The F subway train was moving fast, but Nick Leon’s brain was moving faster. His hands, he recalls, were a little “moist.”
The train blazed by stops and neighborhoods he didn’t even know existed. Leon was on his way to a new world, a foreign New York borough called Queens, far away from his Coney Island home.
Leon was 12 years old and by himself—well, except for the flip phone he held tight in his nervous hands. The phone had directions from a coach he met through a Stephon Marbury street tournament. Directions to an outdoor court he had never shot on, to a coach he had never met, to a team he had never heard of, to fans he had never seen. He was aware of all these uncertainties when he stepped on the subway. Just as long as it wasn’t in the projects, Leon thought. That was his only requirement.
When Leon got off the subway after an hour and a half ride, he followed the note. That’s when he saw the one thing he wanted to avoid, a cluster of dull brown high rises towering over him. He wasn’t just in the projects, he was in the Queensbridge Houses, considered the largest public housing complex in the Western Hemisphere. And oh boy, if his father—his strict, protecting father—knew he was headed to Queensbridge, there was no chance Leon would have been allowed on the train. What was Nick Leon doing in the Queensbridge Houses?
He was there to play basketball, he reminded himself. He was there “to network.” He was there to “put on a show and make a name for myself.” Leon couldn’t do that if he was scared. With rows of fans watching, one false step and the crowd would be howling at his expense. He couldn’t show any sign of nerves or he would never be allowed back on the Queensbridge courts again.
And so he kept walking, making his way to the court, having to ask the scorer’s table for the coach who wanted his services, the services of a point guard. A point guard who could really hoop, a point guard who had already done his thing on the New York City streetball courts—that’s who the coach wanted and that’s why Nick Leon was in Queens.
The thing is, Leon wasn’t a point guard just yet—that transition happened during his Hall of Fame career at St. Peter’s University. Instead, he did what he did best: score. He nailed three after three with that clean righty stroke. He attacked the other team’s best player. By halftime, the coach knew, the other team knew, the crowd knew: this little Puerto Rican kid could ball. Leon’s performance woke up the fans. They couldn’t take their eyes off the shooter killing it in their projects. That’s when the jeers started.
“You don’t belong here. Where are you from? Go back to where you’re from,” Leon remembers hearing from the crowd.
He told the fans he didn’t want any problems, he was just there to play ball, to entertain. By the end of the game, Leon finished with 40 points, he remembers, and the fans didn’t have any choice but to watch in admiration. Would Leon, the coach wanted to know, play some more games for his team in the future?
“And that’s how you get around in New York City,” Leon says. “Because everyone knows everyone. The basketball world is very small in New York City. […] So for the most part [that game at Queensbridge] was when my name started getting out there. Everyone started noticing me, knowing who I am. And I just remember I got so much love after the game that it gave me the confidence to go anywhere in New York City to play in any tournament.”
None of the Queensbridge fans knew of Leon’s past or present. They didn’t know that his mom was gone in Florida and communicated infrequently with her son. They didn’t know that he dreaded going home to his father, whose old school method of discipline could lead to verbal and physical altercations between the two. They didn’t know the mountain of responsibilities that waited for him, with a family of seven other brothers and sisters. They didn’t know that he had secrets he was hiding from his family, his friends, and everyone close to him. But Leon probably wasn’t thinking about those things either. And that’s why he was playing basketball—street basketball. It took him to another place. Fans chanted his name as he fired away from two, three, four steps beyond the three-point line.
“[Basketball] has given me hope, it has given me life,” he repeats over and over again.
Now he’s a 20-year vet. A true New York City hooper who, this summer, played in six leagues and three tournaments. A shooter who once had 88 points and 22 threes in an indoor basketball league.
“He’s running the city now,” one of his streetball coaches, Andre “Show” Riviera, says. “He’s one of the top guards in New York City. […] When they see him now, [other teams] are like, ‘We’re in for a dog fight.’”
On this cloudless Thursday afternoon in early July, Leon has driven crosstown through the depths of New York City traffic for his summer basketball game on West 4th Street.
New York City is famous for its outdoor streetball leagues, attracting college players, overseas players and G-League players from around the country. Even NBA players, including Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant, have made a pit stop on the world’s most famous blacktops. That’s because if a player wants to earn the respect of New York basketball fans, regardless of their level, they have to show off their skills in the tight, physical, mean corridors of Dyckman, Rucker, Gersh or West 4th. These battles go on almost every night, all summer long, until a team limps out of the competition as champion.
Each court has its own identity. At Dyckman, for example, hundreds of fans stand shoulder to shoulder in the bleachers for the summer league games on a nightly basis. Someone gets their ankles broken at Dyckman? Fans are running on the court and banging on the bleachers. Camera crews are zooming in on the defeated player.
The Downtown Manhattan West 4th crowds are more subdued than at Dyckman. Still, it is one of the city’s most famous streetball courts. With the subway stop right next to the court, passerbyers stand outside of the gate to catch the day’s action. “The Cage,” as it is called, is small, without a corner three-point line, making the perimeter fence the out of bounds line. “It’s a gladiator game on a small court,” says Doc Velasquez, a sponsor for high school teams at the West 4th. “Guys learn how to play tough.”
An MC announces the game through a megaphone. Today, the MC just calls Leon, “Nick.” He may not be one of the many NBA players who stop by the court, but the MC doesn’t need to say more. Even if someone only casually follows street basketball, they know Nick.
Leon’s look complements his game. Although he is one of the smaller players on the court, his James Harden-like beard makes up for it. His arms are filled wall-to-wall with tattoos. It’s a look that gets Leon recognized off the court, as one of streetball’s premier players. This summer, he was shopping in Midtown, when he was stopped by a fan. “Aren’t you Nick at Night?” the fan asked.
On this day, Leon makes it clear from opening tip that, yes, he is Nick at Night. His team, however, is overmatched. It’s Leon’s job to keep them in the game. At Dyckman, Leon is more of a passer, but at West 4th, he flashes back to those days before college, those days when he was purely a scorer. Still, he doesn’t blow by anyone. He isn’t trying to chop defender’s ankles every possession. He’s poised, calm and collected, never seeming to let the speed of the game interrupt his controlled pace.
“It’s not a flashy kind of normal New York trickery, like circus kind of crossover,” Riviera says. “It’s just so basic. It’s more professional than the average guard from New York. […] Nick is not taking a million dribbles to get a shot off.”
“The Veteran,” one streetball MC calls him. Riviera calls him “Steve Nash.” Leon argues that, even if he doesn’t try to isolate his defender every time, fans appreciate his game. “If you play the game the right way, you can still entertain the fans,” he says.
And that, for Leon, is the goal, at least when he is on a New York City playground.
“Streetball is not organized. It’s simply for entertainment, getting your name out there, and playing against the best competition,” Leon says. “So when you step on that court and you’re not putting on a show? No one wants to watch you!”
To compensate for not being the most athletic guy on the floor, Leon learned how to shoot. That is how he earned his main streetball nickname, Nick at Night, from Fly Tie, the announcer at the Gersh summer league in Brooklyn. When the sun went down and the lights came on, Nick Leon started firing away.
“He’s what the NBA is now,” Riviera says. “He already had all of that, years ago—the shooting, three-point shooting. He has all that. That’s what he does in his sleep.”
It’s a jumpshot that Leon learned from playing with his cousin, already a respected player in the New York City streets. His dad, a boxer in the 1980s, gave him some basketball tips, but Leon’s relationship with both his dad and mom was always a little rocky.
His parents divorced when he was 3, but Leon can still remember their loud, sometimes violent fights. His mom left for Florida, but, Eddie, his dad, stayed home in Brooklyn and raised him. Eddie put food on the table, clothes on Nick’s back and encouraged his eldest son to do well in school. But the two still butted heads. The constant arguing drove a wedge between father and son. It was basketball—really, streetball—that gave Nick a place in the city.
It wasn’t only a jump shot that made noise in parks like Queensbridge and West 4th, but it was a jump shot that fit perfectly with his high school team, Abraham Lincoln, where Leon played with national sensations and future NBA players Sebastian Telfair and Lance Stephenson. Double teams converged on the stars, leaving Leon wide open for his trademark jumpshot, helping lead the Railsplitters to two city championships.
“That’s how I knew Nick, from the Sebastian Telfair documentary,” says Wesley Jenkins, his college teammate at St. Peter’s. “I always knew him as the Spanish kid with the white headband. […] Every time the Spanish kid got subbed into the game, he always hit clutch three-pointers every single time.”
Leon’s coach at St. Peter’s, John Dunne, who now coaches at Marist College, noticed Leon’s jumpshot right away too.
“I think sometimes a lot of quote-unquote, street players, they talk about New York City guards being able to put it down and drive it and get to the rim,” Dunne says. “But I feel like Nick, he had a really pure shot. He can really shoot the ball.”
During his first year at St. Peter’s, Leon would wake up in Brooklyn and hop on the D subway line. The subway took him to Penn Station, where he would transfer to the New Jersey Path Line. From there, he would cross over the bridge to Jersey City, dropping him off at a shuttle bus that would bring him to campus. After an hour and a half, Leon was finally at St. Peter’s College. Every morning for a year, this was Leon’s schedule. There and back. There and back. There and back.
But Leon didn’t have any time to worry about the commute—he had homework to get done. He needed a 3.5 GPA to stay in school. He couldn’t waste a down moment.
When Leon arrived at St. Peter’s in the fall of 2006, he was told he wasn’t eligible for his scholarship. His grades and SAT scores were too low. He was left with a decision: stay at St. Peter’s and pay $40,000 or transfer to a junior college somewhere in the South.
His father had just gone to jail for drug trafficking. His step-mom was taking care of his younger siblings. And who knows whether or not he would get his degree if he left school. He could make up the money in the future, he decided. Staying at St. Peter’s was his way to the next level, his way out.
So he sacrificed his first year of basketball at St. Peter’s. Instead he ran the St. Peter’s recreation center. He played New York City streetball. Anything to stay in shape and keep his mind from the mounting pile of school work and family drama that would meet him when he finished. Anything to feel that flow, that freedom, and to get the crowd to say his name.
Leon maintained a 3.5 GPA. He stayed at St. Peter’s. He took care of his family. And he got buckets in the streetball leagues. Maybe even too many.
When Leon arrived in the fall of 2007, he was antsy to put up some points as a redshirt freshman. But Dunne didn’t need another scorer. He needed a point guard, a true point guard.
“I was taking a guy who was a flat out scorer, shooter, in high school in New York City Public League where they’re just scoring the ball, going up and down,” Dunne says. “And you’re trying to make him into a point guard. He has to share the ball, get you into offense. And that is not an easy process.”
Leon slowly adjusted to life as a point guard, passing up shots and dishing out assists instead. Even during that transition, Leon remained the team’s best shooter, his teammate Jenkins, says. While he may have shed some of his streetball score-first tendencies, he still brought that showmanship, that toughness, that New York City streetball mentality to St. Peter’s.
“Nick definitely looked at the crowd, he was definitely an energized person,” Jenkins says. “He yells, he screams, he talks trash. That’s Nick. You gotta live with that.”
Dalip Bhatia, who was hired as an assistant coach at St. Peter’s in 2008 and still coaches with Dunne at Marist, saw Leon’s New York City basketball roots in a different light. “He came with that tough minded, hard nosed, street mentality. […] I think it transformed and rubbed off on to his teammates. That physical toughness that no one is gonna push you around,” Bhatia says.
Leon still found ways to make the game fun, even in the more structured college basketball. He didn’t entertain the crowd by trying to go for 50, but by coming off down-screens and nailing a three. By threading the needle on a well-executed pick-and-roll.
During his freshman year, Leon started 27 games as St. Peter’s finished 6-24. By his senior year, with Leon firmly established as the team’s point guard, they were conference champions for the first time in 14 years. That earned the Peacocks a ticket to the Big Dance as a 14-seed, matching up with a nationally-ranked Purdue team.
There was so much to plan for March Madness. The trip. The practices. The scouting. Leon was in Dunne’s office discussing the details when his phone rang. It was reporter Ian Begley from ESPN’s New York office. Leon went back to his room and returned the call. Begley wanted to know about the New York City boy, and how he had helped the team achieve history. But Leon stopped him right there.
“You know what Ian?” Leon remembers saying. “This is all great, us making history and you wanting to do a story on our team. But I have an even better story.”
For the previous 15 years, Leon had held in a deep, dark secret. A secret that he had left in Florida when he had lived with his mom for about two years. The story of a man, a family friend, who had molested him. His father knew some minor details, but not a single other person in his life knew—not his coaches, teammates or family members. Leon felt it was finally time to put his story out in the open, beneath the bright lights of March Madness.
Begley, who came for a basketball story, left with a much more sensitive topic. He called extra sources and made sure his details were spot on. This wasn’t a story for artistic freedom.
“I just remember wanting to make sure he was comfortable relaying this story to the public,” Begley says.
But Leon wanted to help those in a similar situation. What better outlet than the country’s premier sports media source? He didn’t want it to just reach New York City, he wanted it to reach people in North Carolina and California and Puerto Rico. Ultimately, Leon knew that being good at basketball, and streetball, wasn’t enough. He could make a bigger impact, put on a different and more important kind of show. Begley called the act “selfless.”
“I was very impressed by his courage to share what he shared,” Begley adds. For this very reason, Begley says the story stuck with him for years to come.
For Leon, it was a way for him to escape the things holding him down, to get out from under the shadows and into the open, like basketball and streetball had done for him.
“After so many years I felt so relieved and I felt like the weight just came off my shoulders,” Leon says.
St. Peter’s fell to Purdue 65-43, but professional teams came calling. It wasn’t long until he was traveling around the world, from Puerto Rico to Costa Rica to Mexico to Columbia to Chile, and now, to the Domincan Republic. But he still had to keep his name alive in New York City. And so, during any off moment he had, any day he was off, he found his way to the blacktops.
Nick Leon is fashionably late to the interview. His black Jordans step out of the Mercedes Benz and into the hip Times Square Mexican restaurant. His blue, floral patterned shirt is half buttoned, showing off the gold chain dangling from his neck. Leon is already losing some hair, but no one in the restaurant can tell with a top hat covering his head.
He talks faster than he plays, skirting from one point to the next, his hands darting across his body. He speaks with emphasis and inflection. It’s a far cry from his patient and methodical basketball game.
Leon leaves the US just as quickly as he speaks. Three days after meeting in the Times Square restaurant, a team in San Francisco de Macoris, Dominican Republic called. The owner wanted the sharp shooting point guard to run their team. Leon had to decide if he wanted to go.
He thought about his father, who, in this past year, had been diagnosed with ALS. At the time of his diagnosis, Eddie and Nick spoke so little that Nick received the news through his step-mother. In 2015, his mother passed away from diabetes. Four years later, Nick is going through the same experience with his dad and he is ready to put all of their past arguments aside. With Eddie having only a few years to live, Nick and his father have mended their wounds, wounds that had Nick running to the basketball courts. They are finally starting to have the relationship that Nick had long hoped for and it brings tears to his eyes. Nick wasn’t sure if he was ready to leave that behind.
And then there were his jobs. His acting. His modeling. His job as a film director, editor and social media manager for a mortgage company. There’s his community work, too—like speaking to kids at foster homes or creating a charity for ALS. Was he just going to drop all of that too?
And then, to top it all off, it was the middle of streetball playoffs. He had spent six days a week, all summer, hoping for the opportunity to add another trophy to his streetball championship case. What about all of the fans who loved watching him nail three after three? What about the streetball reputation he had to maintain?
He decided he couldn’t pass up the opportunity. A day after receiving the call, he was off to the Domincan Republic. By the first game in early August, he was dropping 28 points and 6 assists. He called his dad to update him on every games.
Of course, he missed streetball, too. He knows, though, that his 31-year-old self made the right decision. As loud as Nick Leon’s name may ring out on the New York City courts, streetball is not the end-all-be-all for Leon. He showed it when St. Peter’s took his scholarship away. He showed it when Dunne needed a point guard. He showed it when ESPN‘s Ian Begley called. Nick Leon always has one step higher to climb, one more goal to meet. And now it was time to make that climb again.
Sure, streetball has helped shape Leon’s life, from his showmanship to his fearlessness to his swag. And of course he’s a streetball legend. But as much fun as it is, he doesn’t want his life to be defined by it. He wants to get his charities off the ground. He wants to be able to support his family. Leon has gotten to the level where he is compensated for his play in the streetball leagues. Whether that is gas money, toll money, or even straight up getting paid, if Leon is going to bang up his body playing on the blacktops, he wants to get something out of it. But the real money comes when Leon steps foot on a plane, explores a new location overseas, and gets some buckets along the way.
Still, Leon thought of streetball as he sat in the Dominican Republic. When he found strong WiFi, he caught a glimpse of fans storming the court at Dyckman, of players scoring 40 points in “The Cage,” of teams winning playoff games in front of hundreds of fans at Gersh.
“If I’m home, I love playing street basketball,” Leon says. “But if I have the opportunity to make money and play professionally and send money to my family if they need it, guess what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna [play professionally]. I might not get the recognition back home, but my family is gonna love me for it. My family is gonna love the fact that when they need something I have the ability to give it to them.”
On August 21, Leon’s team fell, failing to capture his first, elusive professional ring. Two days later, as early as possible, he was on a plane back to New York City. He had a streetball championship in the upper Harlem based Uptown Basketball Alliance (UBA) league to perform in.
Five hours after landing, Leon was back home, hoisting a championship and MVP trophy. He couldn’t let them forget. Nick Leon puts on the best shows in New York City.
Benjamin Simon is an intern at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminSimon05.