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
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
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.