Commentary

Playground legends no more

Changes cause a formative part of basketball culture to wither

Updated: July 9, 2013, 10:20 PM ET
By Scoop Jackson | ESPN.com

The death of Tyron Evans. An end's beginning.

Quiet as it was kept, quiet as it actually was, the passing of the great Alimoe (aka the Black Widow) in late February marked the beginning of the end of what was always believed to be an infinite era of basketball.

While a playground legend can pass away, the actuality or reality of the playground legend is never supposed to die.

[+] EnlargeTyron
Steve Grayson/Getty ImagesTyron "Alimoe" Evans made his name in New York, but also traveled with Team AND1.

Never. Right? Basketball historically has been the sport (along with boxing and soccer) that has always had a culture outside of multimillion-dollar contracts on display inside billion-dollar arenas.

But somehow, the playground legend, the player whom everyone describes with clichés (Shaquille O'Neal, Entertainers Basketball Classic founder Greg Marius and filmmaker Bobbito Garcia talking about Evans) as "supposed to be in the NBA" has reached the point of extinction.

They're not totally gone (Adrian Walton, Steve Burtt Jr., Greg Plummer, etc.) but they're no longer being born, no longer in production. Gone is the day when a guy made a career by hustling in his own neighborhood or, at farthest, in the parks and courts of his own city (leaving aside for a moment the source of that cash). We have entered into the newly eternal generation in which all great players -- all players with professional basketball talent -- actually at some point play professional basketball.

No longer are there promising NBA-able players who float under the radar or make it to age 20 before being discovered in pickup games at Dyckman Park or in the Kenner League.

No more Rafer (aka Skip To My Lou) Alstons: kids whose games are birthed and raised on concrete, who had really no big-time, all-state high school career (Alston played a total of 10 games at Cardozo High School in New York as a junior and senior), a limited college career (one season at Fresno State after two seasons at two different community colleges) but still made it to the NBA .

The closest we'll get now is the journey traveled by a few players just drafted into the NBA. No. 3 pick Otto Porter Jr. and No. 2 pick Victor Oladipo, to be exact. Porter was the 42nd-ranked player according to ESPN coming out of a small high school in Sikeston, Mo., in 2011 with no attachment to any other team except his high school squad. Oladipo was ranked 144th in the nation according to Rivals.com coming out of DeMatha High School (in Maryland) just three years ago.

Both as anonymous as a player can be today going into college. No prep school. No McDonald's or Parade All-American recognition.

Also no national showcase games or AAU for Porter.

Which, if anything, can be singled out as the main reason the playground legend is becoming or will soon become extinct.

* * *

Gary "G" Smith may be the last.

He's hitting up the latest television reality series and corporate-sponsored tournaments to find fame. In 2012 Smith won the Fox Sports Network's "Ball Up Streetball" competition, earning him a spot on the Ball Up roster and a multiyear contract.

His dream: To make the NBA. To have the silhouette of Jerry West stitched on his jersey. Instead his basketball story so far is a collection of on-court/in-game auditions.

[+] EnlargeGary Smith
Layne Murdoch/Getty ImagesGary Smith has been trying out and barnstorming, including this stop at the Texas State Fair.

How Smith slid through the cracks is somewhat of a mystery. He doesn't come from a big market, and although he wasn't a star in high school, his talent/skill/size now makes it hard to believe that some AAU coach in his region (Arizona) wasn't warned about this kid's ability to hoop. Yet he's now the latest "streetball" player on the infamous, always overhyped "should be in the League" list.

"Seventy percent for sure" is the number Bill Duffy, CEO of BDA Sports Management, whose clients have included Carmelo Anthony, Yao Ming and Mike Conley Jr., puts as the probable amount of American players in the NBA who have AAU experience.

Chris Palmer, who has covered high school and playground basketball for ESPN The Magazine, says the percentage is even higher

"For American-born players -- most of whom are younger than 28 -- I'd say it's about 85 to 90 percent; 23 and under I'd say it's close to 100 percent," Palmer said. "Tough to find a player who hasn't played in the adidas Big Time Tourney. When I was coming up in the early '90s, maybe about three to four kids on a high school team played some level of AAU. Nowadays it's closer to 10 kids on every high school team. The number of teams, tourneys and sponsors has exploded to a ridiculous level."

But while Smith-types used to be a dime a dozen, in this new playground hoop recession, players of his ilk have become so rare, the basketball junkie would open his wallet to go back to the 1980s and peek through the chain-link.

Just one look at a list from California compiled by ESPN in 2012 proves the disappearance of the true playground legend. Of the 24 players highlighted, the youngest (Kenny Brunner and Schea Cotton) exited high school in 1997.

More than 15 years ago. A generation removed.

Now to blame this decline on AAU is like blaming a lack of fathers in black households for the constant decline of African-Americans in baseball, or blaming MMA for the decline in boxing's popularity.

Yet …

Playgrounds don't see the Andrew Wigginses or Jabari Parkers or Aaron Gordons. There are more stories of LeBron James' exploits playing for the Ohio Shooting Stars and the Oakland Soldiers than in the parks or rec centers in Akron or the areas surrounding Cleveland. Kevin Durant is much more of a legend for what he did with his DC Blue Devils (where he played with Ty Lawson) than for anything he did unrestricted on the concrete in and around D.C. Brandon Jennings is more legendary for his play with the SoCal Playaz (where he played with Kevin Love) than for anything he did when he randomly showed up at a park to "get some run."

Basketball's rite of passage has changed.

Ron Naclerio sees it. He's seen it.

For more than the 33 years he's been coaching basketball at Cardozo High School in Queens, Naclerio, co-author of "Swee' Pea and Other Playground Legends: Tales of Drugs, Violence and Basketball," has been witness to the shift.

"Most of the tournaments that get the notoriety now are the tournaments where you travel," he said. "You go to Vegas, you go to Florida and places like that, and the problem is a lot of the kids are traveling so much that right off the bat at least half of their playground games are now AAU games or AAU tournaments around the country. So they don't play locally in the summer as much [because] most of the summer leagues and tournaments conflict with AAU."

"Once a kid gets a bit of a name, especially with the Internet and how easy it is now to spread a kid's name out there, some AAU team is grabbing the kid. Whether he's 12 years old, 13 years old, 14 …"

Gone too soon. Not just Alimoe, but the kid who can never have or build a legacy similar to the one that gave Alimoe notoriety far beyond what he could have earned had he joined an AAU squad and still not made it to the NBA.

"The kids today want so much instant gratification," Naclerio adds. "The playground legends -- when they became playground legends -- it wasn't some guy showing up some place in New York and having one good game or one good tournament. It was them consistently doing it for a whole summer or several summers."

According to Naclerio and several other people who have a greater affinity for what they tend to call "basketball at its purest and most uncorrupt form" (not basketball that involves people in suits with clipboards running the game), most of the young players today don't hang around long enough to even establish a playground rep.

Certain weeks in June, July and early August most of the top prospects are already at a Nike or an adidas or an Under Armour event. In the past they'd be found playing at the park.

Even in post-modern AAU basketball – more than a decade after the Myron Piggie era -- the playgrounds still lose out.

* * *

"While the amount of NYC's teenaged outdoor pickup players in the last five years has actually increased, the overall skill level in our parks has dropped. I would surmise one factor is that the elite AAU kids are on the road all summer at indoor invitational tournaments and camps. It's great to expand an inner-city youth's horizon, but at the same time I recommend a balance. A kid should spend at least half his summer getting tough under the sun, getting knocked on his ass by old heads who won't spoil him with free sneakers, but rather make him wait two hours to get next so he knows the true value of staying on the court and winning. Only asphalt politics provide that attitude. Ask any of the NBA greats from Oscar Robertson to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, both proud products of the playground."

-- Bobbito Garcia, director of the award-winning documentary "Doin' It In The Park: Pick Up Basketball, New York City"

Asphalt politics are a thing of the past.

Maybe it is good for the game at the professional/FIBA/NBA level, but it undermines the culture. An absence that at basketball's ground zero, the very courts where the game begins for so many, is being felt.

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
Ray Amati/NBAE/Getty ImagesKobe Bryant is among the NBA players who have made the trek to Rucker Park, in this case in 2002.

Streetball and the on-court game of some of the all-time playground greats gave basketball a richness shared with very few other sports. (Really, name another sport in which you hear so many stories of how great a player is/was/used to be and how he had "better than the best ever" ability but never got a shot. You never hear anyone speaking about a local golfer who is/was "better than Tiger Woods" but never made the PGA. Anyone that good got sponsors and found his way on the tour.) This loss eliminates a component in the life of a basketball player that urbanizes -- and in many cases, legitimizes -- legends and legacies.

Wonder why so many young pros keep showing up summer after summer at the EBC? Wonder why Durant went on that playground tour last summer?

Most of them know something on their résumé is missing: That official cred that comes with doing it in the park.

Kyrie Irving was really the last hope. His father tried to make playing on the concrete part of the plan -- not just to get him ready for battles he knew his son was going to have to face on his path to greatness, but also to make sure his son had a legacy that went beyond ballin' in front of thousands of paid customers.

Sorta like the one Drederick Irving built while using the parks of New York as part of his route to the NBA.

Kyrie put in some work on the streets/parks of Newark, N.J. Some. Not enough to eclipse what he did when he played with the New Jersey Roadrunners AAU squad, or at different skills academies (including James' and Deron Williams', to name two).

He's the one who was supposed to be playground basketball's last samurai. But somehow, like it seems to be happening to just about all of the game's recent prodigies, sponsored/sanctioned ball is taking them away.

On to the next one. On to guard Seventh Woods.

So thanks, AAU. Thanks for contributing and/or being an accessory to killing a part of basketball that was as much a part of its soul as acting is to theater's.

No one is saying you've done anything wrong in creating a viable and alternative outlet for kids to play the game and to make their professional and collegiate dreams come true. We're just saying when it comes to the health of playground basketball, you are the game's cancer.

Scoop Jackson | email

ESPN.com columnist

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