Fifteen years ago, in August of 1999, a severe thunderstorm forced the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic game between the Vacant Lots and Black Hand Entertainment teams out of its home at Holcombe Rucker Park on 155th Street and 8th Avenue. The contest was moved to the league’s alternate rain site, the Gauchos Gym—a renovated warehouse on Gerard Avenue in the South Bronx.
The severe weather might have caused many spectators to stay home, but as game time approached, fans spilled out of the 149th Street subway station on the Grand Concourse, scurrying downhill and towards the gym with vigorous anticipation. The gymnasium had seen its fair share of wondrous basketball over the years. The well-lit hoops cathedral on an otherwise dreary stretch of Bronx concrete has been a training ground of the legendary Bronx Gauchos AAU players, which regularly stayed stocked with some of New York City’s top players.
It was there that two recent NCAA champion—and current NBA—point guards had honed their games: Charlotte Hornet Kemba Walker (UConn) and New Orleans Pelican Russ Smith (Louisville). Past Gauchos legends from the 1980s include former NBA players Rod Strickland, Mark ‘Mama There Goes that Man’ Jackson, Ed Pinckney, Lloyd ‘Sweet Pea’ Daniels, Dwayne ‘Pearl’ Washington and Sidney Green, among a host of others.
Two words brought the rain-drenched fans to their feet in unison: “Heeeeeeeee’s Heeeeeeere!”
But on that dark, rainy and thunder-clapped evening back in ’99, when most people around the country were flocking to see “Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace” in movie theaters and when the urban summer soundtrack was saturated with Jay Z’s “Hard Knock Life,” TLC’s “No Scrubs,” and the O.D.B.’s “Got Your Money,” the regulars at Rucker Park were anxious for a one-time-only performance that, though brief, would go on to become etched in the decorated tapestry of legendary summer basketball.
During the first game at Rucker Park that night, before the rain and thunder sent folks scuttling toward the Gauchos Gym, the anticipation had been building due to the expected arrival of Vince Carter, aka ‘Air Canada.’ Carter was coming off a Rookie of the Year campaign with the NBA’s Toronto Raptors during the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, following a spectacular three-year career at North Carolina.
Carter’s flight game was already being compared to the all-time great aerial artists like Dr. J and Michael Jordan. So the rumors of his Rucker Park debut echoed throughout the city’s entire summer basketball community. The Vacant Lots team was undefeated that summer, headlined by Charles Jones, who’d led the nation in scoring for two consecutive years at Long Island University. They opened the game by scoring ten consecutive points and despite the standing-room-only crowd, the mood was relatively subdued because Vince Carter was nowhere in sight.
But two words would bring the drenched fans to their feet in unison: “Heeeeeeeee’s Heeeeeeere!”
With that utterance, the crowd became instantly frenzied as Carter came jogging through the locker room doors attired in a white and brown Black Hand uniform. He waved at the crowd, which included Jay Z and his fellow NBA brethren Ron Artest and Stephon Marbury, and ran directly to the scorer’s table.
More concerned with fitting in than taking over during the early stages of the game, Carter did nothing to distinguish himself in the first half. But at the beginning of the second half, he alerted air traffic control that he was ready for takeoff. His first bucket came with under nine minutes left in third quarter, when he grabbed an offensive rebound and elevated for a two-handed dunk in the paint. Within a matter of seconds, he drained back-to-back three-pointers from way beyond the arc.
Journalist Vincent Mallozi, a veteran playground hoops aficionado and avid fan of the New York City summer asphalt scene, was in the Gauchos Gym that night. As Air Canada began warming up, this is what he wrote for the Village Voice:
“With 6:28 left in the third, Air Canada broke into the open court, slipped past one defender with a right-to-left, behind-the-back dribble, whipped a behind-the-back pass to a trailing Prime Objective (the Washington, D.C. playground phenom whose real name is Lonnie Harrell), pointed north, and as an alley-oop pass came falling out of the sky, turned his body 180 degrees in midair so that he was facing the opposite basket, caught the rock, and threw it down with a force that literally shook the Rucker faithful out onto the floor in celebration.
Shortly after order was restored, Air Canada took off again. With 54 seconds left in the third, he rose to catch another alley-oop pass with his right hand along the left baseline about five feet from the rim, and, still airborne, slammed windmill-style over the outstretched fingertips of two opponents. It was perhaps the greatest dunk in the history of Rucker.”
Black Hand pulled out the victory over Vacant Lots that night, 66-64. They advanced to play for the league championship. But those details have faded through the hourglass of time. What will never grow faint is the aerial pyrotechnics of Vince Carter on one of grassroots basketball’s legendary stages.
If you think that his greatest dunk came in the 2000 Summer Olympics, when he scaled the seven-foot Frenchman Frederic Weis in a single bound, the folks in attendance at the Gauchos Gym the previous summer, when he instantly became a Rucker legend, might beg to differ.