NYC: Playground Basketball Mecca

By Jonathan Candelaria

As the hot New York City sun beams down on the asphalt, sweat glistens off the bodies of street warriors battling through each possession, gliding through the air with seemingly no end, contorting their bodies to fit through the smallest spaces, all to put the ball in the basket and obtain the coveted win.

Winning isn’t just an objective in New York City, it’s a culture. Winning yields respect and respect makes the playground basketball world turn. The center and capital of this proverbial playground basketball world is none other than New York City.

“New York basketball is the best basketball; it is flashy, gritty, and one of the kind,” says Stefan Gosa, 21-year-old street baller from the Bronx. Gosa isn’t alone in his thinking either, New York City has been dubbed the Mecca of Basketball and has continued to live up to its name for decades.

After producing basketball greats such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kenny Anderson, Earl Manigault, Nate “Tiny” Archibald, Bob Cousy, Bernard King and Pee Wee Kirkland, New York’s reputation speaks for itself.

Streetballers locked in at the Cage on West 4th in Manhattan, NY.

As early as the 1900s, street basketball was an important part of the black community, with teams such as the Harlem Renaissance (Rens) traveling across the country to play against all-white street ball teams. Street basketball held such a prominent place in the black community because, at that time, blacks were not allowed to play in organized leagues.

Street ball gave them an outlet and began to produce results as many of the cities top players began enrolling in historic Black colleges and made the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) one of the strongest conferences in the country.

In 1946, Holcombe Rucker, then an employee of the New York City Parks Department, decided to start a summer basketball tournament for the kids in Harlem. At the time, Mr. Rucker was just trying to help keep the kids off the streets, but as the tournament continued to flourish, it saw the likes of Wilt Chamberlain and Julius “Dr. J” Erving gracing the Rucker courts in Harlem.

As more black players began to surface in organized basketball and even the NBA, Rucker Park became a stage for the most talented players in the world to showcase their skills every summer.

Street basketball is more than a flashy game and a ticket out of the ghetto for some, however. “Basketball is my life,” says Stefan Gosa. “It kept me out of trouble for most of my life, so you can say basketball kind of kept me alive.”

Ramfis Cabrera throws down a dunk in the Bronx, NY.

Basketball and other after school activities help many kids these days stay out of trouble and on track. According to a study done by Public Agenda, a non-partisan and non-profit public opinion research and public engagement organization, “Seventy-nine percent of America’s middle and high school students regularly participate in activities, both after school and on weekends, and 57% have some kind of non-school activity nearly every day.” Sixty-six percent of those kids say they participate in sports activities.

How do these activities help kids stay out of trouble? “When a kid has the opportunity to play basketball for an organized team, the practice, games, and need for good grades takes them out of the street,” says Felix Gonzalez, a 21-year-old basketball advocate. “and it creates a close family with his team, instead of people trying to do him harm.“

Basketball works to empower the youth, to give them supreme confidence and a place to be, rather than a street corner. With those tools, they are ready to face the world outside of the basketball court, which provides more of a challenge.

Basketball might be just a game to some, but in New York, it’s a way of life. It provides young people with a positive outlet and inspires many. Felix Gonzalez put it best, “Basketball changed my life, it has given me something positive to focus my energy to. It has made me active and sparked many debates. It gave me a reason to get together (with friends) and cheer for something of a higher cause. Basketball is to me, what water and food is to a person.”

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