NEW YORK -- The thousands strong, raucous crowd grew louder and louder with each thunderous dunk in the storied basketball courts of Holcombe Rucker Park on 155th Street in Harlem earlier this week. Children sprinted up and down the sidelines with unbridled enthusiasm, unable to sit still amidst the intensity generated by New York City’s top two streetball teams pitted against each other for the rights to the inaugural, gold plated, championship trophy.
However, as the spirited madness swept through the stands Tuesday night, Tobias Harris remained somber.
The 21-year-old rising star for the NBA’s Orlando Magic and former Mr. New York Basketball helped lead the Sean Bell All-Stars to a first-place finish in the first annual Trayvon Martin Invitational, an accomplishment that Harris said ranks amongst the closest to his heart.
Harris, a Long Island native and current Orlando resident, lives just 10 miles from The Retreat at Twin Lakes gated community of Sanford, Fla., where Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman on the night of February 26, 2012. Harris also spent most of his high school career at Half Hollow Hills West in Dix Hills, a 30-mile trek from Club Kalua in South Jamaica, Queens, where Sean Bell was shot and killed by NYPD detectives in the early morning hours of November 25, 2006.
“Even today, despite all the violence that’s happened in the past, children can learn from this in a positive way, and learn from the way everybody kept it peaceful here this weekend,” said Harris, who was the lone NBA player to compete in the Trayvon Martin Invitational championship game on Tuesday night. “I’m honored to be here, and I hope to be a part of this every year from here on out.”
Just as the stories of Bell and Martin evolved into more of a civil rights cause than instances of isolated killing, the Trayvon Martin Invitational became more than just a showcase of fancy crossovers and high-flying dunks. It became a symbol of solidarity for a community battered by the killings of two unarmed, young black men and the quick, subsequent exoneration of their killers.
Whether it’s about children in Sanford, South Jamaica or anywhere in between, organizers and participants said the goal was not only to keep them off the street and out of harm’s way, but to help them translate success on the court to success inside the classroom.
“Kids everywhere are getting shot and murdered, whether it’s in Jamaica, the Bronx, Chicago,” said Cliff Clinkscales, a starting point guard for the Sean Bell All-Stars who is also a youth basketball coach in his native South Jamaica. “It seems like it never goes right when it comes to the law, but the message to the kids is that if you go hard on the court you have to go hard in the classroom.”
The Trayvon Martin Invitational was geared toward fixing the future, not dwelling on the past. DJ’s, announcers and players all stressed the importance of maintaining a “Gandhi-like atmosphere” throughout the four-day tournament.
Children under the age of five were allowed to attend the Trayvon Martin Invitational, a rarity for organized Rucker Park/Entertainers Basketball Classic events because of the raucous -- and sometimes hostile -- crowds known to gather there for streetball games.
The Entertainers Basketball Classic hosted the event, helping to raise more than $5,000 for the Trayvon Martin Foundation through t-shirt sales and donations. The event was well attended, drawing thousands of spectators to the same concrete court where basketball icons like Kenny Anderson, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Earl “The Pearl” Monroe once honed their skills and established themselves as streetball legends.
But the attention on Tuesday night for the Trayvon Martin Invitational championship game wasn’t focused on the long list of celebrities and professional athletes who have hooped at Rucker Park in years past. It was all about remembering the lives of Trayvon Martin and Sean Bell, and protecting the lives of those children who will grow up looking and dressing like them.
Each One, Teach One
“Each one, Teach one,” was the recurring theme throughout the tournament, stressing college preparation and staying off the streets for young children.
The motto was coined by Holcombe L. Rucker, who in 1947 started the New York City pro-am tournament and helped give out more than 700 college scholarships to young children who lived in Harlem and surrounding low income neighborhoods.
Rucker’s tournaments became an instant hit among New Yorkers, eventually moving to their current location at Frederick Douglass Boulevard and 155th Street. And his penchant for giving back to the community -- especially the children -- is a tradition still carried on nearly 50 years after his death.
Rucker Park Is For the Children
Raheem Wiggins, who founded the Sean Bell All-Stars basketball program, has helped to register more than 100 teenagers and young children this summer alone with teams in the age divisions of 10-year-olds up to the late teens.
“We have kids of all ages shouting Sean Bell’s name -- when I’m dead and gone there’s still going to be the Sean Bell All-Stars,” said Wiggins, a fellow South Jamaica native and close friend of the late Sean Bell.
“He’s not just a friend from Queens -- that was my little brother,” Wiggins said.
“We have to put a stop to all of this. Two unarmed men died, but for what? On an assumption? But you can’t bring these kids lives back.”
A Martin Family Blessing
Trayvon Martin’s father, Tracy Martin, gave EBC CEO Greg Marius “permission to do it every year” and even promised to make an appearance at the second annual Trayvon Martin Invitational next summer.
“It brought me to tears,” Marius said of the phone conversation they had last week. “He was so ecstatic that we were doing this, especially in a legendary park like this.”
In addition to Harris, the inaugural Trayvon Martin Invitational brought in NBA stars Kyrie Irving, Tyreke Evans and even soon-to-be league commissioner Adam Silver.
“A lot of these kids can’t afford to go see these guys play,” Marius said. “To be on the court with them here is an honor -- it really does a lot for these kids."