The magical day Kobe Bryant became Lord of the Rings at Rucker Park thumbnail

The magical day Kobe Bryant became Lord of the Rings at Rucker Park

7:30 AM ET

  • Ericka Goodman-Hughey and Anthony Olivieri

ON JULY 18, 2002, Kobe Bryant approached Rucker Park, the streetball institution in Harlem. He wore a powder blue sleeveless shirt and dark shades; an oversized key-pendant swung from his chain with each step. Onlookers sprinted toward the park’s metal fencing, meant to separate superstars from the streets, to catch a glimpse. A boom mic dangled in front of Bryant’s face. An army of security guards flanked him. Hannibal, an omnipresent announcer at Rucker, wore Bryant’s No. 8 jersey.

“Straight to the court,” Bryant shouted.

A packed crowd bounced, swayed and chanted along to street hymns pumping through a bass-heavy sound system. Spectators stood as Bryant entered. One fan excitedly banged a security gate. Bryant raised one fist, then the other. He doled out high-fives to those lucky enough to get close. He then thrust three fingers on his right hand into the air. Just weeks earlier, he had won his third championship — all of them in a row — as an All-Star guard for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Now, he was set to play in the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic, founded by the late Greg Marius in 1982. Rucker’s summer tournament, over decades, morphed from a competition for local bragging rights into a destination for the glitterati in the worlds of hip-hop and basketball — none bigger than Bryant.

As tip time approached under overcast skies, he laced up his borrowed Air Force 1s. He changed into an orange EBC No. 8 jersey and a determined gaze. Then he began to shadowbox with a friend, jabbing the air like a prizefighter.

“He’s letting you know, ‘I’m ready for whatever you’re thinking,” remembers Jay “My Block” Holder, a former Rucker player who grew up in the neighborhood. “‘I’m here inside the park. I’m here to play ball. If somebody wants to fight, I ain’t running from that either.'”

This is the oral history of how Kobe Bryant — son of suburban Philadelphia and Rieti, Italy — arrived in Harlem and claimed his crown as a streetball legend, becoming “The Lord of the Rings.”

“I INTRODUCED [KOBE] to Irv [Gotti],” hip-hop mogul Steve Stoute recalled during a 2020 interview with The Breakfast Club. “Irv had a team at Rucker. And I said to Irv, ‘I can get Kobe to play on your team.'”

But when Bryant finally arrived in July 2002, it wasn’t even news — because barely anyone knew about it. A few hours before Bryant hit the park, a local radio station got the scoop, one that even some in Rucker’s inner circle had yet to receive, and one that would cause a frenzy in the neighborhood.

Cheryl Marius, Greg’s sister: Somehow the word got out that Kobe was coming to Harlem. That’s when all the phone calls came in.

E.J. “The Mayor” Johnson, longtime Rucker announcer: [Over the years], we had Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury play on the same team. We had Kevin Garnett come in. The difference with Kobe Bryant? The masses didn’t know that Kobe was actually playing in the park.

Fat Joe, Bronx-native rapper and frequent EBC coach: Greg was more secretive than usual [that day], because if the word would have went out that Kobe Bryant was going to be at the Rucker, he wouldn’t have been able to play one second. Imagine, Kobe Bryant is the closest thing to Michael Jordan at the time.

Budd Mishkin, longtime New York City broadcaster: I was doing a story for MSG Network that day about the announcers at the Rucker when I saw a woman who I knew from the NBA, Teri Washington, and she said to me, “I guess I know why you’re here.” I said, “Since you mentioned it, who might be showing up tonight?”

Vincent M. Mallozzi, New York Times reporter and author of “Asphalt Gods”: The game started late, but I got there at 1 in the afternoon. You know why? I wanted to get a spot on the court. For the Kobe game, fans were by the fence at 3 p.m.

“The Mayor”: At 6 p.m., word [was out officially] that Kobe Bryant is playing at Rucker Park. I’m going to tell you, at 6:05, that the park was completely filled and over-capacity. The fastest show-up of any game ever. The whole park was Kobe fans.

Robert “Gusto” Wells, business partner of Greg Marius: I actually beefed up the security. We have a police detail out there every year, at least at 25, with 25 security. I added 10.

Cheryl Marius: That’s when everybody wanted to walk in with Cheryl. My brother told me, “No, you’re the only person that’s coming in. No plus-ones.” Security was tight. No special invitations. This [game] was for the spectators.

“Gusto”: Our capacity inside is 1,200, but we had maybe 1,500 to 1,600 inside, and we had another 500 outside.

Michael Super, NYC Parks’ Manhattan borough operations team, currently Brooklyn’s deputy chief of operations: On the immediate court — we’re talking right on the court — there is about a 300 to 400 capacity. Sometimes the crowd fluctuated, mainly because of the VIP area. But that’s also how I got my Rucker nickname, “Mr. Shut ‘Em Down,” because if it ever got overcrowded, I’d have to shut it all down.

Corey “Homicide” Williams, former Rucker player who went on to win MVP in Australia’s National Basketball League: [At] the legendary Polo Grounds Houses [the housing projects across the street], people would go to the rooftop to try to get a view. That’s just a bird’s eye view, you still can’t really [see]. But that’s what people were doing. I haven’t seen people out there like that for an NBA player since Dr. J.

“Gusto”: We couldn’t have him come in through the front, so the security had to take him around the back entrance off the FDR Drive, passing by the baseball field [adjacent to the park] and through the handball court.

Adrian “A Butta” Walton, former Rucker star who played in the CBA and USBL: Even the baseball game stopped, and the kids ran to the gate to see Kobe coming in.

Super: We had coordination between Kobe’s team, EBC security, the NYPD and Parks. Kobe had [security] bring him from his car and into the VIP area. That area was as secure as possible. So when he pulled up, it was a straight walk. If there was someone in that area, they were related to EBC. The public couldn’t just wait there for him.

Mishkin: Kobe showing up was like … if the Beatles showed up at a place where I was. And in a small place. You heard Kobe before you saw him. I’ve been fortunate to cover Game 7 of an NBA Finals, tons of Knicks playoff games during the ’90s, being in Chicago when they announced Michael Jordan and you couldn’t hear yourself think. But that sound that night — the utter joy — is a sound I’ll never forget.

Lonnie “Prime Objective,” Harrell, Rucker star who also spent time in the D-League: He didn’t even have [proper] shoes. Somebody at the court — his name’s Tiny Bum — brought him a pair of Air Force 1s to play in.

“Tiny Bum”: I went and got the shoes from the parking lot in my trunk in the car. I wasn’t star-struck. [I was] talking a little s—, get [him] amped up. That’s what you do to people that come around the park, and then they put on a show.

“Prime Objective”: And he was lacing up, he was like, “Yo, let’s put on a show.” I was like, “Bet.”

TO UNDERSTAND HOW Kobe Bryant arrived at Rucker Park in the prime of his career, you have to understand how Rucker Park became “The Rucker” in the first place.

155th Street and 8th Avenue. The Mecca. The home of hustlers, pickup players, infamous street ballers and Billboard chart climbers. They all made their way uptown to make a name for themselves. It was here that Nate Archibald morphed into Tiny, a barely 6-foot point guard with the game of a giant; it was here that a skinny kid from Far Rockaway, Queens, Nancy Lieberman, became “Fire” — yes, that was a nod to her hair, but also because she blazed the court up and brought the heat to those who attempted to intimidate her.

Opened in 1956, the park is named after now-departed New York City Parks Department playground director Holcombe Rucker, who organized tournaments across the city as a way to — clichés be damned — keep kids off the streets. The Entertainer’s Basketball Classic, most famously held at Rucker Park, was established under the vision of Marius, who combined culture and sport from the start. The basketball court in Rucker Park was renamed Greg Marius Court in 2017 after Marius died from cancer.

“My Block”: [Rucker Park] was the pinnacle of playground basketball.

Lieberman: Rucker is the home of heroes — Joey Hammond, Herman the Helicopter, even then Lew Alcindor, now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Tiny Archibald. Players that just rocked the world. When I was 11 or 12 years old, I took some money out of my mom’s wallet to take the subway from Far Rockaway to 155th. And I kept going back.

Mallozzi: When you started seeing musicians, sponsors and that change [with EBC coming into Rucker] — it did not register with the older players at first. For a variety of reasons. When Wilt Chamberlain played, there was really nothing [other than basketball].

“A Butta”: And then right after that, in the late ’80s, sorry to say, it was the drug dealers, with the neighborhood rappers, they got into the tournament and had their teams.

Al Cash, EBC contributor and announcer: I used to be the DJ in a group called Disco Four [in the early ’80s]. Greg G., Greg Marius’ stage name, was one of the members of the group. He was an MC, and we played [ball] against another MC crew by the name of The Crash Crew. And Mr. Magic was a radio announcer; he announced the tournament on the radio.

“The Mayor”: The guys were joking, “My rap group could beat your rap group,” and [EBC at Rucker] started from there. And it got really huge.

Cash: Our tournament began down in Mount Morris Park [located in Central Harlem and renamed Marcus Garvey Park in 1977], and we later moved up [to Rucker]. And the next thing you know, we had over a thousand people down in Mount Morris Park. From that point on, we added more hip-hop groups to the tournament. And then we came up with a rule that you were allowed to have two [extra] players per team — regular streetball players, college players, pro players — whatever.

“Gusto”: Teddy Riley — who is a big music producer and a good friend of mine — brought Greg to me. Him and Greg were cool with each other. I had owned one of the biggest roller-skating rinks in New York City, The Rooftop. I wanted to get involved in the basketball league. They needed somebody to sponsor it.

“My Block”: Greg came up with a blueprint that was smart, where he wasn’t going to let regular people buy a team or put in money to have a team anymore. He would go after the big sponsors [and] the record labels, let them pay.

“Gusto”: I put a team in there the first year [the EBC started playing tournaments at Rucker in 1982], and I sponsored the league and I sponsored the tournament. Then, me and Greg and Teddy became music partners, and I became Greg’s partner in the basketball tournament. [We] had a production studio up [at The Rooftop], and it was right across the street from Rucker Park. So we could walk, cross the street to the park, put the music equipment out there, then come back at night and open up [The Rooftop, which also was a club]. ’85, ’86 was when we had the record company [Rooftop Records]. We were dealing with a lot of rappers. Kool Moe Dee, LL Cool J, Heavy D. When we came outside to the basketball tournament, all the celebrities followed us across the street. That’s where the “Entertainer’s” came from [in the] Entertainer’s Basketball Classic.

“Rucker is smack dead in the middle of one of the most flashy, braggadocious and stylistic places. And that’s what Rucker was all about. [It] was Showtime at Rucker Park.”

Jim Jones, rapper and Harlem native

Jim Jones, frequent EBC VIP, rapper and Harlem native: Rucker is smack dead in the middle of one of the most flashy, braggadocious and stylistic places. And that’s what Rucker was all about. [It] was Showtime at Rucker Park. If you had a flashy car, you pull up at the Rucker, you double- or triple-park. You hop out, survey all the pretty girls, they got on the new sneakers, they got on the spandex, they got their hair did. You just had to be fly, had to get a whiff of that energy. It was that much of a party outside of the game that you kind of forgot about actually making it inside. That’s Harlem for you.

“The Mayor”: The [entertainers] kept playing [after the tournament got bigger]. I can remember [singer] Brian McKnight playing, Chris Brown playing, Master P playing. But they would actually go get a Division I college player or an NBA starter that wanted to play with them for a game or two. And then it became habitual.

Cash: It got to a point when Greg actually put wood floors down in the park. We had NBA players who wanted to be out there, but being that it was a blacktop, they didn’t want to play. When he sometimes put the wood down [which was still a rarity], there was no refusal from them.

“Bone Collector”: You have [thousands of] people surrounding one court. And inside that court you have some people from different boroughs — one whole section is from Brooklyn, another section is from Harlem, you have the Queens section in the corner — who argued all the way on the train that [11-year NBA veteran and Brooklyn native] Jamaal Tinsley would score more points than me.

“My Block”: It became these halftime shows, or before-game shows, where artists would come out. And it was just a great place to find the whole culture in one place, around basketball events. Everybody would be there. [Greg] just really understood the culture of Harlem and its history. You got the hip-hop, you got the sports. And you know, it’s the summer, right?

Cheryl Marius: At halftime, we’d have young artists come out there to showcase whatever talent they had. The neighborhood drunk used to come out at halftime and do his thing. There was always some entertainment.

“Prime Objective”: I call [the ’90s into the early 2000s] the golden years. That was the time when hip-hop in New York [was thriving]. Streetball and hip-hop together was just powerful. The majority of artists want to be NBA players; the majority of NBA players want to be artists.

“A Butta”: And once Puff Daddy and all of those guys — Fat Joe, Jay-Z — started to become involved … that changed it. It went corporate.

Cash: [The record companies] would bring their artists out to perform just to see how Harlem, which is that Apollo crowd, would accept them. And some of them became superstar MCs. [Fat] Joe had real love for the tournament. He’d postpone $100,000 shows just to make sure he was in the park to support his team.

Fat Joe: [Harlem streetball] was really big in the ’60s, ’70s, and then it had died down. And then when I went in there, not by myself, but I was very instrumental in bringing it back up [in the early 2000s]. Bringing in all the NBA players, so you gotta understand I’m one of the hottest rappers at the time, all my records were going No. 1, and meanwhile I’m at the NBA games telling the players to come play for the kids at Rucker. So they came and they supported me. Then the rumors were going around all over like, “Yo, everybody’s out there balling.” AI, Steph Marbury, all in their prime.

“My Block”: [Marius bringing big corporations in] was really healthy for the community. A lot of playground basketball leagues, because it had that element inside neighborhoods, every now and then, something that shouldn’t happen would happen. He was able to bring some stability up there.

Fat Joe: It took money to pay for security, it took money to fix the park, it took money to put the lights up and nothing’s free. Greg, may he rest in peace, was trying to professionalize the street basketball game.

With that stability came growth, which allowed Rucker Park — and the EBC — to serve as a platform for scores of talented players.

“A Butta”: Rucker Park, to me personally, was my NBA. If you was from the streets, if you was able to play in that park, you might’ve been able to get seen.

“Homicide”: I can’t go to an NBA arena and shoot the ball 20 times. They don’t know me. I don’t have that room for error. In the playground, I can shoot the ball as much as I want. It’s my team.

“A Butta”: I was fortunate to play in front of David Stern. I was fortunate to play in front of Bill Clinton. It has that exact feel of [The Apollo]. You could be an amateur but, then again, you could be a star. And this is where the amateurs get a chance to come and showcase that they’re possible stars.

“My Block”: It’s really like the only place where you can see a playground legend, an NBA star, a college star and high school athlete all compete in the same space at a very high level where the stakes are high.

“Bone Collector”: I think that is exactly why the rivalry [between] streetball and the NBA even exists. [An NBA player might say], “Of course I’m comfortable, I’m in the NBA. So I don’t have to play very hard.” Then you have a guy in the park, who has maybe played a little bit in the pros and he’s pretty good. Now you can’t let your mouth do the talking. You have to actually play.

“Homicide”: Some of those [NBA] guys came in with [the mentality that Rucker players weren’t on their level], and left with their asses busted. In New York, we don’t care if you’re an NBA star. Come do it in the park, then [you] get the real respect, that street stamp of approval. At the end of the day people are going to talk s—. … We don’t give a f— who you are; prove it here. We don’t care. We’re not fans of nobody, unless we see it with our eyes.

Lieberman: Kobe knew I played at Rucker and he’d always ask me, “Were you ever afraid?” I said, “No, never afraid.”

Nate “Tiny” Archibald, Rucker Park legend, former NBA player and Basketball Hall of Famer: I know Kobe’s dad, Joe Bryant. I met Kobe as a kid in Italy when his dad was playing out there. Years later, I talked to Kobe. And Kobe goes, “I remember you.” His father knew all of us. His dad opened him up to different cultures and living around the world, but he also schooled Kobe on the park’s importance.

“Gusto”: Kobe wanted to come up and get a name, too.

EVEN KOBE BRYANT, a perennial All-Star, had to prove himself at Rucker; he would be playing in front of an audience that simultaneously bowed down to him and was skeptical of his game. Before tipoff, Bryant grabbed a mic, as if he were formally introducing himself despite being one of the most famous athletes on the planet. “Happy to be out here, man,” he said to the crowd. “Let’s ball, man.”

“The Mayor”: Hannibal, my partner at the time, was a huge Kobe Bryant fan. They developed a relationship from just Kobe going to the park.

Mishkin: From what I learned, Hannibal, who’s never at a loss for words — never, ever — but, at that moment, he was kind of overcome. I remember him sitting down. Then he found himself and his words again. He kept saying, “Let’s do the damn thing. Let’s do the damn thing” — not in an angry way, but in a celebratory way.

“My Block”: Hannibal is just calling Kobe “Three Rings,” throwing it in the Knicks fans’ faces. So I called him over, he’s my guy, we’re from the same neighborhood. I said, “No, no. It’s ‘Lord of the Rings.’ He’s going to get at least two or three more.” And he went and grabbed the mic and he said, “Lord of the Rings.” It was fitting.

Cash: The announcers, we put the battery in the players’ backs. If you ask any player — NBA player, streetball player, high school player — they came up to the EBC to get that nickname.

“Bone Collector”: And I think that [Kobe’s] nickname made me appreciate my name a lot more because he had to earn that name.

But what was in it for Bryant? To play on the asphalt, to match up against, and play alongside, those who weren’t in his stratosphere … there had to be something more than a nickname that motivated him.

As it turned out, it was complicated.

“A Butta”: It solidifies your career when you come and play at Rucker Park during the golden era.

“My Block”: I’ve been on the phone with NBA players talking about how one of their colleagues went out there and didn’t do well. Everybody don’t want to go out there. It’s just one of those things — a real ballplayer, a real dog, is going to make his way to that park.

“A Butta”: That’s the one thing that I’ve always idolized and watched about Kobe: You could always see that he would show you certain things, even in an NBA game, [to] let you know that he watches the Rucker.

Mishkin: It’s two different styles of basketball. There were guys who could bridge those two worlds. Earl Monroe was a great example from years gone by. Julius Erving, “Tiny” Archibald could bridge those two worlds. Kobe felt like he had something to prove.

“Tiny”: Rucker gives you freedom. I came up in the era that they were still bodychecking, slamming people down. … You aren’t fined for doing things out of the ordinary like in the [NBA].

Jones: Just to know that Kobe waited until after he won three championships to step on the Rucker court was respect. It made the bar that high for anybody else in the NBA who could fix they lips to say, “They don’t want to play Rucker, or they don’t see the need to play Rucker or Rucker doesn’t make me, we don’t get paid for that.” Now we got a three-time champion and [All-Star Game] MVP that stepped on the court just to make sure that his championship was real. That’s why he went on that court. He did it because he was going to knock everything down across the board, NBA championships, Rucker, whatever it is when it comes to basketball.

“A Butta”: Kobe does everything where he’s still always thinking business. So, you can’t ignore that part of it.

“My Block”: Reebok was one of the many sponsors that Greg established along with his partner Gus. [The New York Times reported in August 2002, the month following Kobe’s arrival, that Greg Marius was negotiating a merchandising deal with Reebok.]

Mishkin: I had covered sports for a while at that point, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I had become a little bit jaded. So I was wondering, “Oh, he’s here. He’s got the shoe contract.”

“My Block”: Kobe was coming off his deal with Adidas. He was a free agent.

Bryant signed a sneaker endorsement deal with Adidas in 1996. The Adidas contract ended on July 15, 2002. Three days later, Bryant played at Rucker in Nike Air Force 1 Mid sneakers. He signed with Nike in 2003.

“My Block”: And all the companies were making a pitch at Kobe. One of the things that Reebok, in coordinating with Greg, was letting them know: They have a footprint on the Rucker in how this could enhance Kobe’s brand. You’re the face of the NBA, you’d be the face of Reebok, but you’ll also be the face of Rucker Park as well …

Kobe understood the sneaker industry as a business. It’s one thing to get America, at large, to buy your shoes, and you can make some money. But all the rappers, all the hip-hop artists, are they wearing your shoes? Somebody like Diddy got your jersey on. It’s different. You have to remember, Kobe was trying to rap. He’s obviously influenced by hip-hop. There’s no separation [with] Rucker Park from the hip-hop community. Kobe would have been influenced knowing that guys like Diddy, for example, participate heavily with the Rucker Park tournament.

“Homicide”: He came from outside of Philly. Technically, he grew up in Europe. His story’s not a typical inner-city kid from a major city that played ball. He’s not that at all.

Fat Joe: And sometimes when you’re great, people use that against you — where people feel like maybe he’s a sellout or something like that, which was not true.

“My Block”: Growing up [overseas], he benefited from some other cultures, learned some different languages. Hip-hop is something that he would have been exposed to from a distance. There would have had to have been a part of him that wanted to get closer to his culture.

Fat Joe: He was trying to show the streets that he ain’t just that clean-cut Kobe.

“My Block”: He knows what it is to have that street credibility to be able to do it on that hallowed ground that [Michael Jordan] never went out there and played [on].

“Kobe was a purist. In my opinion, he had to play at Rucker Park because he wanted to feel the essence.”

Nancy Lieberman

Lieberman: Kobe was a purist. In my opinion, he had to play at Rucker Park because he wanted to feel the essence.

“Homicide”: He had more of a chip on his shoulder, more than most. [Kids from the suburbs will hear], “You ain’t a real dude.” I’m pretty sure he’s heard that so many times. “All right, I don’t come from the streets, I did have both parents. But I’m still going to bust your ass. It don’t mean that I don’t have that dog in me.”

“Boobie Smooth,” longtime Rucker announcer: He told me in L.A. one time that … it was the only thing he’s missing to be solidified. I was like, “You don’t need that, though.” He’s like, “No, I need that.”

BRYANT TOOK THE court, after throwing those shadow punches, for Murder Inc., alongside “Prime Objective,” and against Source, a Washington D.C.-based team that was led by Houston Rockets guard Moochie Norris and Toronto Raptors forward Jerome Williams. Bryant’s opponents were an hour late, delaying the game and building anticipation, as rain clouds continued to hover.

After Source scored the first basket of the game, Bryant inbounded the ball to “Prime Objective” and then asked for it back. The implication was obvious. “I think what I did in the first couple minutes of the game was pretty hard to top,” Bryant said that day. At one point, he threw the ball off a defender’s back, collected it and spun in a reverse layup. A referee’s whistle that came midplay was barely heard over the crowd’s frenzy. Hannibal repeated, rhetorically, “Do you believe?”

Later on, he matched up, back to the basket, on the right wing with Byron Mouton, a guard who had just won a national championship at Maryland. Bryant spun baseline and, absent a rotating NBA defense that would have cut off his drive, the lane opened — and Bryant attempted a 360-degree dunk, which clanked off the rim.

“He’ll have plenty of time to make that one up,” Hannibal said. “Don’t you worry about that, boy-boy.”

Not everyone in the crowd agreed — resounding boos could be heard over the din. Game on. Kobe wasn’t about to back down.

“A Butta”: [I heard] there were guys that were screaming from the crowd, “You just won three in a row in the NBA. This is a whole different NBA.” So, you could see a back-and-forth with certain people in the crowd.

“Homicide”: Kobe was talking s—, too. You can tell he was just in his element. He was just so happy to be there. It was almost like a rite of passage.

“A Butta”: That’s the feeling that you get when you’re auditioning in Harlem. If you’re a person that can’t wait to show people that you’re a star, Harlem can’t wait to give you the energy that you deserve. If you’re a competitor, you feed off of trash-talking.

“Boobie Smooth”: I was on my game [as an announcer]. I said … the guy [guarding Kobe] is going to go home and tell his mother that Kobe shot it in his face.

“Homicide”: Dudes were guarding him hard, really trying to stop him. Come on, man, a determined Kobe, who could stop him? And in streetball, it was not like double-teams were coming.

“Bone Collector”: I saw Kobe blend in his game, his pro game, he was scoring his normal Kobe points. But he blended it in by skipping up the court sometimes, changing the rhythm of the handles. It was cool to see in person. You don’t really respect someone until you actually see him play.

He was better than I thought he was because I was kind of a Kobe hater at the time.

Mishkin: I remember [him] rolling it down the back of the guy who was defending him, or trying to defend him. Of course, the crowd went nuts. Then going down the lane and hitting a reverse layup. It was show time.

Mallozzi: And then it was done because of the rain.

Stoute: [It started] to drizzle, and the [ground] was getting wet. So now I’m the responsible guy, right. I’m not going to be one that took Kobe Bryant to the thing and he got hurt. I’m like, “Hell no, that’s not going to be the narrative.” So, I’m like, I got to get him to leave. But I already know he doesn’t want anybody to think he’s leaving because he’s professional and it’s wet.

“A Butta”: I had just got there two minutes before the game was getting ready to be over. He’s not caring about the little bit of slipperiness when you go to the basket. Under the paint, it’s a little bit wet. He just wanted to play because of the crowd.

“Prime Objective”: [Kobe] was like, “No, we ain’t going nowhere. It ain’t raining too hard. Let’s just stop jumping.” I was just shocked because I was like hold up, this dude had several million dollars, he got a lot to risk, it’s raining, and he still wants to play.

“Homicide”: Whenever it rains outdoors during a game, they take it into the rain site in the gym [home of the AAU New York Gauchos, about a mile away in the Bronx].

“My Block”: They’re ready to call the game. [Kobe was] like, “Nah. We ain’t calling no game. I want to stay here … inside the park.”

Stoute: The players who are playing with him are like, “You have to leave,” and he’s like “No, no, no. I’m going to tell you how to run on a wet court. I know exactly how. Pick up your feet. …” And I’m like, “No, we are getting out of here, man.”

The game was indeed halted early in the second half and moved to the Bronx. Bryant, however, would not follow; he finished with 15 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. But before he departed the court, he pulled off one last signature move. Bryant lifted his hand, fist balled, and pounded his chest as he faced the crowd on the sidelines. His head nodded in respect in sync with his fist.

Fat Joe: I’ve been at the Rucker where it’s intimidating and your best NBA player goes over there and freezes up. Not Kobe. Kobe would have scored about at least 50, 60 points out there if it weren’t for the weather.

Mishkin: I remember just walking away knowing internally, “I’ll never forget this night.”

IT WAS SEPTEMBER 2019, 17 years after Kobe Bryant arrived for that memorable day in Harlem, and three after he retired having done it all in a Hall of Fame basketball career.

Bryant stood, hands in pockets, in the Lakers purple glow of a fluorescent light in a hospitality room in Beijing, China, at the FIBA World Cup. He stood on a drab gray carpet, near a fake plant and some disposable coffee cups. Bryant watched two men approach with credentials around their necks. One was dressed in a No. 24 jersey, looking like a fan with a backstage pass. He and Bryant knew each other.

“Do you remember the game at Rucker?” the man in the jersey said, dapping Bryant up as he spoke.

Bryant looked him in the eyes.

It was Bone Collector, a man who sent defenders flying so often that he seized hamstrings and bruised tailbones. Both men had earned their respect at Rucker.

“It started raining on our asses,” he told Williams more than 17 years later.

Williams nodded his head in agreement.

As it turned out, Bryant’s arrival in Harlem touched a lot of lives, including his own. Perhaps for the first time in his life, it wasn’t so much about the game — but the place in which he was playing it.

“Prime Objective”: He was talking about how much he loved [playing at The Rucker], and how much he wished he could do stuff like that more. If he lived in New York, he would play all the time.

“Boobie Smooth”: To see somebody that just came up with a championship get out there and play and still want to prove something and let people [who] couldn’t be at those [Finals] games and couldn’t afford [it] … it meant everything to a lot of people. They’re still talking about it.

Mallozzi: I talked to Kobe a couple years later. We walked about a mile and a half together delivering food to shelters. I believe we walked right down Lenox Avenue [in Harlem]. And he said Rucker was one of the greatest experiences of his basketball career. This is from his mouth as I remember it: “All the greats came through that [park],” he said, “Wilt Chamberlain went through the Rucker. [Walt] Frazier, Earl Monroe.”

Mishkin: The Rucker is indeed the stuff of legend because we have some footage, a little bit, but the stories get passed down. I have no doubt that the people who were there that night, they’ve told a Kobe-Bryant-at-the-Rucker story more than a few times in the years since.

Greg Marius [from a Rucker retrospective video]: The day Kobe Bryant came, it was a day we were waiting for over two years. … It made history for us.”

Kobe Bryant [from the same Rucker retrospective video]: The memory I’ll definitely take away is the people down there at the game watching and interacting with them. Having a good time with them and talking trash. Just playing good ol’ basketball.