The “city game” isn’t what it used to be. The Knicks are on course for another losing season, and it has been years since a local college team has made the NCAA tournament, much less contended for a national championship.
New York’s basketball picture wasn’t always so bleak. The five boroughs were once as well known for basketball as they were for bagels and nightlife.
The city’s hoops tradition stretches back to the 1920s, when professional teams, such as the Original Celtics and the Harlem Rens, dominated the sport. The playgrounds became feeders for local colleges; New York University, Long Island University and City College became national powerhouses.
As the game evolved, our high schools continued to breed great players, including Bob Cousy, Billy Cunningham, Lew Alcindor and Bernard King. Summer tournaments produced stories of athletic feats by neighborhood hoopsters that rivaled anything seen in the NBA.
The style of play that defined the city game was embodied in the championship Knicks teams of the 1970s, known for teamwork and hard-nosed defense taught by coach Red Holzman, who learned the game on the playgrounds of Brooklyn.
As a teenager growing up on the Upper East Side during the Knicks’ championship run, I reveled in New York’s basketball heritage. I went to a summer camp founded by Nat Hollman, the “Mr. Basketball” of the 1920s, before he became a Hall of Fame coach at City College, where Red Holzman was one of his players. Listening to Hollman tell stories about playing basketball on the rough and tumble Lower East Side gave me a tangible connection to New York’s basketball roots.
In high school, I honed my jump shot in weekend pick-up games on courts in Riverside and Central Parks, and the schoolyards of the Upper East Side. I took pride in being part of the city’s basketball scene, and the tradition of toughness and court savvy that mirrored the street smarts and grit required to flourish in New York’s hard-edged neighborhoods.
But in recent years, New York’s line of basketball greatness has run thin. The city that once produced playground legends like Detroit used to turn out cars has lost its status as a hoops hotbed.
According to a well-respected basketball scouting service, only one of the 100 best high-school players in the country hails from the five boroughs. And a pre-season ranking of the top 25 high school teams did not include a single school from New York.
The demise of New York basketball makes me feel like an Englishman pining for the days of empire. Part of my self-image is grounded in a world that no longer exists.
With the city facing an economic crisis, failing schools and the threat of terrorism, we New Yorkers have more important things to worry about than our falling basketball fortunes. Yet, with New York’s greatness in question, I want to believe that the city’s collective character makes us resilient to anything thrown our way, that we possess an undefeatable toughness reflected in schoolyards and gyms across the five boroughs.
During lean times, past generations of New Yorkers could look to our winning basketball tradition as proof of New York’s unique tenacity. Nowadays, the message from the hardwood is that we are no different from anyone else.
Ben Krull is a lawyer and essayist who lives on the Upper East Side.
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