PALM COAST, Fla. — The enlarged black-and-white photograph, taken more than 60 years ago, was received and immediately framed. John Rucker gently and proudly laid on the table his irrefutable evidence that he had actually played ball with the Knicks.
“You see, I stand out,” he said, identifying himself with an index finger while acknowledging that few, if any, basketball-savvy seniors would have any recollection of him and would at first glance assume he was somebody else.
A black man kneeling in a 1950 team photograph taken at the Knicks’ fall training camp in Bear Mountain, N.Y. — as novel a sight as an Asian-American, Jeremy Lin, is now — had to be Nat Clifton, known as Sweetwater, the first African-American player to sign an N.B.A. contract.
Except that it wasn’t.
“No, Clifton, he was much bigger than me,” said Rucker, looking admiringly at his 6-foot-2 and chiseled younger self, glancing in the direction of the Knicks’ coach, Joe Lapchick.
How John Rucker — 19 at the time, a 1950 graduate of Brooklyn’s Erasmus Hall High — wound up preceding Sweetwater Clifton in the Knicks’ camp is something of an unsolvable mystery, even to Rucker. Having no idea that he existed until coming into possession of the team photograph and tracking him to this quiet community north of Daytona, the Knicks will honor Rucker on Monday night at Madison Square Garden on what they are calling Pioneer Night in honor of Black History Month.
Decades before LeBron James and Kobe Bryant were a gleam in their parents’ eyes, Rucker might have made the leap from preps to pros, assuming there was ever a chance of him making a team that Lapchick would steer to the seventh game of the N.B.A. finals (where the Knicks lost to the Rochester Royals and their point guard, Red Holzman).
“I don’t know who invited me and why,” Rucker said. “All I know is that I got a letter asking if I would try out. I was 19 and didn’t give much thought about being the first black player, or anything. You have to understand: I was the only black guy on my high school team. I was used to that.”
As a sophomore at Erasmus, Rucker was a bench player for the 1948 city champions, coached by a city high school legend, Al Badain. His teammates were Alvin Roth and Herb Cohen, who were later implicated in the City College betting scandals.
Rucker, who lived in walking distance of Erasmus, the famous Collegiate Gothic building in the Flatbush section, wanted to play basketball at New York University but also had an offer to play minor league baseball. Al Campanis, a Brooklyn Dodgers scout, gave him a $3,800 bonus — a figure Rucker asked for when he saw that as the asking price for a house across the street from where he lived.
That fall, figuring he had nothing to lose, Rucker reported to a Knicks camp that included Vince Boryla, Harry Gallatin and Dick McGuire. But no Clifton, a 6-7 forward whose contract was purchased that year from the Harlem Globetrotters.
Like Rucker, Clifton was also a gifted baseball player, had been in the Negro leagues and that fall was finishing a minor league stay in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. That explained Clifton’s absence into early October. But what was the purpose of Rucker’s presence?
Gallatin, who saved the Bear Mountain photograph and sent it to the Knicks last year before they honored him at the Garden, said “it’s a blur” when asked if he remembered Rucker in camp.
“I do remember that Sweetwater came late and that it was a big thing that season because the league was finally integrated,” Gallatin said.
In addition to the debuts of Clifton with the Knicks and Chuck Cooper with the Boston Celtics, Earl Lloyd was the first black player to appear in a game, with the Washington Capitols. But when Clifton took the floor with the Knicks four days later, it was the culmination of Joe Lapchick’s dream. His Original Celtics barnstormed with the all-black New York Rens as far back as the 1920s, and he was an early campaigner to integrate the sport.
During a speakerphone call to Rucker’s home from Los Angeles, Lapchick’s son, Richard, an educator and human rights activist, asked Rucker what his two-week experience with the Knicks was like.
Rucker said it was lonely and at times inhospitable. He roomed by himself when others shared. He was befriended by few, though McGuire didn’t seem offended when Rucker told the ball-handling wizard that his passes weren’t soft enough.
As for his relationship with the senior Lapchick, Rucker said: “To tell you the truth, he was kind of aloof. He didn’t discourage me, but he didn’t give me any special instruction. I think he wanted me to take my lumps to see if I could take it.”
Given Joe Lapchick’s history, there was another plausible explanation for why he invited a 19-year-old to try out. Knowing that Clifton would be reporting late, could he have been trying to ease the tension by having Rucker serve as a stunt man of sorts?
“We’ll never have any way of knowing, but that’s certainly a possibility,” Richard Lapchick said. “It would certainly fit the image I have of my father to want to plan for something like that.”
In one of the last scrimmages Rucker participated in, he got into a tussle with one of his teammates. “Burns,” he said, not recalling the first name. “He was giving it to me pretty good, the elbows, and finally I had enough and threw a punch.”
As it turned out, a player identified as Jack Burns — who did not make the team — was positioned alongside Rucker in the team photograph.
Over the years, Rucker said he had decided that race had little or nothing to do with the isolation he felt before Lapchick cut him on the eve of the first preseason game. “They probably all wondered what this 19-year-old kid was doing there, thinking he was going to take their job,” he said.
Lapchick did help him land with a team in the old Eastern League, where he made about $75 a month and got to play in a preliminary to a Knicks game at the Garden. Rucker persevered in minor league baseball through 1957 before settling into a 20-year career as a city police officer and detective.
He was delighted to receive the call and the photograph from the Knicks, finally able to prove to his wife, Edwina, his friends and especially his basketball-playing grandson in North Carolina that he was — unofficially and momentarily — the Knicks’ first black player. “He wants me to get him Carmelo Anthony’s autograph,” he said.
But Rucker said he was like most Knicks fans these days, enthralled by the guy who until recently was only marginally more famous than him. If he had to choose, he might opt for a signature from Lin, one pioneer to another.