If you’ve never been, let me tell you this: Rucker Park on game night is something else. The sights, sounds, smells and suffocating heat close in on all sides the second you step inside the fence, and a relentlessly raucous crowd only adds to the effect. As security take me across the court to the media pen, three people in the front row yell at me for blocking their view, and a cameraman whose shot I’ve walked through hits me with the sort of look that implies offensive comments about my family. “If this is how the sidelines are,” I wonder, “how f*cking tough are things going to be on the court?”
Once I’m in the crowd myself, however, I quickly catch the mood and end up as boisterous as anyone. It’s uncomfortably warm in the baseline bleachers even with the afternoon sun subsiding, but this doesn’t discourage the fans one bit. When the announcer asks their opinion on Miami’s chances of taking the championship, he’s met with the sort of cheer more often heard following touchdowns, home runs and knockout punches. With some thirty minutes left until the tip, I realise that this is going to be a good summer at the Rucker. I only wish I’d brought some water and a cushion. Laugh all you want, but I went home with enough splinters in my buttcheeks to build a rocking chair.
Pre-game, Darryl McDaniels (the “DMC” part of Run-DMC to you kids) makes a heartfelt speech encouraging the crowd to donate bone marrow, echoing the sentiment of the spokeswoman for DKMS, the official charity of the EBC. Also alongside DMC is a Harley Davidson that, he explains, is to be signed by as many celebrities as they can find and auctioned off for charity.
With MC Hannibal “Da Most Electrifying” roaming the perimeter of the court and both teams putting on the obligatory dunk display in the layup lines, the referee blows his whistle for the players to take the bench and the crowd turns it up a notch. I realise that taking notes on my voice recorder isn’t going to work and break out the old-fashioned pen and pad in anticipation of the start.
When the ball finally does go up at centre court, it’s tipped by University of Florida standout Joakim Noah, whose involvement in any play instantly causes the already deafening crowd to turn the volume up a notch. His first touches in the post, however, see him a little too eager to impress as he steps out of bounds on the first and travels on the second. By the third, he’s settled himself, and a nifty dribble to the middle draws contact from three defenders, sending him to the line for a pair. This is a recurring theme for the next two minutes, in which he goes to the charity stripe twice more and hits three of six.
Despite his unimpressive start, he soon shows why he’ll have a home in the NBA one day, pinning a shot to the board, gathering the ball and faking his defender with a hard crossover as he dribbles out of his own paint. Noah’s ball-handling display is quickly overshadowed, however, by a violent two-handed alley-oop by one of his H3 teammates, a slightly-built swingman known as “Africa”, who has the fans in stitches when he breaks out Vince Carter’s patented (and embarrassing) motorbike celebration following the play. Moments later, with H3 leading 13-8, Africa again makes his presence known, barely missing an ambitious one-handed put-back that would have stopped the game had it landed. Before the noise can die down from the previous play, he compensates for the miss with another two-fisted catch-and-cram which itself nearly manages to flood the court.
As if taking turns to shine, a third member of H3 dominates the next few minutes of the game, this time park favourite Adrian “A-Butta” Walton, also known as “Wholelottagame”, “Hollywood A” and “3-5-7”. Hitting jumpers on consecutive possessions before breaking away for an uncontested dunk, his outburst stretches his team’s lead to double figures while D-Block look on helplessly. A nasty crossover and reverse layup sees the end of his personal scoring explosion, but H3 continue to dominate, capping a killer run with a strong reverse dunk from Africa, whom the announcer acknowledges by mimicking an elephant every time he touches the ball. Even the best efforts of Connecticut’s Taliek Brown can’t help close the gap, and D-Block end the half down 34-22.
The second half begins much as the first finished, with Noah blocking shots on defence and travelling on offence, and Africa taking to the skies. While his first attempt sees him barely miss a sky-scraping tomahawk following a foul, he once again shakes loose on the break and finishes with panache less than a minute later. With H3 now leading D-Block 52-32, the announcer is beginning to lose interest in the game, and instead decides to tear a noisy fan a new one. Setting him up with a few sucker-punch insults (“Your t-shirt’s dirty”; “I can smell you from here”), he brings the house down by claiming the aforementioned heckler looked like the child that would be born “if Dennis Rodman raped Flavor Flav.” Yikes.
Obviously irked that the crowd and commentators had turned their attention from the court, Adrian Walton lets us know why he deserves four nicknames, setting up his defender with a series crossovers before stepping back and draining a three with two hands in his face. Finding himself free in the same spot on his next trip down the court, he squares up and swishes another triple. And another. And another. It wasn’t until his fifth barely rattled out that the park quietened down a little, although a big swat at one end and an and-one hook at the other by Joakim Noah soon has the stands shaking again.
With a 75-38 lead, Africa decides to try something a little risky on finding himself all alone on the break, barely missing a double-handed variation of Vince Carter’s three-sixty windmill in the 2000 dunk contest that would likely have been the play of the summer. What follows is typical late-game blowout basketball, with both teams trading lazy jumpers and playing minimal defence. With the scoreboard out, the final result isn’t shown (which, as Hannibal quips, is probably a good thing for D-Block), but my count has H3 winning by forty-plus points.
[Note: The second game of the evening (Dezert Heat vs. Pelle Pelle Posse) was called due to rain a minute before the half. I’ll post a full recap once the remainder has been played.]