THE NIGHT KOBE CAME TO THE RUCKER
When I heard the sad news about Kobe Bryant, I didn’t think of his five championships, 20 seasons or some magical nights at The Garden.
I thought of the night when Kobe came to The Rucker.
Rucker Park in Harlem is the most famous schoolyard court in New York, the country and perhaps the world. It’s great to have success at The Garden, the world’s most famous arena. But generations of real New York basketball fans have asked the same question: can you play up at The Rucker? It is a place perfectly suited for the phrase “the stuff of legend” because The Rucker is all about stories, often embellished. A veritable oral living history of The City Game. It’s where the Doctor, Julius Erving, came to play. Same for members of the 1969-1970 Knicks. And the schoolyard legends: Joe Hammond, Earl “The Goat” Manigault, Pee Wee Kirkland and so many more.
Which brings us to Kobe. And Hannibal.
I was at The Rucker on a summer night in 2002. I was there doing a feature story for MSG Network on the announcers at The Rucker. Their schtick was great…a constant stream of opinion and nicknames and inside jokes and fashion advice and not so constructive criticism. A basketball borscht belt bonanza as we watched the beautiful game unfold on this sacred piece of New York real estate.
I saw a friend who worked for the NBA at the time. She approached and said something like “I guess you’re here because you know who is arriving a bit later.” I have the worst poker face. If I tried to lie, I’d be found out in mere seconds. So I pleaded ignorance, which wasn’t hard to do since I had no idea what she was talking about. I fessed up. “I’m here to do a story on the announcers. But now that you mention it, who’s coming?” And she told me.
I don’t remember there being an official announcement that Kobe Bryant would soon be entering the park. But suddenly, The Rucker, already filled to the brim, got even more crowded. More security too. And a certain buzz started to make its way through the crowd, as if something big were about to happen. A pre-Game 7 buzz on a summer night at The Rucker.
We heard him before we saw him. The music was blaring. The entourage was big. The security ring tight. Kobe entered The Rucker like the heavyweight champion of the world. You know… with the guys running in before him with the equivalent of the belt that goes to the champ. Which Kobe was in 2002. A three time NBA champion.
And the place went nuts.
I was a little young to be at Shea Stadium when The Beatles arrived in 1965. But I covered a few thousand Knick playoff games in the 1990’s, back when the Knicks used to make the playoffs (obligatory New York cheap shot). And I was there at the old Chicago Stadium when the Bulls introduction of the starting lineup was sports show biz at its best. And loudest. When the Chicago PA announcer said “and at guard, from North Carolina…” From there, forget it. You couldn’t hear yourself think and you certainly could not hear the name Michael Jordan.
But I have never heard anything like the sound that I heard that night at The Rucker.
Which brings us to Hannibal.
Hannibal was one of the announcers at The Rucker. Given name? Not important. He was Hannibal. To say that Hannibal was a Kobe fan and a Lakers fan was akin to saying that Einstein knew something about science. And it was not subtle. Hannibal was draped from head to toe in Lakers garb and only too happy to tell New York about his love affair with the team from LA. Endlessly. And loudly.
And then his basketball hero showed up. And for a moment, Hannibal was speechless. I’d only seen the man in action that one night, and yet I understood that speechless and Hannibal didn’t often go together. But he was speechless. Emotional. Overwhelmed. Not to worry, Hannibal soon found his voice again as Kobe took to the court and prepared to play. I seem to recall Hannibal mentioning something about Kobe’s place among the NBA galaxy of stars. As in, at the top. He may have mentioned it once or a hundred times. And as we got closer to game time came the constant refrain from Hannibal: “let’s do the damned thing.”
And then Kobe played. And he played hard. Seemed that way to me. All I could think was, do the Lakers know he’s out here? And what if he tears an ACL tonight? Sure, the street cred of playing at The Rucker is great, but is it worth blowing out a knee? While I engaged in this internal conversation, Kobe held nothing back. One on 1. Going up and over and around would be defenders, even rolling one dribble off a defender’s backside. Driving to the hoop and kissing reverse layups off the glass. He was Kobe. And it was extraordinary.
By 2002, I had grown somewhat cynical about so many aspects of the world of sports. And truth be told, on this memorable night, I briefly wondered if Kobe was there because of a shoe contract obligation. But I was smart enough to catch myself before too long. “Who cares why he’s here. He’s here!”
After Kobe left and the crowd and the buzz started to fade and the stories started to be told, I approached another of The Rucker announcers, Boobie Smooth. I asked him some variation of my Joe Journalism “what does this mean” question. His answer wiped away any shred of cynicism that I may have had that night. He looked at me kindly and essentially said “these kids will probably never get a chance to see Kobe Bryant play up close and personal at The Garden. Tonight they had that chance.” Beautiful.
The night Kobe came to The Rucker. A happy memory at a sad time.
Budd Mishkin is a broadcast journalist and covered sports in New York for many years.