Rucker Park Revisited: An Interview with Levi Levine

The most important basketball game in the  sports history occurred on Feb. 19, 1948,  when the embodiment of pointed white  elbows, stiff horizontal movement, set shots  and athletic goggles faced off against the  “negro quint,” as they were dubbed by the  Minneapolis Tribune.

On that day, basketball’s first dynasty, the Minneapolis Lakers, anchored by George Mikan, were upset, 61–59, by the all black Harlem Globetrotters in an exhibition game. The Globetrotters’ win eviscerated professional basketballs racial barrier, changed the style and content of the game forever and paved the way for every successive generation of ballplayers.

Since then, New York City has been the capital of the basketball universe. Growing up in the Polo Grounds housing projects overlooking Rucker Park in Harlem, former Albany University star forward/enforcer Levi Levine was born into basketball much as Picasso was born into cubism.

After a decorated college career in Albany in which he left his name across the Great Danes’ record books, Levine has embarked on nine-year career as a professional player and coach, suiting up in Germany, Ireland and Romania. We caught up with the New York City playground veteran to talk European racism, Rucker Park, Vinsanity, the good side of AAU basketball and the impact of Harlem.

Noah Perkins: You’ve played professionally in both Germany and Romania, two countries who have poor reputations in terms of anti-Semitism, racism and equality. What has your experience been with racial discrimination in Europe?

Levi Levine: Germany is more civil than Americans think. They are fair people that do not trust easily but will open up everything to you when they see your true worth. I have had a few fights here in Germany back in the day, but nothing racial.

Romania, on the other hand, is a country that is about 20 years behind the western world, but harbor(s) some of the best people I have ever met. Even though a lot of older people have an old racist mentality, they barely act out on it, unless you are dating their daughter.

I had an incident in Romania When I went out to recharge my credit to call home. I walked up a dark alley to get to the 24 hour store and this guy sitting on a car says “hey [N-word] and grabbed my arm. I pulled my arm away and got ready to bust his face, as I did that another guy gets out of the car. At this point my New York instincts kicked in and I pull out my four finger long pocket knife. One guy sprays me with mace as I am fighting the other guy.

To make a long story short they ended up leaving after they saw I was going to hurt one of them, not to mention I was calling my teammates to come outside while I was fighting. I can say that was the only blatant racial situation I have encountered out here because believe it or not black people have been out here way longer than people think and many people were raised properly with love in their hearts.

On a basic human level, what is the grimiest thing you have seen since going overseas?

The craziest thing I’ve ever seen was out in Romania. Many Gypsies are known to cripple their kids at a young age so they can go on the streets and beg for money and one time I saw a man whose knees bent backwards instead of forwards and that freaked me out because that had to be purposely done.

How does pickup ball in New York City compare to Europe?

Pick up is different everywhere, it all depends on who you are playing with. NYC is definitely the toughest place to play because if there is no blood there is no foul.

I have been playing in an annual streetball tournament in Sibiu, Romania for the last three years and it is very tough, because many professionals participate in it, but overall it always depends on who you play with because some guys make too many foul calls or hack the whole time, but that is the same no matter where you play. So I think the difference between New York City and everywhere else is the quantity and the quality of the talent that we have; there aren’t many places that breed as much talent as New York does.

In terms of talent, what is the best court you have ever played at?

In terms of talent, Rucker Park is the best streetball court in the world, hands down.

How do you think a young Levi Levine and the four best players at Rucker Park on a given summer night would fare against the typical starting five in say Romania?

If I took four of my best guys, by position from New York City and put them up against a Romanian team we would thug them out. Simply because not many people in this world are built like New Yorkers are and they would have to have at least one Romanian on their team.

A lot of pickup players, especially the white boys, are intimidated off by courts like Rucker Park and the Cage, what is the typical reaction to white players at these parks?

It’s not really about color it’s about your game and heart. The older dudes run the courts in their hood so if you want to play with them you have to prove yourself.

When I was growing up, guys like “Alimoe” “Speedy” “Kareem Reeves” ”Master Rob” “Strickland” “The Future” “Skip to my Lou” Ran places like the Rucker and West 4th, but every hood has some place to play and if you have a name you can play anywhere, until then you must earn it by purely “busting ass.”

If you showed up in west 4th or Rucker Park you would have to know someone or get down with whoever has next and if you have heart you can try call next yourself but depending on where you are they will thug your next from you (take it away and make their team in your spot).

How has the New York City Streetball mentality benefited you professionally?

My New York City background has kept me relevant against a lot of guys over the years, not because of my reputation but because of how hard I always fought on the court. I grew up playing against guys like, Royal Ivey, Adrian “A whole lotta game” Walton, Charlie Villenueva, Randy Foye, Lenny Cooke, Andre Barrett, Ben Gordon, Julius Hodge and Keydran Clark, all guys that play NBA or High level Europe and that prepared me for every type of competition I would face in the future because those dudes were dead nice and some of them are still playing on very high levels. I had to persevere then and I am still, until this day, able to do my thing on the court, it just hurts more after.

I used to go to Pee Wee Kirkland’s basketball camp for about 2 years and he is a big reason for the fire inside of me, not because he made me better but because he ignored me and a lot of other kids until he thought I was relevant.

What is your craziest Rucker Park memory?

When Vince Carter came to the Rucker (summer, 1999).

My guy, and streetball legend Adrian “A Whole Lotta Game” Walton was set to match- up against Vince Carter that day. The rain site was in My AAU gym and a severe thunderstorm hit us so we had to forfeit our practice for the EBC games to take place. To my surprise Vince Carter walked into the gym. I was there for a normal practice when we are surprised to see that Vince Carter came to NYC to compete. We all sat down to witness one of the greatest streetball games ever.

Vince Carter caught an alley-oop windmill dunk on a fast break, something never seen before at that time, it made us go wild! The whole game was close because Adrian Walton took that game as a challenge and wanted to show everyone that he was NBA material. [Walton] hit at least six 3-pointers that game on Vince Carter and even though Carter’s team won the game and Vince blessed us with numerous dunks we had never seen before, Adrian Walton was representing Harlem in a major way, dropping 37-points to Vince Carter’s 29.

Vince may have won the war but Adrian Walton won the battle and in streetball that’s almost as good as winning the game. It was good to watch an NBA legend in action, live, but it felt better to see a friend, teammate and hood legend get buckets against a top NBA player!

I think it was Smush Parker who said something like the playground raised me second to my parents, growing up at the Polo Grounds you had Rucker Park right outside, is this something you can relate to?

Growing up in the Polo Grounds, from what I can remember, was very hard for me because I was basically outside with my brother or by myself. When I was with my brother, I would watch games in the Rucker and play when I could, so that’s how it all began. I used to watch the games sometimes from my 29th floor window but when my brother was playing I was right there in Rucker Park watching.

I only lived in the Polo Grounds for the first 10 years of my life and it was hard, but having Rucker Park at my doorstep instilled that hunger for the game in me. I can definitely relate to what Smush said because I literally played ball every day, that’s all I knew existed until I went to prep school in Cheshire, Connecticut. If you didn’t play ball you was a thug and I knew nothing about that life so I chose ball over all.

What is your reaction to the criticism of AAU basketball for taking kids away from playground ball? Do you think less time playing pickup weakens these kids’ games?

Spending less time playing in the streets can be a good thing because many kids do get killed or into altercations in these streets and AAU basketball takes them away from all of that, I know because it did that for me. Playing with the Gauchos taught me how to play organized, under the whistle basketball and gave me my first experience in Europe.

People should realize the good AAU does for their kids, I think you’re as strong or as weak as your coach lets you become and if you had a good coach it was better for you to play AAU because that would open up doors to colleges.

What does it mean for you to be from Harlem?

Being from Harlem means everything to me because I am a part of the culture and illustrious basketball history that we have and that says a lot.

Harlem has taught me how to survive in this crazy world; My swagger often deters a lot of negative energy from coming my way but it also brings negative, jealous hatred my way because you can almost tell where I am from by the way I walk and that makes some people mad. When I tell people that I am from Harlem, they either have a big love and respect for me because they often dream of New York or they hate me because they cannot be me. It may sound a bit cocky but many people want to be what they see on T.V. and New York has always been in the worlds view.

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Noah Perkins

Noah has had articles published by a variety of publications including The Bangor Daily News; The NENPA Bulletin; and Monthly Basketball (Japan). His column ‘Heaven is a Playground’ has been featured on ESPN Radio. Noah was also called a “thirst troll” by Tom Arnold once.