Greg Marius wasn’t struck by a thunderbolt epiphany when he started his hoops tournament, the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic, in the summer of 1982. The concept that has morphed into an athletic and cultural phenomenon known throughout the world organically grew out of a simple discussion and debate.
Back in ’82, Marius was more popularly known as ‘Greg G,’ a member of the Harlem-based rap group the Disco 4. That was a seminal period in hip-hop, as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s hit song, “The Message,” and Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force’s smash, “Planet Rock,” signaled some new, bold, and powerful directions that the burgeoning genre was heading in. Marius was seated in the studios of WHBI-FM late one evening that summer as the Disco 4 and another rap group, The Crash Crew, were guests on The Rap Attack. The show, hosted by Mr. Magic, was the first radio program aired on a major FM station in America that exclusively played rap music.
“The Crash Crew was being interviewed by Mr. Magic and they kept talking about how they could play ball,” said Marius. “I got tired of hearing them talk about it and said, ‘So, do ya’ll wanna play a game?’”
The two groups agreed that they would meet up at Mount Morris Park, on 120th Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan, the next afternoon at 2 p.m. With the Rap Attack airing in the wee hours of the morning, between 2-4 a.m., Marius didn’t give much thought or attach any importance to the challenge. He was simply coming to the park that next day to play some ball.
In his mind, it was simply some guys talking smack and meeting up to prove which crew had the better basketball team. When he arrived at the park at the allocated time, he was shocked to see over 1,000 people there, waiting to see the game. “There were so many people there, including other rap groups like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, The Sugarhill Gang, The Cold Crush Brothers, and others,” said Marius. “We wound up destroying the Crash Crew. We beat them by 59 points. After that, all of the other groups challenged us to a game to see who had the best crew. So I just made a tournament out of it.”
Marius’ Disco 4 team won the championship of that initial tournament, which he named the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic. Harlem residents began referring to the tourney by its initials, ‘the E.B.C.’
The following summer, in 1983, Marius was ready to run the event again. The unwritten rules were that all of the teams had to be rap groups or affiliated with the local music industry. The Fever, the top hip-hop club in the Bronx at the time, entered a team during that second summer that looked markedly different from the one it fielded the year before.
“The rule was that everybody who played had to be a part of the group or affiliated with it in some way,” said Marius. “So if you played and you weren’t in the group, you were a roadie, or a guy that helped carry the records and the equipment. But that second summer, The Fever showed up with real ball players. These guys were pros who were playing overseas. I was like, ‘Oh! Ya’ll wanna cheat? Ok!’”
Marius was attending St. John’s University at the time and had previously played with the elite Riverside Church AAU program as a teenager. He was connected to some of the city’s top young up-and-coming players, and decided to bring in his own set of ringers to play with the Disco 4.
One of those players happened to be the top-ranked high school player in the country, Brooklyn’s incandescent star from Boys and Girls High School, Dwayne “Pearl” Washington, who suited up for Marius’ team before heading off to his freshman year at Syracuse University.
“Pearl was the most sought after player in the world at that time,” said Marius. “I told my friends that I was trying to get him to play in the tournament and everyone kept telling me that I’d never be able to do it. It was well known at the time that Pearl was only showing up to play for the Gauchos and guys like Lou d’Almeida, who were buying players motorcycles, cars and all kinds of stuff. But people didn’t know that I had an inside track.
“There are two things that can get a man: a car and a woman,” Marius continued. “And I knew Pearl’s girlfriend.” When Marius approached Washington’s girlfriend, she assured him that she could get him to play.
“When do you want him to play?” she asked Marius.
“Saturday afternoon,” Marius responded.
“Alright, he’ll be there,” she said.
Marius called Pearl to confirm, and the star player with a rock star following from the rugged Brownsville section of Brooklyn assured him that he’d come up to Harlem to play in the tournament. When Marius tried to arrange transportation, Pearl demurred.
“Nah, I don’t need a ride Greg,” Washington’s mellow voice spilled through the phone. “I’ll get there.”
A few minutes before the game was about to start, Washington was nowhere to be found. People gleefully approached Marius, laughing at him, telling him they knew he wasn’t going to be able to get the great high school phenom Pearl Washington, who was already a legend on the streets of New York, to show up.
“Right before the game was about to tip off, I looked down the street and saw him walking down the block,” said Marius. “I had all types of smiles on my face. That brother took the train from Brownsville, walked into the park, put his uniform on and, my goodness, did he light that court up. That was the biggest moment that we had early on. That was the true beginning of what the E.B.C. would become. The crowds and the excitement were unbelievable. When the word spread that Pearl Washington was playing with us, it echoed throughout the entire city.
“Pearl Washington gave us that legitimacy,” Marius continued. “In addition to Pearl, I wound up bringing guys like Walter Berry, Kenny Hutchinson, Richie Adams, and other players of that caliber. They were young, but they were phenomenal talents. I had five All-Americans on my team that summer. And that’s how the E.B.C., at its formative stages, went from rappers and entertainers to real ballplayers, morphing into what it has now become.”