He Was a Knicks Pioneer, and He Has Proof

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.

The 1950 Knicks. In the front row, second from left, is John Rucker, who was dropped before Sweetwater Clifton became the team's first black player.

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.

John Rucker, 81, was a reserve on Brooklyn's Erasmus Hall High team that won the 1948 city title.

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.

Published: February 18, 2012

‘Lin-sanity’ Could Come to Rucker Park Tournament

HARLEM — After leading the Knicks to seven straight victories, appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated and becoming an international media sensation, hoops star Jeremy Lin is being asked to bring “Lin-sanity” to Harlem’s iconic Rucker Park.

That’s the dream of Greg Marius, CEO and founder of the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic, which has run the Rucker Tournament at 155th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard since 1986.

This past summer, NBA all-star Kevin Durant became the latest player to add to the court’s legend by scoring an eye-popping 66 points during a game there.

The park has hosted so many National Basketball Association and streetball legends that Community Board 10 is considering requesting that the site be made a landmark.

“We definitely need him to come. He’s magic,” Marius said of Lin, who is the first American of Chinese or Taiwanese descent to play in the NBA.

“There’s no color on the basketball court. If you can play on that court, you can play.”

After bouncing around the NBA and the developmental league, Lin landed at the end of the then-struggling Knicks’ bench before getting an opportunity to play earlier this month.

Since his emergence, the Knicks have won seven straight, including a victory over the Los

Jeremy Lin, the surprising new star point guard for the Knicks, may play at Rucker Park. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Angeles Lakers on Friday that saw the point guard score a career-high 38 points.

On Wednesday, he notched up 10 points and 13 assists to lead the Knicks to a 100-85 victory over the Sacramento Kings.

“If I were Nike, I might consider making a mold [of his foot] right now,” Marius said.

Knicks officials said it was too early to think about what Lin will be doing this summer because of the shortened NBA season and how in-demand the player has become. The newly minted star is not currently doing appearances.

“He’s hardly had time to sleep,” said Andrew Krusco of the Knicks’ community relations department.

Marius said he is in the very early stages of speaking with the Knicks about having the team help install a state-of-the art scoreboard at Rucker Park that will show videos and instant replay, as well providing basketball clinics.

This year’s Rucker Park basketball season will kick off June 2 with a celebrity game, and the full tournament season will begin on June 18 and run through Aug. 20.

Lin’s appearance at Rucker could also help solve the question of what his nickname should be, Marius said.

Community Board 10 is considering adding Rucker Park at 155th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Harlem to a list of sites and areas it wants to landmark. (DNAinfo/Jeff Mays)

Up until now, there’s been a series of puns riffing on Lin’s last name, from the ubiquitous “Lin-sanity” to “Linderella.” Film director and longtime Knicks fan Spike Lee has even solicited nicknames for Lin using Twitter.

Rucker Park has been the place many a streetball legend and NBA superstar have earned their nicknames. The Lakers’ Kobe Bryant got “Lord of the Rings” after his Rucker appearance, and the Charlotte Bobcats’ Kemba Walker, a Bronx native, is known as “E-Z Pass.”

Durant’s 66-point performance was so talked-about that they are still trying to come up with a worthy nickname for the Oklahoma Thunder star.

Hannibal, the announcer at Rucker Park who thinks up the nicknames, already has a few in mind for Lin, Marius said.

“Rush Hour,” the “Lin Factor” and “Chinese Connection” are just a few, he noted.

“He already has 1,000 nicknames, but we might have to change it,’ he said.

“It has to be a name that fits him perfect,” Marius said.

“But we don’t make up nicknames until you prove it live at Rucker Park,” he added.

Read more: http://www.dnainfo.com/20120216/harlem/rucker-park-tournament-organizer-wants-lin-sanity-at-iconic-harlem-court#ixzz1mbQyDJ00