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The real basketball deal–the inside story of Harlem’s legendary tournament and the pros and playground legends who have made it world famous.
Earl “The Goat” Manigault. Herman “Helicopter” Knowings. Joe “The Destroyer” Hammond. Richard “Pee Wee” Kirkland. These and dozens of other colorfully nicknamed men are the “Asphalt Gods,” whose astounding exploits in the Rucker Tournament, often against multimillionaire NBA superstars, have made them playground divinity. First established in the 1950s by Holcombe Rucker, a New York City Parks Department employee, the tournament has grown to become a Harlem institution, an annual summer event of major proportions. On that fabled patch of concrete, unknown players have been lighting it up for decades as they express basketball as a freestyle art among their peers and against such pro immortals as Julius Erving and Wilt Chamberlain. X’s and O’s are exchanged for oohs and aahs in one of the great examples of street theater to be found in urban America.
Asphalt Gods is a streetwise, supremely entertaining oral history of a tournament that has influenced everything from NBA playing style to hip-hop culture. Now, legends transmitted by word of mouth find a home and the achievements of basketball’s greatest unknowns a permanent place in the game’s record.
Highlighting a little-known piece of New York history, Mallozzi, a sports editor at the New York Times, documents the Harlem basketball institution called the Rucker Tournament. Begun in the 1950s by young, Harlem-born Holcombe Rucker, the tournaments included some of basketball's great games throughout the decades. Here, such pros as Julius Erving, Wilt Chamberlain and, more recently, Kobe Bryant pounded the asphalt with local unknowns. Mallozzi, who grew up and played basketball nearby in the 1970s and 80s, has covered the tournament since 1986:"nowhere else could I find the kind of basketball that was being played at Rucker Park, where legends, nicknames, and great rivalries are born every summer." While he celebrates the tournament's past glory (Rucker died of cancer in 1965 at the age of 38), he doesn't shy away from its sometimes controversial moments (many people think it's become simply a hip-hop show and shoe ad, where the game is hardly taken seriously). Mallozzi lends an even hand to this fast-paced tale.