A MOMENT IN BLACK HISTORY: PLAYGROUND BASKETBALL D. O. A.

ESPN.COM by Myron Medcalf & Dana O’Neil

The two ESPN writers covered the hotbeds for playground basketball in America in a July 2014 blog titled, “Playground Basketball is Dead.” The hotbeds covered were in New York, Philadelphia, L. A., Chicago, and Baltimore/Washington, DC.

Melvin Roberts seen in this photo at his crab house on the DC/Maryland line preparing crabs for fans and players for his popular summer basketball league. The Big M Trotter Tournament was played on a basketball court built and designed by him next to the crab house.
Melvin seen here hosting the trophy for the winning team in the Big M Trotters Tournament summer basketball league.

Once an American staple, hoops on blacktops across the United States has all but faded away.

AT RUCKER PARK       

in New York the birth place of playground basketball, people sat on rooftops and climbed trees to watch Julius Erving play. In Louisville, Kentucky, Artis Gilmore would pull up in his fancy car, still wearing his fancy suits, and just ball. Arthur Agee chased his hoop dreams in Chicago. The Philadelphia outdoor courts once boasted a who’s who of the city’s best ballers, and in Los Angeles, playground legends with names such as Beast, Iron Man and Big Money Griff played on the same concrete as Magic and Kobe. That was then, a then that wasn’t all that long ago. Now? Now the courts are empty, the nets dangling by a thread. The crowds that used to stand four deep are gone, and so are the players. Once players asked “Who’s got next?” Now the question is “Anyone want to play?” And the answer seems to be no, at least not here, not outside.

It once didn’t matter who played, just that there was a game to watch. Holcombe Rucker, the director at what was then known as P.S. 156, started a basketball tournament in 1947. There were no grand plans, just a hope to give kids something positive to do. Bob McCullough was one of the kids he took care of, the two growing so close that McCullough joked that Rucker’s wife, Mary, thought “I was his hidden son.” Rucker died of cancer in 1965, and McCullough, was just finishing up his degree and career at Benedict College in South Carolina.

He took over his mentor’s duties. He added to Rucker’s new semipro/pro division, making things a little fancier by supplying the players with uniforms. Before long, Rucker became the place to play, but fans weren’t just drawn by the likes of Dr. J; they came to see playground legends, too, guys such as Fred Brown and Earl “The Goat” Manigault. At this year’s opening celebration, Brown stood outside the gates of Rucker in apair of linen khaki slacks and a tan shirt. Still fit and trim, Brown had no plans to play that day, but he was happy to be back — back on the court where he made a name for himself. “People didn’t care if you were 20, 30 or 50; if you loved the game, you played, and people respected you for it,” Brown said. “Now it’s more commercial. It’s about individuals. People want to see certain players. We came to watch the games.”

WHAT HAPPEN?

Basketball was made for the playground. Yet the game is disappearing, leaving a hole — in the playgrounds and in our hearts.

IN WASHINGTON, DC

NBA Hall of Fame player the late MOSES MALONE , as legend has it, played one game in a Big M Trotters tournament and was named MVP. Ernie Graham, the Maryland star, cut his teeth in those tournament games. It was at the Big M that legendary Georgetown coach John Thompson discovered Ed Spriggs, the man who spent his senior season toughening up a spindly freshman by the name of Patrick Ewing. The M in Big M stood for Melvin, as in Melvin Roberts, the man who sponsored the tournaments and built the court at 700 Eastern Ave., just over the Maryland border from D.C. To make things easy for himself, Roberts built the court adjacent to his business, Melvin’s Crabhouse. And so on a summer evening, folks could gather to watch local legends all while enjoying the local delicacy for dinner. “There were people all over the place, music, good crabs to eat — it was like a cookout,” said Graham, who used to drive in from Baltimore. “Teams from all over would come.” That a basketball court ended up next to a seafood joint, built by a business owner who was more civic leader than entrepreneur, it said everything you need to know about the once-vibrant playground basketball history in this area.

From Baltimore’s Dome (aka Madison Square), to the King Dome in Seat Pleasant, Maryland, to the Goodman League in D.C., to Melvin’s, it wasn’t a matter of finding a game; it was about deciding which spot had that night’s best run. During the day, those same courts teemed with young kids pretending they were the old heads they had watched play the night before. Now those courts, much like the leagues, are quiet. Back when Kevin Durant was a skinny, 13-year-old kid, his godfather and mentor, Taras Brown, took him to the King Dome, at the corner of Addison and Sheriff in Road in Seat Pleasant (in walking distant of Melvin’s Crab House ). As Brown saw it, “He needed to go where the pole didn’t move and everybody played physical because nobody wanted to fall down.” On a recent, sunny, June afternoon, that same playground was deserted. Melvin’s Crab House and the basketball court are all gone, too. The business closed eight years ago, and the property, along with the basketball court, was put up for sale. Roberts passed away in January 2011.

“That’s gone now, all of it is gone,” said former University of Maryland star Ernie Graham, who honed his game on the playgrounds of D.C. and Baltimore. There is no single cause. 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 credit. Violence has chased people off playgrounds and out of parks, and NBA and NCAA rules limit when and where guys can play in the offseason.

Graham said. “I have a 22-year-old son [Jonathan, a senior at Maryland], and he’s never to my knowledge played outside. I know these younger guys think we’re hating on them, but they had to experience what we did to appreciate why it was so special. And they never will.” For the most part, the culprit here is no different from anywhere else — AAU tournaments pulling kids away in the summer, college players spending time on campus, neighborhood violence spilling onto the courts — but the real killer of playground hoops in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area is apathy.

There are fewer people selfless and dedicated enough to run the games, and consequently the games are literally dying with the passing of aging organizers. In Baltimore, for example, the Cloverdale Baltimore Basketball Association at Reservoir Hill shuttered with the passing of Lorenzo “Mike” Plater, who ran the league until his death at age 79, two years ago. What’s left is an era holding on for its last breath.

Two strong-willed men are keeping two leagues alive in DC — Jeff Johnson at the Watts League in the Northeast section of D.C. and Miles Rawls at the Goodman League on the Southeast side — but will they help rejuvenate the playground scene or simply serve as its pallbearers? “We’re not going to die out,” Johnson said. “Won’t let that happen.”

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image.png
Kids In Trouble, Inc. tries to keep hope alive with NBA Hall of Fame player Sam Jones, former NBA player Adrian Branch and HBell, hold a basketball clinic at Watts Branch playground in NE DC.
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Dave Bing is a NBA Hall of Fame player and a native Washingtonian. He is also a Watts playground legend. Dave invited DC Public High school All-Stars to his basketball camp in the Poconos Mountains.

Miles, has seen what the league can do for the area: According to a Washington Post story , there were zero crimes committed within 100 feet of the court in 2011, compared with 165 crimes 1,000 feet away — but he might be the only stopgap between the Goodman’s existence and extinction.​”Without Miles, there is no Goodman League,” said Mac Williams, coach of Team Ullico. And even Rawls might not be enough. The city has big plans for the Barry Farm area. Although currently stalled, there are plans for an area revitalization to include retail shops, a Metro stop and new housing — perhaps even where the basketball court currently sits. Even if the court itself isn’t dug up, a neighborhood changeover could significantly alter things and it has.

In 2021 the Goodman League has given way to gentrification; the process whereby the character of a poor urban area is changed by wealthier white people moving in, improving housing, and attracting new businesses , typically displacing current black inhabitants in the process by pricing them out making them expendable as red-lining continues by their local banks.

The black population has been joined by a brown population (hispanics) who compete for the same space (jobs and housing) making it more difficult for blacks to survive. The brown population is willing to work for less and live 10 and 12 to a two bedroom apartment. When Black Americans balk at these new concessions, they are labled lazy and wanting something for nothing and told to go back to Africa. Lost in the process it is easily forgotten Black Americans (slaves) were the ones who help build this nation. The promise of 40 Acres and Mule for their slave labor to our ancestors is yet to be kept. An “Even Playing Field” has become a figment of our imagination.

I remember a meeting in 1978 in the NBA New York City league office. I was a Nike rep with NBA Nike Shoe rep, John Phillips. John and Nike had organized an All-Star Game in 1977 in the Bahamas, the home of 1978 L. A. Laker Mychal Thompson. He was their No. 1 draft choice. In the meeting was Ron Thorne, NBA VP of Player Personnel, Gary Bettman, NBA attorney and Horace Broman, NBA Security. The problem, the NBA was not happy with their players playing in pick up basketball All-Star games on playgrounds and other sites they did not control. John was planning a follow-up charity game in the Bahamas that summer with Mychal Thompson returning home to the Bahamas, that was until he was summonded to the meeting.

There was no NBA Player Association rep in attendance to represent the players. The meeting started out well until John question the validity of the league barring players from participating in all-start games in the off-season. Everyone voiced their opinion and John held his own, saying he thought the process was unfair to the players and the fans. Gary Bettman got frustrated and said, “It has nothing to do with being fair, because we own the players!” I had been very quiet until then, I stood up and said, “What the hell is this a plantation?” All hell broke loose with yelling and screaming back and forth, Thorne banged on the table and said, “Time Out for lunch and we will meet back here.” They never came back and playground basketball has never been the same.

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