It’s no secret that the relationship between hip hop and sports has been one consisting of multiple layers and dimensions. The culture has shown up and shown out within nearly every professional sports association; however, basketball is at the top of the hierarchy. Right there at the heart of it all stands Rucker Park – more affectionately known as The Rucker. Nestled in the heart of Harlem, the park helped to launch the careers of some of basketball’s biggest stars including Julius Erving, Wilt Chamberlain, and streetball legends Pee Wee Kirkland and Earl Manigault.
Established in 1956, it was renamed in 1974 in honor of Holcombe Rucker, a local teacher and a playground director for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Seeking an outlet for inner city children to avoid the pitfalls of street life, Holcombe started a pro-am tournament back in 1950. The event began on a playground on 7th Avenue between 128th and 129th streets and skyrocketed in popularity, becoming known as the Rucker Tournament. Games would start in the morning and go well into the night, attracting NBA players and the city’s top teams. Streetball, as it was known at the time, involved a dynamic of play not seen at the professional level back then. Many features of today’s NBA games, such as crossovers and slam dunks, were born in the Rucker League.
Through the traction of the league, Holcombe was able to establish relationships with college recruiters and programs. He parlayed this into scholarships for more than 700 student-athletes. Committed to education, his motto of “Each one, teach one” remains the mantra of the park. It also serves as the name of a charity that aims to “create a safe environment where greater New York City Metro residents, most notably inner-city youth (K-12), can be nurtured and prepared through workshops to pursue higher education as well as lifetime fitness.” Not only educational, the Rucker League was also entertainment at its finest and attracted celebrities in the music and film industries. You see, at The Rucker, everyone was equal. No one was excluded from the cheers or immune to the criticism. In other words, “Anybody could get it.” It was that aura and attitude that pitted NBA stars like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Chamberlain against local talent like Manigault. Many a streetball legend cut their teeth at the court at Rucker Park. The pro vs. Joe premise began to decrease going into the 1980s, as NBA contracts increased and players did not want to risk injury.
Enter Greg Marius, a young rapper going by the name Greg G with the group Disco Four. Not only was his pen game impressive as a part of Rooftop Records; he could also hoop. At 6’5″, he played for St. John’s University while in college. The year was 1982 and his group decided to challenge their rivals, Crash Crew, to a basketball game during a live radio show hosted by the legendary Mr. Magic. What was born was the Entertainers Basketball Classic (EBC). Initially, games were between rival hip hop crews, but they grew beyond anything Marius could have imagined, at least at that time. The tournament started at Marcus Garvey Park and moved to Rucker Park in 1987. Before camera phones, social media, and YouTube, Marius and his partner Gusto sold highlights on VHS tapes out of Entertainers Store on 153rd Street.
As time went on, through corporate sponsorships, Marius was able to attract top talent back to the basketball mecca. This is where hip hop factored in heavily. With rap surging in popularity in the 1990s, five-figure sponsorships from record labels began to pour into EBC. Labels such as Def Jam, Uptown, and Cold Chillin’ had Rucker squads. It became as much a badge of honor as Cuban links and herringbone chains. As a parallel, pulling up to the park gave people a chance to floss. Street dudes were elbow to elbow with some of the top entertainers and hoopers of the time with very few instances of conflict. “No weapons, no cameras” were the house rules.
Not only were the crème de la crème playing in the EBC; the league was moving the needle in hip hop as well by helping labels break new artists and records. Never skipping a capitalistic opportunity, the tournament was attractive to corporations, as they knew inroads to the urban community went through the EBC. In the tournament’s 20th season, it hosted Former President Bill Clinton, along with former and current NBA Commissioners David Stern and Adam Silver. They were joined by Stephon Marbury. This was an ordinary day at the park — Secret Service clearance right alongside ROCAWEAR, durags, and urban culture. It was a phenomenon the world had never seen, the perfect blend of B-boy, basketball, and business.
Even with the growth, the EBC remained true to its roots and almost served as the platform for what would’ve been the greatest show at The Rucker if not for a citywide blackout. Back in 2003, JAY-Z and Fat Joe were competing to be the King of New York – on Billboard, in business, and in basketball. The competition heated up with both trying to lure top talent to their EBC teams. Joe’s Terror Squad boasted Carmelo Anthony, Jermaine O’Neal, Zach Randolph, Shawn Marion, Stephen Jackson, and Marbury. Team S. Carter featured Lamar Odom, Sebastian Telfair, Kenyon Martin, LeBron James, and Jamal Crawford. As the Aug. 14 date neared, both men continued to stack their rosters, constantly seeking to one-up each other. It was just as much about business as basketball. JAY-Z stepped away from his tour just to appear at The Rucker for the EBC with Beyoncé and Steve Stoute seated by him on the sidelines. Rumors swirled about last-minute roster shakeups.
“The surprise I did have waiting at 57th Street was Mike Bibby and Allen Iverson when they were playing for the U.S. Team,” Joe disclosed on “All the Smoke.” “By the first quarter, I was going to drive down to go get them and come back at The Rucker, so at halftime A.I. and Mike Bibby would walk in.” Not one to be outdone, JAY-Z arranged for Shaquille O’Neal to pull up at the last minute for the ultimate cheat code. With both teams headed to the park and tens of thousands in attendance, the power went out.
While the world may never know what the outcome of the game would have been, we do know the brilliance of Marius is what set the stage for it to even be a possibility. Over 30 years after its creation, the tournament is still going strong, continuing to enrich the legacy that is Rucker Park. In 2011, Kevin Durant pulled up and dropped 66 points.
Sadly, Marius passed away in 2017 after a battle with cancer. A few months later, then-New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio dedicated the court at Rucker Park to him. In 2021, Harlem’s A$AP Ferg partnered with the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation to perform $520,000 in renovations, which included a new scoreboard, backboards, rims and bleacher installations.
JAY-Z is known as a unicorn able to seamlessly dominate the corporate world while staying true to his culture – a corporate hustler if you will. But before Shawn Carter, there was Greg Marius. He played matchmaker between basketball and hip hop, and the marriage is still going strong.
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