Home » Columns » Currently Reading:

Interview with Vincent Mallozzi

August 13, 2003 Columns No Comments



Vincent Mallozzi’s Asphalt Gods

by Adam Shandler


It was an atmosphere more befitting of the neighborhood pizza joint than the Barnes and Noble on the Upper East Side.

Gathered in the corral of the upstairs periodical section were jolly Italian-American guys from “da naybahood” who weren’t afraid to hug, genuinely interested hoopaphiles, and me, “that guy from the basketball website”.

Photo Copyright Adam D. Shandler/Hoopville
Vincent Mallozzi


When introduced at the lectern, the community relations director introduced her guest as “Vincent Mah-LOT-zee”, (as opposed to the more indigenous “Vinny Mah-LOW-zee.) When the author took the stand, the crowd rang out with cheers of “Ay, Vinny!” That’s the good kind of Bronx cheer.

Vincent Mallozzi, New York Times sports editor, and contributing writer to Slam, Vibe, the Source and the Village Voice, was conducting a book talk and signing to promote his latest achievement Asphalt Gods, an Oral History of the Rucker Tournament.

Gods, Mallozzi’s third book, offers readers not the all-too-common, glazed-over, anecdotal accounts from some sportswriter just passing through town, but an impassioned, in-depth history from someone who has been entrenched in the Rucker community since his youth. A homegrown Harlemite, only Mallozzi could have done this book justice.

The unofficial historian of the world’s most famous outdoor league gives readers stories only someone with his local street-cred could get. Some of these stories, like that of Joe “the Destroyer” Hammond, read like Greek tragedies. Other, more contemporary Rucker tales, like Larry “Big Stretch” Elting’s, have more biblical parallels. Rare photos of Wilt, Dr. J and a baby-faced Kareem round out a well-packaged work that should be required reading for anyone into Old School, the history of New York City or basketball in general.

After two hours of signing books and shaking hands, “Vinny” spoke with me about some of the Rucker legends in his book, the league’s great nicknames and…bunnies?


Doin’ the book tour thing, and John Isaacs, living legend from the Harlem Rens.

Adam Shandler: Playboy Magazine gave you a three-bunny review for Asphalt Gods. Guess you don’t need that Pulitzer now, huh?

Vincent Mallozzi: Their top review is four bunnies, but three bunnies is great. Playboy even said that Asphalt Gods was a “welcome piece of New York City history.” The reviews have been great. New York Magazine said “this is an old New York City story but one that is told fascinatingly well here.” When you spend two years of your life on a project – waking up in the middle night, keeping your family up, pounding away on your keyboard – those reviews make it all worthwhile.

AS: What’s the allure of this book?

VM: This is a book filled with tragic fairy tales, but it’s also a celebration of the great games in the park; how this tiny tournament started by this parks department guy developed into a national institution. The Rucker Tournament is well-known throughout the country, but it’s a nice slice of New York City, maybe even more so than its ballparks or hot dog stands.

AS: Let’s talk briefly about Holcombe Rucker. When people refer to the Rucker Tournament, maybe they know that this league was started by some guy name Rucker, but they don’t know much else about him.

VM: Well, they called him The Pied Piper; everyone would follow him. At the time (late 40’s) kids in his Harlem neighborhood were living on the mean streets and in poverty. And he started the league for that reason, to get them away from that. Holcombe Rucker changed the lives of a lot of guys and that seems to be the one common thread that all the guys in this book have come back to. Whether it’s a player who had a rise and fall or fall and rise, they all look back at Holcombe Rucker as a guy who was instrumental in their lives.

Even on non-basketball days, the basketball court would essentially become the town square. Rucker would sit on a weathered park bench, and for fifteen, sixteen hours a day, talk with kids about the civil rights movement or other issues of the day. Some of these kids didn’t even play hoops and many of them are doctors and lawyers now.

AS: You’ve been a Rucker guy since your youth and are the tournament’s unofficial historian. But were there any challenges at all in gathering research for this book?

VM: Yeah, actually a lot of the guys in the book live and lurk in the shadows and I had a tough task of tracking them down. Take a guy like Joe “The Destroyer” Hammond. This guy used to have an entourage when he played, he’d always be out there, now he’s tough to get a hold of. But they call these guys “asphalt guys” for a reason. The streets is where they played and the streets is where they lived. They’d hit big shots and have big games in the park then drift back into the shadows. It was like you knew them but you didn’t know them.

But guys like Joe were more likely to chat with me than someone they didn’t know. They know me as a neighborhood guy, I’m in the Rucker Hall of Fame and I think that during the lean years they appreciated the fact that I was still writing about the league and keeping it alive.

AS: You call Joe Hammond “The Destroyer.” There’s also Earl “The Goat” Manigault”, Herman “The Helicopter” Knowings and Ed “The Genie” Warner. I guess colorful nicknames are part of the Rucker lore.

VM: Today everyone gets a nickname whether you like it or not. They called Hammond “The Destroyer” because he destroyed everyone on D. They called Knowings “The Helicopter” because he could rise above everyone else on the court. I still like “Half Man, Half Amazing.”

There’s a new guy called The Bone Collector – Larry Williams – who Iverson now wants a piece of.

AS: How has the Rucker League changed – for better or worse – since its late 70’s heyday?

VM: For a while, in the 80’s and 90’s, the pro players were staying away from the asphalt game. They were too worried about injuries. But then a rapper by the name of Greg Marius put together an event at Rucker Park called the Entertainers Basketball Classic. Pro players started coming back to the league and keeping the Rucker mystique alive. Marius was smart enough to merge the two worlds of music and basketball. Maybe we won’t have the great rivalries like Dr. J. versus Joe Hammond, but through hip-hop connections players are still coming out. And admission is free! Where can you go to see entertainers (like P. Diddy) and pro players (like Vince Carter) in one night for free?

AS: Are film rights to Asphalt Gods in the works?

VM: My agents at IMG are talking to some TV people. The first phase is just to promote the book. The next step may be TV or big screen. But I do feel that there are like six documentaries or movies trapped inside this book. Like Joe Hammond’s story. Here’s a guy who was just shooting hoops in the playground and gets an offer from the Lakers. Imagine – a guy who never even played high school ball! A lot of the other guys were kind of upset with me because I devoted so much of the book to him. But, hey, Joe is one of the central characters of Rucker basketball. I’m surprised a movie hasn’t been made about him yet, but the problem with Joe’s story is it has no ending.

Larry Elting is another great story. He served prison time for a gunfight at his high school in Poughkeepsie. In fact, Joe Hammond told me I had to go see this guy play in the prison league. I wrote stories about Larry in Slam and the New York Times which caught the attention of some college coaches. They met with him in prison, helped him get early parole and he ended up playing (junior) college ball. Larry did very well for himself. Now he’s some kind of executive with IBM. I recently got a call from a production company that’s interested in the story of his life.

AS: This is your third book. Is Asphalt Gods your favorite?

VM: This is the one my heart and soul is tied into most. The (Legends and the Game) book was a fun book to write, but Asphalt Gods is a lifetime of stories and friendships. It was an honor to meet and talk to guys like John Isaacs; I mean he’s the last surviving Harlem (Renaissance) Ren! (An all-black Depression-Era barnstorming team. Isaacs was one of the Rucker League’s first coaches.) He’s a walking treasure.

I’ve created kind of a cottage industry with these stories of playground basketball. I’m very, very proud of the book. I think it’s very hard to dislike it. Asphalt Gods is the kind of book that when you see it on the bookshelf you’ll say, I’ve never read a sports book like this before.

AS: Will you sign my book?

VM: Of course.

AS: Make it out to “Half Man, Half Mediocre.”

     

Comment on this Article:







Subscribe to Hoopville

Enter your email address to subscribe to Hoopville

Advertisement


Hoopville Archives

College Basketball Tonight

We hope you enjoyed COLLEGE BASKETBALL TONIGHT during the 2016 NCAA Tournament. COLLEGE BASKETBALL TONIGHT is a comprehensive look at the NCAA Tournament hosted by veteran college basketball broadcaster Ted Sarandis, along with co-hosts Mike Jarvis and Terry O'Connor, both former Division I coaches. It also included many great guests, including Hoopville's own Phil Kasiecki.

The show aired on AM 710 WOR in New York City on Sunday evenings starting with Selection Sunday and running through the NCAA Tournament.

Here are links to the shows:

March 13, 2016 - First hour | Second hour

March 20, 2016 - First hour | Second hour

March 27, 2016 - First hour | Second hour

April 3, 2016 - First hour | Second hour

Everybody Needs a Head Coach

Former college basketball coach Mike Jarvis has a new book out, Everybody Needs a Head Coach.

"As you read this book, I hope that Coach Jarvis' experiences inspire you to find your purpose in life."
-Patrick Ewing, NBA Hall of Fame center

"Mike Jarvis' is one of my special friends. I am so pleased that he has taken the time to write this fabulous book."
-Mike Krzyzewski, Five-time NCAA championship head coach, Duke Blue Devils

"In reading this book, I can see that Mike hasn't lost his edge or his purpose. Readers should take a look at what he has to say."
-Jim Calhoun, Three-time NCAA champion, UConn Men's basketball

Review on Hoopville coming soon!

Coaching Changes and NBA Draft Early Entrants

The coaching carousel is moving. Keep track of the latest coaching changes right here on Hoopville.

Also, keep track of players who have declared early for the NBA Draft.

Hoopville Podcasts

Talking Hoops With Ted Sarandis – August 17, 2017

August 18, 2017 by

In our latest podcast, we check in with some good news from a few teams overseas after a big scare, plus a big addition for a championship contender, a conference on the rise, and a great coach thinking about a return to the bench.

Talking Hoops With Ted Sarandis – June 21, 2017

June 21, 2017 by

In our latest podcast, we talk about the NBA Draft, of course, but spend much more time on the happenings at Ohio State and Louisville and the implications starting next season.

Talking Hoops With Ted Sarandis – May 17, 2017

May 18, 2017 by

In our latest podcast, we start with the NBA Draft Lottery, then talk about a big pickup for Duke, important transfers, the coaching carousel winding down and much more.

Talking Hoops With Ted Sarandis – April 27, 2017

April 27, 2017 by

In our latest podcast, the business of college sports, as well as that of sports media, takes center stage. We talk about the layoffs at ESPN, college basketball’s opening night, and Wichita State’s departure from the Missouri Valley Conference. We close with thoughts on a departed friend of the media business as well.

Talking Hoops With Ted Sarandis – April 11, 2017

April 11, 2017 by

In our first off-season edition, we look back on the season that just ended, including redemption for one team and a big development for a conference that has had more questions than success on the hardwood. We also look at players coming and going, as well as big coaching news on a day where there was a lot of it.

Phil Kasiecki on Twitter

Recruiting Coverage

Lincoln captures Hamilton Park title

August 15, 2017 by

For the first time, a public school won the Hamilton Park Summer League, and they were led by a big effort from a junior point guard in the title game.

Notes from a day at the 2017 Boston Shootout

June 12, 2017 by

Some news and notes coming from the second and final day of action at the 2017 Boston Shootout, where the host program provided plenty of talent, but so did a program that produced a team that beat them.

Notes from a day at the 2017 Northeast Hoops Festival

April 11, 2017 by

The Northeast Hoops Festival helped bring in the new spring travel season in New England, and we have notes from some of Saturday’s action.

2016 Boston Back to School Showcase notes

September 12, 2016 by

We look back at the 2016 Boston Back to School Showcase, where a couple of Boston City League teams were among the most impressive on the day.

2016 Hoopville Spring Finale championship recap

June 28, 2016 by

We look back at the championship games of the 2016 Hoopville Spring Finale, which had a big local flavor as one might have expected.