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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.”


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