netflix if you don’t believe.

Most adults over 30 will say that kids nowadays play video games instead of playing outdoors. They are just as out of touch as ESPN is, at least when it comes to New York City. I can’t speak on Louisville, DC, Philly, etc. as I haven’t spent as much time there recently. People who play pick-up here are like a secret society. There’s no social media needed (that’s why all apps for the sport have failed). They don’t tweet about where they’re playing, because if it’s a good run, they don’t want undesirables to find out and mess up the comp, or worse, for too many to show up because waiting two hours for next sucks. Media always ask me to list the top courts to hit, and I’m always hesitant to share. It’s like uncontacted communities in Brazil. They need to be protected.

I will share this: we are playing in the morning, at night, and the best runs aren’t at the same courts like Foster Park in Brooklyn where they were 40 years ago. Times have changed and the movement shifts.

For example, NYC Parks & Rec opened seven full courts under the Brooklyn Bridge this summer. Any day of the week, 3-on-3s are active on 14 half courts until 11 p.m. when the lights get turned off. That’s 84 players plus however many are on the side waiting, every day, for hours. West 4th St. legend Jack Ryan described it to me as “bliss.” But ESPN didn’t go there.

Medcalf and O’Neil: “Rucker is still Rucker, with all its resonance and meaning, but it is not . . . the one seen . . . with fans literally sitting on rooftops and climbing tree branches to get a view.”

It is true Rucker Park hasn’t been drawing crowds recently like it used to 10 years ago, but is unfair for ESPN to judge my entire town based on one singular court’s activity. There are 700 outdoor courts in New York, and 70+ summer tournaments. That’s unparalleled anywhere in the world. That’s why we’re the Mecca of playground basketball. And the swarms may not be at Rucker right this minute because they’re at Dyckman or Tri-State for the time being. Rucker will always come back because of its history, though, and this isn’t the first time it’s had a lull.

Back in the ‘80s, Bob McCullough’s Pro Rucker tournament lost steam to King Towers in Foster Projects and a young upstart named Greg Marius who was drawing triple parked cars outside his new tournament the EBC on 139th and Lenox. McCullough kindly passed Rucker Park’s torch (and permit) to Marius, who moved his hip hop infused games to 155th and 8th. The fans came along, and the fabled court’s modern era began.

Medcalf and O’Neil“The problem at Rucker goes more to the root of the entire issue with playground basketball. There just aren’t enough players. Of course, it once didn’t matter who played, just that there was a game to watch.” 

There are enough players; it’s just that summer tournaments are victims of their own success. In the heyday of the Pro Rucker in the early ‘70s, Breevort in Brooklyn might’ve been its closest competition to draw away elite players like Fly Williams. There were only games at ‘55th on Friday and Saturday. The EBC at Rucker Park now goes four nights a week, and players have to decide if they’re going to play there or five to seven other options on the same night. Mr. Holcombe Rucker created a mold that has been duplicated everywhere. The Rucker is the standard that everyone aspires to. It’s what Q-Tip is for cotton swabs, or spaghetti is to pasta: the standard for which all else is measured.

And while it’s true that New Yorkers will crowd around to watch even scrubs play (so long as the game is competitive and someone is talking smack), when it comes to tournaments, it actually has always mattered who was playing. This dates back to the 1950s, when the Rucker was located on 128th and 7th Avenue and City College of NY star Ed Warner, NYU monster rebounder Cal “The Hawk” Ramsey (yes, before Connie Hawkins), and Isaac “The Rab” Walthour were the talk of the town and set off what would become the ooh la la of tournament for decades. The height was 1971, when an unknown Julius Erving became a rookie at Rucker. That’s the era that was photographed with hundreds on top of the roof, the overpass, the trees, the fence, all of that. What he and local legends Joe Hammond and Pee Wee Kirkland were doing on the court was unprecedented. So the massive crowd came, and was rewarded.

The same happened for Arnold Dugger, “High Jumping” Artie Green, “Master Rob” Hockett, “Dancing” Doogie, Ron “The Terminator” Matthias and Rafer “Skip To My Lou” Alston. The last player to splash the EBC at Rucker and really entertain the crowd was probably Larry “Bone Collector” Williams about 10 years ago. Kids loved his “bop bop” and he became an audience favorite.

I have no doubt in my mind that there is a young ballhandler out there who will emerge shortly and bring the ruckus back to Rucker. It’s inevitable. This is New York, and playground basketball is far from dead.

Medcalf and O’Neil: “High school players in search of scholarships and exposure spend May, June and July in indoor, showcase tournaments and AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) events, not parks.”

The AAU world is not perfect. If you think the park isn’t safe for kids, imagine the terror they experience in the cases that have been exposed where they are sexually abused by coaches, or the confusion they experience with trying to meet expectations from scouts, college recruiters and potential agents. The gifted ones are looked at by some brands as commodities, not teenagers learning to deal with pimples and self-esteem.

That said, as much of an outdoor advocate as I am, I’m not mad at AAU. At all. If the youth are playing indoors, celebrate it! The important thing is that they’re playing. And although I’ve never been to an AAU tournament myself, I’ve heard that the overall coaching is pretty poor, so the kids are performing similar to how they would on the playground—being creative, going for highlights, and having fun. Add some travel experiences and free sneakers, and I don’t imagine many people in any sport would frown at an opportunity like that.

Ultimately, people can knock AAU, travel teams and all that, but you wanna know something really cool about it? We haven’t lost any star players to drugs, street hustling, or violence in a long, long time. The days of the under-achievers like Earl Manigault, Lloyd Daniels, Joe Hammond, Pee Wee are long gone. Those dudes got caught up and made horrible decisions. 1985’s No. 1 high school recruit Benji Wilson didn’t make it past his senior year because he was murdered. That wasn’t his fault.

When’s the last time a kid who was predicted/expected to be an all-star didn’t make it? Felipe Lopez? Lenny Cooke? They didn’t fall short because of crime. They weren’t shooting heroin like The Goat did in the ’60s. The last player who dumbed out on drugs was Chris Herron. Things have changed. And AAU might just be one of the reasons.

All parties of the universe exist best when they are balanced. I’ve often suggested to coaches to encourage their players to go outside and play in an environment where there are no refs, no schedules, no uniforms. Figure it out and have fun while you’re at it.

Just the same, I’ve told enough players in the park to play some organized ball to learn the game as best possible from all angles. Each side informs the other. I’ve won plenty of games with a simple fake pick to a V cut. I don’t have to dribble 90 times in order to score.

Ultimately, ESPN’s main premise to prove that “playground basketball is dying” is that elite U.S. players are no longer playing outside. I would agree that nationwide it seems as though the top high school athletes are not hitting the parks like they used to, but that doesn’t mean at all that the culture is dying. Years after inventing the sport, Dr. James Naismith was once quoted saying, “I didn’t invent basketball to be coached. I invented it to be played.” Naismith didn’t envision pro leagues and AAU. His goal was what he called “muscular spirituality.” And with the amount of people playing, whether they be scrubs, or parents shooting around with their children, or old-timers who can only play half court, or teenagers who love the game but got cut from the varsity squad, the “clave” is that people are playing, loving the sport. Not just in the U.S. Worldwide. China has over 315 million registered ballplayers. You read that correctly. That number exceeds the population of the United States. Kids in the Philippines make their own rims, hang them in the middle of the street with oncoming traffic, and play barefoot or in flip-flop slippers. In droves. All day. I witnessed this with my own eyes. New York may be the mecca, but Manila may very well be the place that the fever is highest anywhere in the world.

So who really cares if the top 200 ranked high school players and 300-plus NBA athletes aren’t in the playground? Does that constitute the death of a sport when there are millions and millions dedicated to it, and millions more just being introduced to the love? Besides, if there’s ever another NBA lockout, or if AAU ever crumbles from its own corruption, all those elite players will return back to the essence (like we saw in 2011).

ESPN ran an article that was inaccurate. Does this mean that ESPN basketball reporting is dying? Of course not. But don’t believe the hype. Playground basketball lives on.

Photo by Jon Lopez