The R&B star Mary J. Blige, sitting pretty in a gold-lamé halter top and matching stretch pants, leans forward at courtside, cheering on her team. Front row at the Garden? Not quite. Blige is getting her game on at the far grittier Holcombe Rucker Memorial Park at 155th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. Like a proud parent, Blige hollers along with the 500-plus crowd as her center delivers a dunk that leaves the backboard begging for a time-out. The Team Mary All-Stars are running all over their opponents -- a team from a certain boxer's Tyson Records -- but for Blige, today's game is about more than a victory.
"When I was growing up, there were rec programs, things for kids in the community to do. Now there's nothing," says the star as she autographs posters for her upcoming album. "That's why this tournament is important and that's why I sponsor a team, 'cause it gives these kids something -- it gives them hope."
What started nineteen years ago as a pickup game between two rival rap crews is now the Entertainers Basketball Classic, the most celebrated street-ball tournament in New York. Held every year at Rucker Park, the summer-long event is the pride of a neighborhood filled with abandoned buildings, bulletproof bodegas, and 24-hour takeout joints. Eager to grab the attention of the exploding "urban" market, Reebok foots most of the tournament's bill -- which explains why players are allowed to wear only Allen Iverson sneakers on the court. Celebrity sponsors like Puff Daddy, Lil' Kim, and Tommy Hilfiger provide moral and financial support, and the VIP section, packed with famous fans like Shaquille O'Neal and Denzel Washington, rivals Moomba's. Even in the blistering heat, the line to get in the park ropes around the block.
"This is nothing. You should see it when Bad Boy plays," says Greg Marius, the tournament's organizer. "We've gotten way over a thousand people for some games. L.L. Cool J was here yesterday, and Jay-Z and Iverson were here earlier in the week."
For true basketball enthusiasts, the games -- played Monday through Thursday at 6 and 7:30 p.m. -- are more than autograph opportunities. The tournament is a testament to the playground style of basketball that has revolutionized the NBA in recent years, showcasing killer crossovers, finessed finger rolls, devastating dunks, and alley-oops for days. "You can't leave your seat when you're watching these games," warns Hannibal Ward, a 31-year-old entrepreneur. "I've sat here thirsty, hungry, with a full bladder -- and haven't moved. 'Cause as soon as you get up, that's when some spectacular shit that everyone talks about for years happens."
After doing a 360 dunk over two defenders four years ago, Waliyy Dixon, a six-foot-four-inch guard for Puffy's undefeated Bad Boy team, was christened "Main Event." Dixon feels a responsibility to live up to his title in every game. "A lot of the people out here watching can't afford to go to NBA games at the Garden, so when I come out here, I'm giving them pure entertainment from beginning to end."
The notoriously ruthless Entertainers Classic crowd will let players know when performances aren't up to par. "If you're not going to come correct, you might as well not even step on the court," advises Munique Lee, a 26-year-old tournament loyalist who grew up watching the games from her Polo Grounds Housing Projects window. "It's like the Apollo -- if you're wack, you will get booed." That goes for platinum-selling celebrities too. "Mase came out here, and he was messing up and missing shots," recalls Lee. "He got booed and never came back."