Rucker means many things to many different people. The impact of the Rucker 50 Event Series Weekend, which happened in August, celebrating legends of the game was attended by Emmette Bryant, Hawthorne Wingo, Joe Hammond, Pee Wee Kirkland and so many others was appropriately stellar.
“Kool DJ Red Alert”, the second Staff DJ after Pete DJ Jones, performed for us live. There was a marching band. NBA Cares did a clinic and so did State Farm. Local restaurant Prime One 16 hosted a press conference and the player reception.
When you try and quantify or measure something like a basketball tournament and its impact over 50 years, you could contemplate whether to assess the exciting footage shown in some celebrated documentary in a film festival or a star studded line-up of NBA legends and streetball legends and their stories told on HBO or ESPN. For me, Holcombe Rucker, the man was life and death. See if it wasn’t for Rucker, I would have never been born. So I partied with these men like they were my family.
My father, Bob McCullough Sr, was guided by Rucker on a path of educational, career and life successes that were life changing. After a neighborhood block war was interrupted by police from the 32nd precinct, my father threw his weapon of choice (a hatchet) down in one of the 133rd street cellars. The police then told him to get what he threw down there and bring it back up.
He proceeded down and innocently came up with his house keys. A patrolman came back with a hatchet. Bob adamantly denied it was his. Left alone in the squad car while others were rounded up, he had a decision facing him; get out of the squad car and escape to his nearby home on that same street or stay? He stayed in the car choosing to take whatever was facing him.
This decision would ultimately be one of his best decisions during those young mischievous years. Bob would later appear in court, and have Holcombe Rucker stand up for him there. Rucker was a man Bob had only heard about because he saw Alfie Glover, one of the older guys that played for Rucker, sporting a “St. C” (St. Phillips) Jacket. This, other than his father taking him to see the Harlem Globetrotters at Madison Square Garden, was his first brush with basketball. Both former Globetrotters, Bobby Hunter and the New York Knicks/MSG were also involved in the Rucker 50 celebrations, doing displays and clinics.
Emerging a NYC top ballplayer, elected officials of the City and State of New York; Rangel, Diblasio, Perkins, Wright, Stringer, Rodriguez and Harlem’s own Council member Dickens honored this place because of a kid who almost never made it after this next hiccup.
Wiley College was Bob’s first collegiate experience. Wiley was the home of the “Great Debaters.” yet Bob’s New York pride led him to having two fights with big Texans who attended that school. Let’s just say Bob was considered the threat.
After getting home, former gang leaders wanted to fight him for coming back after making it out. But Bob had started working in the New York City Department of Parks with Rucker. He really just wanted to play ball. Rucker came to the rescue again, telling Bob he wasn’t allowed to stay in New York. Rucker sent him to Benedict College in Columbia, SC, where Ernie Morris would be.
It was here that his gratitude swelled. The ousting from Wiley woke him up. Considering how far he had come from hatchet fights and worse (they used to make pipe guns in the basement). It dawned on him after coming back that he needed to focus on his opportunity.
The Benedict experience was a fairytale. For those years, Benedict became a powerhouse in the NAIA, eventually being the national scoring champs averaging 101.2 points per game in 1964. Here he would meet my mother Mary before basketball fame, where they made a pact to be excellent students.
In 1965, his senior year, Bob would become the second leading scorer in the nation, trumped only by Rick Barry who would go on to win a Championship with the Warriors. Later that year, Bob would be drafted by the Cincinnati Royals, the team with Oscar Robertson played on. So to put it into perspective for you youngsters; it was like Kyrie Irving getting drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Big O was the LeBron James of that day and Bob, who averaged 36.4 points per game, (no typo) put it up like Kyrie.
March, that same year, Holcombe Rucker had passed. Bob knew Rucker would never get to see him in the NBA. Bob was devastated. Yet instead of being paralyzed, he would do what Rucker did. Serve. He knew the enormous stakes for guys like him who didn’t have a place to play pro ball. Each One Teach One was his effort to reach youth. The Rucker Pro League/Rucker Pro/Harlem Pro League/Rucker Pro Tournament would bring fame to men who all gathered for the 50th Anniversary of the celebration Rucker’s and Bob McCullough’s efforts.
For me, the life never promised is what I cherish, especially knowing my father’s past and the statistics of kids like him who don’t make it out. So on the opening night we screened a film highlighting The Rucker’s creation at the height of the Civil Rights Movement called #RUCKER50 because my life is lived grateful for 50 years of Rucker. Having lived 47 of which were never promised all due to Rucker’s use of the basketball a whistle and a stop watch.
Photos courtesy of Thomas ‘Junior’ Hickman, Valerie Johnson and Lamaka Opa