At Rucker Park in New York, people sat on rooftops and climbed trees to watch Julius Erving play street basketball. In Louisville, Kentucky, Artis Gilmore would pull up in his fancy car, still wearing his fancy suits, and just ball. Kevin Durant first measured the worth of his game on the D.C. playgrounds, and Arthur Agee chased his hoop dream in Chicago. The Philadelphia outdoor courts once boasted a who’s who of the city’s best ballers, and in Los Angeles, street basketball legends with names such as Beast, Iron Man and Big Money Griff played on the same concrete as Magic and Kobe. That was then, a then that wasn’t all that long ago.
Now? Now the courts are empty, the nets dangling by a thread. The crowds that used to stand four deep are gone, and so are the players. Once players asked, “Who’s got next?” Now the question is “Anyone want to play?” And the answer seems to be no, at least not here, not outside. Street basketball, at least as we knew it, is dying.
“That’s gone now, all of it is gone,” said former University of Maryland star Ernie Graham, who honed his game on the playgrounds of D.C. and Baltimore.
There is no single cause. The best players, young and old, want to be inside instead of out; they want organized games to showcase their skills, not pickup games to earn street cred. Violence has chased people off playgrounds and out of parks, and NBA and NCAA rules limit when and where guys can play in the offseason.
That attitude starts at an early age. High school players in search of scholarships and exposure spend May, June, and July in indoor, showcase tournaments and AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) events, not parks.
“AAU is a big milestone for anybody,” said D’Angelo Russell, a five-star Ohio State signee from Louisville. “If you’re not playing AAU, you’ll be lucky to get out of your own city. AAU helps any kid. You get to play in front of top colleges, play with the top players, against the top players. You get to make a name for yourself every day you play.”
But the appeal of an indoor game isn’t just the quest for fame, scholarship or structure. It’s also about safety. It’s easier to control an indoor space than an outdoor one. Buildings have walls and private entrances; you can’t put a metal detector at every park.
“You’re not going to go out and see LeBron in the playgrounds unless there’s a special setting, a special arrangement,” said Gilmore, a Hall of Famer. “Because the other thing is security. Kids right now, the way they value individual guys’ lives, it’s not the same.”
Even if the NBA stars are made to feel safe, they aren’t likely to show up. Kobe Bryant broke his wrist on the hard concrete at Venice Beach in California. Locals swear the concrete D.C. courts at the Goodman League ruined Gilbert Arenas’ knee. The fear of injury, missing games and losing money, coupled with jam-packed offseason schedules, has turned pros into occasional visitors rather than regulars at the nation’s playgrounds.
“Dominique Wilkins played outside, and he could still jump,” said Taras Brown, a longtime AAU coach, and Durant’s godfather. “They say they’re worried about their knees. Your knees don’t go ’til you’re in your 40s. They just don’t want to play outside anymore.”
NBA players will not play outside anymore; NCAA players largely may not. College rules restrict summer league participation.
“Summer school is so prevalent, I almost feel sorry for our guys,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “They get 10 days here, and then the first summer term starts up. Then another week and the second summer term starts up. It used to be you released a guy in May, gave him a workout plan and hoped they did what they were told. You wanted them to play.”