The Entertainers Basketball Classic, an annual summer streetball tournament hosted at historic Rucker Park in Harlem, is back. Little kids and grown men shake and bake across the freshly painted court. A man in a wheelchair narrows his eyes from a corner by the DJ booth. A lady outside the entrance scoops plantains and rice out of aluminum trays. This is what Gus Wells, the CEO of Entertainers 155 which operates the tournament, missed last year.
“I feel like I lost my best friend. I didn't have anything to do. And I didn't see the people that I love seeing,” he says.
Wells has been a mainstay in the community for 45 years. He ran a local club in Harlem for five years then co-founded the tournament in 1983 with his friend Greg Marius. Together, they made the Entertainers Basketball Classic into a major attraction that fans from all over the world mark on their calendars.
The tournament is also well-known for surprise cameos from A-list athletes. NBA legends from Allen Iverson to Kobe Bryant have laced up their sneakers here. 10 years ago this summer, a local named Trevor -- then 19 -- was hanging out at the park when a lanky (nearly) 7-footer named Kevin Durant walked in by himself. He remembers the scene like it was yesterday.
“He came in, this is maybe 2 o’clock. There was no one out here. They were setting up. He sat down, ate a plate of food and next thing I know he’s suiting up to play,” Trevor remembers. Durant, who plays for Brooklyn Nets, grew up in a mostly Black neighborhood just east of Washington D.C. Trevor grew up in a similar neighborhood just across the street from Rucker Park.
As a child, Trevor would look out the window onto the park from the 10th floor of his building. He wasn’t permitted to go down and play on the court until he was 12, but as soon as he got on there, he knew it was a special place. “To me, this is home pretty much. This is my playground,” he says.
In 2011, when a 22-year old Durant strolled in, Trevor stuck around. The line outside stretched down two city blocks. The windows of the building across the street lit up and faces emerged on the rooftop. The crowd overflowed onto the court.
That game is now legendary -- Durant scored 66 points, a near all-time record at the tournament. He hasn’t played here since that day, but Trevor continues to attend games and still believes the park is as special as it has always been.
“Let’s say you’ve never been to this park and you come here, it’s friendly. Like you’re welcome. It feels like home once you get in here.”
That’s the atmosphere Gus Wells has tried to create over the past 40 years. Rucker Park has its own legacy, he believes, one that he and his community work hard to maintain. “We're not trying to be like the NBA or nothing like that, but we try to be like we are: the Mecca of street basketball.”
Rucker Park is located at 280 W 155th Street in Harlem. The Entertainers Basketball Classic will run every night through August 13th, from Monday to Thursday. Entrance is free and newcomers are encouraged.