The man at the free throw line dribbled twice, exhaled and began shooting the ball.
Just before he released, a voice boomed over the sound system, “Hey! Look who it is! Junior Junior!”
The shooter bricked the ball off the back rim and shook his head. He didn’t even look back. The announcer who had interrupted the free throw ran onto the court and shook hands with Junior Junior. The second free throw swished and Team French Montana inbounded the ball and ran past the two men reminiscing at midcourt.
Yes, two men are standing in the middle of the floor talking during a game. And yes, it appears to be the normal. Several members of the crowd laugh. Not one of the players look angry at the new obstacles.
The sun is fading behind the fences which close off Rucker Park from the rest of Harlem on a Wednesday night. This storied park, the place where Kareem Abdul-Jabar and Julius Erving honed their games and Kevin Durant dropped by to stay in shape during a lockout, is just a community gathering place tonight. After a patdown from metal-wanded security guards, the walk is short to the metal bleachers to see the blue basketball court painted with the Rucker Park logo underneath each basket. There are about 300 people here. An older man in the bleachers is eating a ham sandwich, enjoying the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic, a league held from 6 to 10 p.m. every Monday through Thursday in the summer. The man says he comes every night, a place to keep him entertained and out of trouble.
Team Madoff, now on defense, steals the ball and dribbles back down the court. The players on a fastbreak almost knock down Junior Junior, who was told to go outside so the announcer could give him a proper entrance. Junior Junior—clad in a white Bahama shirt and white pants and white dress shoes—ambles in, waving to the crowd as “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” plays and the announcer screams, “Look at that pineapple outfit! Junior Junior is style, boy boy!”
The announcers seemingly every sentence with the expression, “Boy boy!”
The players are good. Every so often a player will cross up his defender with an ankle-breaking move which produces a blush from him and “oohs!” from everyone else. Once in a while, an angry dunk by “Optimus Prime” will energize the crowd as he hangs on the rim, scowling, only to run around high-fiving the audience. But the players—even apparent EBC superstars “Kiki” and “Brandon”—are largely forgettable. (Except for the hickey on Optimus Prime’s neck, which is undoubtedly the largest hickey I’ve ever seen in my life.)
But the announcers make it memorable. They are the show. Junior Junior’s hype man jumps and screams with his partner, a man who arrived 10 minutes before tip-off and hurriedly changed out of his army fatigues, grabbed a microphone with glued-on brass knuckles and donned a silky white boxer’s robe embroidered with “Da Most Electrifying” in gold lettering. (It’s the same announcer from the Kevin Durant video.)
The abandon of the two announcers is an infectious energy that produces many smiles and guffaws throughout the game. They speak in rapid, rhythmic staccato, punctuating the rat-a-tat-tat of their statements with “Boy, boy!” It’s similar to the rhythm heard by subway bucket drummers.
The announcers berate the players—when one player misses a wide open 3-pointer, the boxer says, “Hey, it’s a cold, cold world”—and debate what to call their fathers, who are both in the crowd that night. “I always call my Pops, Pops,” said Junior Junior’s hype man. “I don’t call nobody dad unless I’m trying to box.”
Junior Junior’s hype man Shmoney dances to Bobby Shmurda’s hit “Hot N***a” while Team Madoff goes on a 10-2 run. He wonders aloud, “Can you do this dance anywhere?” He almost debates himself. He argues that the dance is perfect for the club on Saturday night and the pew on Sunday morning. He said he’s going to try it this Sunday.
“If you don’t believe me, meet me there,” he says. “Every Sunday, 8:45 a.m., 550 west 155th Street, Church of the Intercession. Come on out.”
When a French Montana player buries a 3-pointer which buries the hopes of a comeback, the two hop around and go, “Ohhhhh! They’re gonna need to talk about that one!” Anytime Brandon touches the ball, they yell, “Shooooo-TER” and they laud every swished jumper with a quick, “Bottom of the net!” There’s one white player out of both teams and he’s tall, bearded and balded and white. They call him Gortat, in reference to “The Polish Hammer,” Marcin Gortat, who plays in the NBA.
Junior Junior’s hype man is always scanning the crowd when he’s talking, and I don’t know what he’s looking for. But suddenly, he asks the man sitting in front of me, “Where are you from?” Ecuador, it turns out. He pokes fun at Ecuador for a while and then starts asking others where they’re from. Take it as you will, but Junior Junior’s hype man asked five people out of the crowd of 300. All five were white. Yes, he asked me.
I was from New Hampshire, the guy down the bench from me came from North Carolina, there was a Canadian. When the last guy said Brooklyn, Junior Junior’s hype man put his hands up like, “My bad!”
I hadn’t spoken in a while when he asked, so I choked out “New Hampshire.” And when he was calling out, “Is Ecuador in the building?” and the one guy cheered, I knew what was about to happen. He said, “Is New Hampshire in the building?”
Wanting to represent my state well, I went to cheer as loudly as I could, but again, I hadn’t spoken in a while and my mouth was dry. I yelled something like, “Woo!” but my voice broke in the middle and it sounded like a tone deaf junkyard dog howling falsetto at the moon.
As soon as “the sound” left my mouth, I knew.
Junior Junior’s hype man’s back stiffened and he turned around to look at me, a grin akin to Mr. Burns’ spreading on his face. Barely containing a laugh, he said, “You’ve waited your whole life for a New Hampshire shoutout in Rucker Park, haven’t you? I bet this is the first.”
That joke kicked off about a solid minute of asking me if I had vocal cords or whether or not I had hit puberty. It went on for about a minute. I laughed most of the way. Moments later, something else had caught his interest and he was dancing and shouting.
Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and the sound Kanye makes in his songs, which he thinks is spelled “HAAH.” He’s not a fan of grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.