May 11, 2006– Vol. 41, No. 39

Back in the day when hoops was king

Bijan C. Bayne

The ‘bury (AKA Little Harlem). Mattapan. North Cambridge. JP. All combat zones for a type of urban warfare that has nothing to do with violence or narcotics. For half a century, Boston and its surroundings have produced schoolyard basketball players who proved they could hold their own with any in the nation.

How do we know this? Well, for starters, these streets have produced at least two players who were number one overall selections in the NBA Draft — Jimmy Walker (1967, by the Detroit Pistons) and Patrick Ewing (1985, by the New York Knicks).

In addition, scholastic players who learned their game on Boston’s battlegrounds helped the city capture the storied Boston Shootout summer tournament against the nation’s premier urban high school competition in 1972, 1985, 1989, and 1995. All of those years, the locals were decided underdogs, and America’s top streetball students from New York City, L.A., Chicago, D.C. and Atlanta sensed easy pickings. Thanks to a steady stream of guard talent (in his four years, Ewing’s teams never won the Shootout), and a boost from the home crowd, Boston kids put themselves on the basketball map for something other than Celtic championships.

The first wave of Boston’s real schoolyard talent was groomed in the early 1950s. Proving grounds like the Roxbury Boys Club, Tobin Gym, the Lewis School playground, and the parks of Cambridge produced players such as Manny Texeira of Roxbury Memorial High, Eddie Gates of Boston Tech, and Hewie Joyner of Memorial. Older players like the streetwise Vinnie French, who had a weakness for cheap wine, and Francis Jefferson, who had played at Kentucky State, lent experience to the pickup games.

During the summer, the best players from the many local colleges, town YMCA teams, and those who matriculated at historically black colleges contested each other outdoors. Gates played on a Boston University team that made the NCAA Elite Eight before bowing to Jerry West’s West Virginia squad. Joyner starred at Delaware State. The diminutive and lightning-quick Clarence “Jeep” Jones played for legendary coach Clarence “Big House” Gaines at Winston-Salem State, where other Boston kids would follow (some thanks to the word of mouth of a popular schoolboy hurdler named Gene Walcott, who became Minister Louis Farrakhan).

Other bright lights of the 1950s were Rodney Smith, Early Outlaw, speedy Jerry Shaw, hefty New Bedford transplant Gerry Cofield, explosive leaper Isaiah “Sky” King, Carl McCall (who would later become New York State comptroller) and Delaware State star Roscoe Baker. One of the few legitimate big men on the scene, 6’7” Ed Washington, was a B.U. teammate of Gates and Jack Leaman, and played in the short-lived American Basketball League with Brooklyn schoolyard hero Connie Hawkins.

The 1950s crop schooled the teenagers that would follow them, including Albie Rue of Roxbury Memorial High, the aforementioned Walker and Willis “Spider” Bennett. Rue was a marvelous player who, while at Delaware State, outscored Earl “The Pearl” Monroe in the 1966 CIAA conference tournament and still holds the record for highest tournament scoring average.

Celtic great Sam Jones took an interest in Walker while he was a 6’3”, 185-pound raw talent at Boston Trade High. Under Jones’ tutelage, Walker attended Laurinburg Institute, the North Carolina prep school from which Sam had graduated. The academic boost helped turn Walker towards Providence College, where the man of a hundred moves became the best college guard in America.

Walker’s close friend “Spider” Bennett was yet another Beantown product at Winston-Salem State. In their early teens, Jones helped get them into schoolyard and summer league games featuring Baker, “Jeep,” and Joyner, as well as Providence College stars Jim Hadnot and future Mayor Ray Flynn. The pipeline of the Reverend Michael Haynes steering young men to Delaware State, and the group who followed Walcott to Winston-Salem, paid dividends for both basketball programs.

On the other side of the Charles, powerhouse Rindge Tech was turning out schoolboy basketball stars long before Ewing emigrated from Jamaica. Former Rindge star Francis Jefferson shepherded the young talent, all of whom emulated his sound, savvy game. High school All-American Larry Stead was the best of this bunch in the early 1960s, and his cohorts included his brother Charles, and D.J. Jarvis. Little Mike Jarvis became good enough on the playgrounds to go from Northeastern University’s team to coach Ewing in high school, and later, George Washington University.

The best big man in Cambridge before Ewing was 6’8” Billy Hewitt, who played at Rindge in the mid-1960s before going west to play college ball at USC, where he regularly faced UCLA’s Lew Alcindor (who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Drafted number 11 overall in the 1968 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Lakers, Hewitt was selected to the 1969 All-Rookie Team and enjoyed a six-year professional career.

Marshall Lewis of Boston Tech was a “Scholastic Coach” Magazine All-American. Owen Wells, Reggie Byrd, and Harry Barnes were the big names in the schoolyard, and in 1968, Hyde Park High’s Russell Lee signed to play at Marshall University.

In the late 1960s, college basketball recruiters still didn’t pay much attention to Boston basketball, viewing the talented Walker as an anomaly. But all that would change in the age of Mel King, Tommie Atkins, and Elma Lewis, due in part to the creation of two outlets for the town’s hoop talent—the Boston Neighborhood Basketball League, a summer program founded in 1969, and the legendary Boston Shootout.

In 1971, NBA referee Ken Hudson, Rudy Cabral and streetball stars turned Roxbury Clubhouse board members Roscoe Baker and “Jeep” Jones organized the Shootout to showcase the city’s best to the rest of the hoops world. The Boston squad featured some of basketball’s best-kept secrets, including King Gaskins of Catholic Memorial, Carlton Smith of English High, Lexington High’s Ronnie Lee (Russell’s brother), “Smooth” Bobby Carrington of Archbishop Williams, post-man Billy Collins of Don Bosco, and Wil Morrison of Tech High.

After going through teams from D.C. (starring burly All-Everything Adrian Dantley) and New York (with Rutgers signee and future All-American Phil Sellers), the host team faced a finals matchup with Connecticut, led by Walter Luckett of Bridgeport Kolbe Cathedral (who averaged 39 points per game in high school and graced the cover of the “Sports Illustrated” college basketball preview — as a freshman). Boston copped the inaugural Shootout championship in a 72-71 nail-biter.

The nucleus of that historic Shootout championship team, known as The Boston Six, served notice that the urban game was alive and very well at places such as Washington Park. In fact, the centerpiece of the Washington Park scene was not one of The Six, but a player a year ahead of them, Dorchester High grad Stevie Strother, whose moves inspired the Park’s summer cry, “Run the Show, Stro’, Run the Show.” Viewers from across the city, including sportswriters and members of the Celtics, flocked to Washington Park to witness Strother’s handle, Gaskins’ deadly crossover dribble, Smith’s silky jumpshot, and Collins’ monstrous dunks.

Soon the city was producing 1970s superstars such as Felton Sealy of Don Bosco, Mimi James and Paul Little of Rindge, Dwan Chandler of English, and “Jammin’” James Bailey of Xaverian. Names such as Tommy Ford, Lee-Lee Pope, Perry Adams and “Fast Eddie” Anderson were better known to blacktop aficions than avid readers of the “Globe” and “Herald American” sports pages. All were battle-tested outdoors; Adams’ outdoor jumpshot was so sure, he earned the nickname “Ching,” for the sound the ball made against the chain nets. Out-of-towners who have come to play for Harvard, B.C., B.U., Northeastern, and even the Celtics have been impressed by the level of homegrown talent. Guys with street cred took their game to the next level, strengthening Boston’s “rep.” Ron Lee made All-American at Oregon and played for the Phoenix Suns. King Gaskins began at Holy Cross, while Carrington, Collins and Morrison signed at Boston College as a group. James Bailey made the big time with Rutgers and the Nets, followed by Butch Wade at Michigan.

The 1985 Shootout backcourt of Xaverian’s Dana Barros (a Mattapan native) and Rindge’s Rumeal Robinson typified the city’s history of premier guard play, characterized by a legacy of great ball-handling. After all, a generation of Eastern Massachusetts kids grew up watching the “Houdini of the Hardwood,” NBA Hall of Famer Bob Cousy, and his emphasis on crisp passing and a sure “handle” has been continued by great guards like Jones, Shaw, Walker, Strother and Gaskins. Every high schooler in the state who fancies himself an ace, from B.C. High’s Chucky Chevalier and Belmont’s Mickey Hamilt in the late 1950s to Fall River’s Chris Herren and Salem’s “Scoonie” Penn in the mid-1990s, has had to display those skills on Hub schoolyards, or else be deemed “suspect.”

Orchard Park product Michael Bivins, of New Edition/Bell Biv Devoe fame, has been known to assemble summer teams. Recently Wayne Turner, Peter Etienne, Monte Mack, Jon DePina, Al Rue, Jr., Randell Jackson, and the late Jamal Jackson (murdered in the summer of 1996 before what would have been his senior season at Cleveland State) have continued the tradition. Nowadays, streetball is a hot brand, marketed in television series, films, bootleg videos, sportswear and athletic drinks. But long before that, Boston’s best razzled and dazzled in the state where the game was born.

Boston-born Bijan C. Bayne, author of Sky Kings: Black Pioneers of Professional Basketball, lives in Washington, D.C.



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