The conclusion of NBA Finals doesn’t mean that basketball is taking a hiatus. With the draft on deck this week, the WNBA in full swing, Team USA’s 18 & Under squad competing in the Tournament of the Americas, the high school AAU apparatus and the NBA Summer Leagues in Orlando and Las Vegas soon approaching, among a plethora of other competitive leagues taking place throughout the country – from the Goodman League in Washington, DC to the Drew League in Los Angeles – the excitement and spectacle of the game has simply shifted to more of its core, niche audiences.
The crown jewel and ground zero of summer basketball, though, has historically been located at Harlem’s historic Rucker Park, where some of the great individual performances outside of NBA lore have been passed down, by word of mouth, for generations.
Over the next few months, we’ll explore some legendary summer performances from players both famous and the obscure, in years long past and recent, that give the playground leagues and Pro-Am’s their revered place in America’s urban sporting consciousness.
Today, we’ll examine a man who was one of basketball’s first aerial geniuses, ‘Jumpin’ Jackie Jackson.
Jackson, at 6-foot-4, was the progenitor of today’s sky-walkers. Before guys like Dr. J and Michael Jordan informed the world of the unlimited artistic expression and vicarious exhilaration of the above-the-rim showman, Jackson was regularly jumping over people’s heads, a la Vince Carter in the 2000 Olympics, close to sixty years ago.
“He looked like the most beautiful bird that you ever saw fly,” said Rudy Walker, who observed Jackson as early as 1955 on the playgrounds of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
Jackson won a city championship at Boys High in 1957 and played his college ball in the late 1950’s and early ‘60s at Virginia Union, the small D-II school in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association that later produced NBA standouts Charles Oakley and Ben Wallace.
At Virginia Union, his legend began percolating outside of New York’s five boroughs when, in a game against Johnson C. Smith University, Jackson raced down court handling the ball on a fast break, took off from the free throw line and proceeded to jump over the head of a defender en route to a vicious slam dunk. That defender was Curly Neal, who would one day go on to become a legendary member of the Harlem Globetrotters.
After spending his first two college summers enrolled in classes at Virginia Union, Jackson came back to New York prior to the fall of his junior year, where he appeared for the first time in the Holcombe Rucker league. In his Rucker debut, he electrified the crowd while playing against a team from Philadelphia.
“People didn’t even know what I had in store for them,” said Jackson. “That was the only game I played up there that summer. I jumped over Wayne Hightower and dunked and everybody went crazy. Hightower was 6-foot-9 and I dunked right over him. Everybody lost their mind.”
During the next summer, he cemented himself as a Rucker Park Legend.
When Slam Magazine listed its 50 greatest dunkers of all time, Jumpin’ Jackie Jackson was ranked #5, behind Vince Carter, Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins and Julius Erving.
“I played against Jackie several times at the Rucker,” said former NBA pro Cal Ramsey, a member of the New York City and Rucker Hall of Fame and long-time Community Relations Executive for the New York Knicks. “I saw him take off just inside the free throw line jump over a guy’s head to dunk the ball during a pickup game in the South Bronx. Jackie had a great first step and phenomenal leaping ability.”
“I saw a guy try to take a charge in one game and Jackie literally jumped over him,” said noted Rucker League historian Ernie Morris. “His ability to jump was unreal. I mean, wow! Oh Man! If you had ever seen him, you would have been awestruck.”
But there was one particular sequence, while playing in the Rucker League with his teammate and future Hall of Famer Connie Hawkins, and against one of the greatest players of all time, Wilt Chamberlain, that solidified his reputation as one of the most phenomenal dunkers ever.
“Wilt used to shoot his fall-away jump shot, so I told Connie, ‘The next time he comes down and shoots that fall-away, just run and jump right in his face and put your hands up as high as you can and I’ll do the rest,’” said Jackson. “He shot the ball, Connie did that and I pinned [him] right on the top of the backboard.”
“I ripped it down and threw it to Connie on the fast break,” Jackson continued. “Connie went behind his back and gave it to me coming from the left side. I got the ball back a little past the mid-court line. I went up to dunk it, had it cocked with two hands coming from the left side and Chamberlain was barreling right towards me. I pulled it down, ducked my head under the basket, floated under, shielded him from me and dunked it backwards over my head. Everybody fell out of the trees, people ran out on the court to hug me and they had to stop the game for twenty minutes. That was one of the greatest plays I ever made. It was one of the greatest dunks I did in competition, but I did a lot more.”
In 2001, when Slam Magazine listed its 50 greatest dunkers of all time, Jumpin’ Jackie Jackson was ranked #5, behind Vince Carter, Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins and Julius Erving. He had a long, accomplished career with the Harlem Globetrotters, during an era when some of the world’s best played for them. He traveled the world, spreading the gospel of basketball and the dunk, laying the foundation for the fruits that the NBA would later harvest on a global scale.
But his notoriety will always be firmly attached to Rucker Park, on that day when he took off towards the rim against Wilt Chamberlain, and instantaneously landed in the fertile company of basketball legends.