Harlem’s Holcombe Rucker

November 6, 2011

Holcombe Rucker was born on March 2, in 1926, in Harlem, NY at 141st Street & Bradhurst Avenue by his grandmother, Rosa Deniston. Rucker went on to play guard at Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem before dropping out to serve for the United States Army during World War II.

In 1946, he returned home to Harlem, New York at 20 years old with maturity, responsibility, and an urgency to finish where he left off. Upon his homecoming, Rucker earned his General Equivalency High School Diploma (GED).

Holcombe Rucker was a playground Director in Harlem for the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation from 1948 to 1964.

In addition to his Director duties, Rucker worked at St. Philips Church on 134th Street, and started a basketball tournament in a community center at 134th St between 7th and 8th Ave. The tournament helped to keep kids off the street and out of trouble through life lessons.

Holcombe Rucker had a vision. He started to schedule games against other teams from other playgrounds, despite resistance from the Parks Department. He also would go into his own pockets to fund the tournament with support from local Harlem residents, like John Hunter who contributed to travel expenses, jerseys, and other necessary items.

“Each One, Teach One”

The following year, in 1947, he met a young woman named Mary Thomas, whom a friend asked Rucker to take to a Billie Holiday show in Harlem at Small’s Paradise Club on 135th St. & 7th Ave. His friend had prior arrangements. Although Rucker himself had a date that night too, he generously accepted his friend’s wishes. Holcombe’s original date came into the place and saw Rucker with Mary, so she just sat somewhere else. Mary Thomas thought of Rucker that evening as a ‘real nice guy.’ Eight months later, they were married.

In 1949, Rucker moved his basketball tournament to the St. Nicholas Houses playground on 128th St & 7th Ave. The park would double-up as his office and meeting place, where people, whether they liked basketball or not, would come to Rucker for advice and words of wisdom. The word was that he spent more than half his day–thirteen to fifteen hours–at the park, beginning around 8:30 am. He even ate dinner there, which consisted of his favorite meal–Chinese food, vegetables with rice and brown gravy and was followed by a cup of coffee and a cigarette.

His “Each One, Teach One” motto caught onto the tournament name and main slogan. The program stressed education with the idea that after learning something, each person would teach another person.

Over the years, Holcombe Rucker would help youth to obtain over 700 intercollegiate athletic scholarships. In 1962, Rucker would prove the importance of education and enrolled at the Community (City) College of New York (CCNY). While taking night classes, Holcombe took his work ethic and thirst for education and completed a four-year bachelor of arts degree in only three years! He used the degree to teach English at Junior High School 139 in Harlem.

In 1965, Holcombe Rucker passed due to cancer complications at the young age of 38 years old. Before he died, Rucker would set the standard for years to come. His local league was changed into a nationally known summer tournament featuring NBA players, such as Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnet, Ron Artest and Vince Carter.

Eventually the Pro Rucker League was moved to 155th St and 8th Ave (Frederick Douglass Ave). On February 23, 1956, the park–known as P.S. 156– opened, which was formerly known as the site of the Polo Grounds. In 1974, a local law through the New York City Council changed the court name to Holcombe Rucker Playground.

Rucker attended City College of New York and graduated in 1962 with a degree in Education. He went on to teach English at J.H.S. 139 before he died of cancer in 1965 at age 38.

In 1974 the city renamed P.S. 156 Playground, located at 155th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, as Holcombe Rucker Playground in dedication to his community efforts. Rucker’s basketball tournament had moved there in 1965, and Holcombe Rucker Basketball Court — now arguably the most famous street court in the world — remains a proving ground for the world’s most talented players.

The court would be the site of three films, “Above the Rim,” “On Hallowed Ground,” and documentary, “The Real.” Two tournaments, the “Each One, Teach One” Tournament (later Pro Rucker League) and the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic (EBC) with Greg Marius would be the main tournaments played at 155th throughout the years. Today, Holcombe’s legacy continues with his grandson Chris who started the Rucker clothing line and includes sneakers, shirts, and more basketball apparel.

As a final tribute to Rucker, in 1993, Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger sponsored a $423,000 renovation of the playground through the Neighborhood Park Improvement Plan (NPIP). The playground now contains a playground with swings, safety surfacing, a spray shower, a flagpole with yardarm, four handball courts, a baseball diamond, and more known the basketball court with stadium lights and bleachers.

Chris Rucker, Holcombe’s grandson, currently continues the family tradition at Rucker Park with the Rucker Pro-Am, a men’s division summer basketball league. He is currently trying to have Rucker enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as a contributor to the game of basketball. His other grandson, Darius, is a country music star who is the former lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish.

Holcombe Rucker is also known for his efforts in mentoring Earl “The Goat” Manigault some go as far to say that if he did not pass away so early Manigault may have been an NBA legend.

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