A Game Grows in Brooklyn

By Peter Vecsey

After being interviewed last week by Craig Boothe regarding his documentary ‘Ball Side Middle,’ I decided to bequeath him today’s space.  

   Boothe, who proudly possesses a journalism degree, explains where he came from and what he wants the doc to achieve.

   Below are the 33 players, many household names, who expanded on their schoolyard, high school and college reputations by joining NBA rosters for a year, part thereof or much more. The accounts, assessments and stories regarding their games are the upshot of what I’ve seen over the years or been told in the last 24 hours. 

    “As a young man growing up in Brooklyn, I was introduced to the game of basketball at the age of seven,” Boothe begins. “The place was Flatbush, home of fabled Foster Park, which was highlighted in “Heaven is a Playground,” a book written in 1976 by Rick Telander. It received national acclaim and was considered one of President Obama’s favorite reads.

   “Early on,” Boothe continues, “I was attracted to the game’s demanding competition and was fortunate to travel throughout the boroughs while representing a P.A.L. team until 11. At 12, my life radically changed, as I was bussed from my predominately black neighborhood to Roy H. Mann Junior High. Numerous young black teens experienced the same plight as they sometimes were attacked, or had to run for their lives in these communities of hate.

   “High school was no different, as I was bussed from East New York, Brooklyn to South Shore High School, in the Canarsie neighborhood. Despite the daily racial episodes, many of us who traveled from East New York, Brownsville and Bedford Stuyvesant, focused on basketball. It became our gift. The gift of distraction and survival! The gift that kept giving! We learned under duress and through commitment to contend and thrive at the highest level.

   “From the period of 1974-86, Brooklyn, by all versions and visions, was considered the world’s epicenter of basketball. During this time, we produced some of the top high school teams in the country, Lafayette (1974-‘75), Canarsie (1975-‘76), Boys and Girls High School (1978-‘79), Nazareth High School (1978-‘79), Xaverian High School (1980-‘81) and Alexander Hamilton (1980-‘81). 

   “Albert King led the way early in the decade. He was named national Player of the Year in 1976-‘77, and was a 3-time All-America. Chris Mullin, Class of ‘81 and Pearl Washington, Class of ‘83 became McDonald’s All-Americans as well.

   “Brooklyn’s greatest accomplishment during this cross-over decade was the 32 players who made NBA teams. With all of this success, history somehow skipped over that outstanding era. There was very little film documentation of this rousing realization. 

   “As someone who played and was intimately involved during this era, I fervently feel now the time is ripe to transmit the story. A story crammed with challenges and adversity young black males confronted. A story about how the gift of basketball existed for all to seize, and how it shielded many from drugs, gangs, racism and socio-economic environments designed for us to fail,” Boothe emphasizes. 

   “Ball Side Middle is a drill learned by many of us in Brooklyn, in my case, St. John’s Recreational Center.  It metaphorically describes how the ball saved our lives. The side were our supporters. In the middle is where it remains in our core.

   “The documentary is a four-part series that escorts viewers through our Brooklyn journey. As the narrator, storyteller and executive producer, I have been blessed to partner with James Rapelyea, filmmaker and editor, as well as Melanie Boothe and Eric Short, assistant producers. Our passionate project is scheduled for completion in early spring of 2021.

  Those who played at Brooklyn High Schools from 1974-1986 and wore an NBA uniform:

   1. Chris Mullin (Xaverian): Indoors or outdoors, day or night, put a ball in his hands and he was ready to score at will. “He was so good, he got me a scholarship,” Mark Jackson went on to explain. Lou Carnesecca and his top assistants came to eyeball Mullin when the senior played at Bishop Loughlin. Jackson started as a sophomore but was un-recruited until that night. In the midst of Mullin’s domination, Jackson caught the attention of St. John’s contingent. “Chris was the best the city had to offer and he toyed with us the whole game.”

2. Bernard King (Fort Hamilton): High school was no different than college or the pros. The original ‘Game Face’ played like a gangster. He didn’t back down from anybody. He knew what he wanted to do and did it without a hitch. When King scored he took it right to you and then look at you like, “Don’t you know better?” And he got fouled, he’d street-walk to the free-throw line. Like walking down the street with a swagger. Two guys might be thinking of mugging him, see that walk and say, “No, not that one.” It was that intimidating attitude that carried over to the court. 

“My older brother, Kevin, took me to some court when I was about eight or nine,” Jackson vividly remembers. “Bernard, Fly (Williams) and (World B) Free were playing. I stayed glued to the fence the entire afternoon. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! Couldn’t believe there was better talent in the entire world.” 

3. Albert King (Fort Hamilton): He was good so early he was far above everyone his age and way ahead of his time. All the hype he got was deserved. He handled the ball so well he was a like a 6-6 center playing guard. It was impossible to sustain that level of dominance and stand out every time he jumped a level. Had he flaunted his brother’s air of confidence, Albert could’ve taken a hit one night and come back the next day and given what he just got and more. 

4. Vinnie Johnson (FDR): Maybe the all-time most unappreciated player, and might very well be the best sixth man in the business. Overshadowed by Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars on two Pistons’ championships, Vinnie had opponents quaking when he replaced one of them. That’s how good he was. That’s how quickly he could impact a game as soon as he entered it. He sacrificed a lot to help the team win and was not the type to complain. He just got it done! Nicknamed ‘Who’ by his teammates, Vinnie would show up at practice and exclaim, “Who am I gonna fuck up today, you Isiah, or you, Joe? 

5. Eric Johnson (FDR). Long arms like his brother, he was a solid defender and shooter, but didn’t have Vinnie’s unshakable assurance. 

6. John Salley (Canarsie): Regardless of what level, he’d run the floor and finish, then sprint back to the other end and punch a shot into the stands. Rebounding repute suffered playing alongside relentless retriever, Dennis Rodman. As an NBC colleague of mine, John’s work ethic was not exactly exemplary. A month or so into his rookie year as an ‘Insider’, he was told by producer Ricky Diamond he needed to prepare more for telecasts. “You gotta make more phone calls before coming to the studio,” Diamond admonished. John’s response was landmark. “You don’t pay me enough to make phone calls!” he declared. Thereafter, I referred to him as ‘Long Gone Salley.’

7. Geoff Huston (Canarsie): He was the real deal! When he played in the Pro Am League one summer with Wes Matthews, Sam Worthen and Hollis Copeland, Geoff averaged 63 points. He knew how to score and, at the same time, knew how to get everyone involved. What’s more, he boasted the kind of maturity only gained from playing with older players from an early age. 

Afterthought:  The Mount Rushmore of Knicks/Cavaliers guards, along with Butch Beard, Jim Cleamons and some guy named Clyde.

8. World B Free (Canarsie): Had to be the highest leaper when taking a jump shot. A lot of people thought he was selfish, but was a true professional and easy to get along with wherever he played, which is why he’s still working, still smiling and still saying funny things for the 76ers after all these years. Free’s game was different than anyone you can name. Everything about him represented Brooklyn. The way he carries himself, you know right away he’s not from Philly.

Afterthought: Free’s trade from the Sixers to the then-San Diego Clippers for a No. 1 pick that became Charles Barkley, earned him eternal gratitude from every Atlantic City pit boss.

9. Mel Davis (Boys): An enforcer until he reached the pros, then lack of size for the macho power position betrayed ‘Killer.’ More of a defender and rebounder than a scorer, a go-away-from guy, if you will.          

10. Lenny Wilkens (Boys): If not for a New York City Jewish couple, Gloria and Shelly Kaplan, he may not have gone anywhere worthwhile as a Hall of Fame player and coach. Played very few games as a HS senior as the team’s star was Tommy Davis, who’d win two National League batting crowns with the Dodgers. Shelly Kaplan, a Holy Cross roommate of Joe Mullaney, pushed the Friars’ head coach to give Lenny a scholarship after seeing him in a playground tournament, warrants HOF honorable mention as a scout. Wilkens always got into Bob Cousy harder defensively than any other opponent and felt slighted because Cousy got far more recognition. 

Afterthought: His career was so distinguished, he gets a pass for coaching the Knicks during Anucha Browne Sanders/Sexual Harassment Hacienda halcyon days.

11. Connie Hawkins (Boys): Paved the way for Julius, MJ and LeBron. For those who weren’t lucky enough to see the Hawk play, check out his highlights and you get his whole game over his whole career. Only Walter Kennedy knows how magnificent Connie would’ve been had the NBA commissioner not shamefully banned him from the league for seven seasons due to gambling blather. 

Afterthought: He’s the reason I swore unwavering allegiance to the Pittsburgh Pipers.

12. Pearl Washington (Boys & Girls): People still talk about a game at ‘Sole In the Hole’ in which he snared a rebound, dribbled the length of the blacktop through everyone except the opposing center, who was waiting above the rim…and Pearl dunked on him!! “Game Over!” Sam Worthen, who was pro age at the time, excitedly recounted yesterday. Washington was in high school. “The fans ran onto the court and went wild, as if it was the last shot of the game. It was the second quarter. They wouldn’t stop celebrating, high-fivin’ and dancing, wouldn’t leave the court. Like a shot at the buzzer. We stayed half an hour and finally gave up and went home.”

 ‘Pac Man’ ate up everyone in high school and college, but didn’t work nearly hard enough on his game and body as a pro. Hence, his career was over after two seasons with the Nets and one with Miami. Pearl admitted as much to me years later when we met to discuss his book he wanted me to write. 

“Pearl was an incredible talent, absolutely could do it all in high school and college,” Mark Jackson lauded. “He broke Georgetown’s press singlehandedly!!” Jackson’s first college choice was Syracuse. The thought of playing before 30,000 fans was a decisive factor in that decision. On his visit to Syracuse, he told Jim Boeheim and Brendan Malone he was prepared to accept a scholarship. “I wouldn’t come if I were you,” the head coach replied. “We have Pearl coming.”

Before Pearl had even enrolled, Jackson said, “He had a book and sneaker deal. That’s how good he was.”

13. Larry McNeill (Westinghouse): The Roadrunner did everything easily and briskly. He could get you 20 points and ten rebounds in 14 minutes, but not often enough to keep him from shuffling from team-to-team (12 pro outfits in and out of the country) during his 11-season career. Though McNeill still owns the playoff record for perfect field-goal attempts (12) in a game as a Kansas City-Omaha King in 1975, his defining moment, it says here, was representing the New York Post in the 1976-77 dunk competition. He had been cut by the Nets, but was still very much alive in the NBA’s first (shabbily managed) jamboree. I arranged for him to wear a Post T-shirt for two rounds, at which time the Warriors signed him as a free agent. Darnell Hillman, also functioning as a free agent, beat McNeill in the finale, staged at halftime of Game 5 (June 5) between the Blazers and 76ers. Hillman won $15,000. The Post paid McNeill 15G as well. For all the publicity I got the paper, I also should’ve pocketed 15G. 

14. Jim McMillian (Thomas Jefferson): All you have to know about him is the day he replaced Elgin Baylor in the starting lineup as a rookie, the Lakers started a 33-game win streak, still an NBA record, and went on to win the ’71-72 title. Pat Riley had to guard the bigger, stronger McMillian in practice throughout that season. At the outset, he figured it wouldn’t be that bad because Jim was playing so many minutes. He figured wrong. “He beat the shit out of me every time.” Riley related. 

15. Sidney Green (Thomas Jefferson): Had the whole package—muscle, hustle, rebounding and scoring—yet never attained star status. My theory? He was too nice.

16. Phil Sellers (Thomas Jefferson): Definitely big-time pro material but it never materialized.  He had no foreseeable flaws and was enforcer-tough. His game translated from playground to high school to college. Why did it stop abruptly in the pros? Was it lack of work ethic? Commitment? Was he married to the fellas? The street? The nightlife? Had/have no idea. 

17. Leroy Ellis (Thomas Jefferson): Enjoyed a long pro career, topped by his role backing up Wilt Chamberlain for the ’71-72 champions. Interestingly, Bill Sharman gave him decent daylight in the 33 straight victories, then kept him buckled to the bench the day it was snapped by the Lew Alcindor’s Bucks. The very next season, Ellis played for the 9-73 Sickers. Talk about career whiplash!

18. Billy Cunningham (Erasmus): There will never be a higher-caliber crew of forwards to play high-school ball at one time than Hawkins, Roger Brown and Billy C. Anyone who leapfrogged leagues twice—NBA to ABA and back to NBA--gets a presidential pardon in this space.

19. Armond Hill (Bishop Ford): Hard to find someone smarter Attended Princeton and eight seasons with four NBA teams despite averaging a mere 6.9 points and 4.7 assists. Coached Columbia for eight seasons without a single winning season (72-141), then accepted a scholarship as Doc Rivers’ assistant, which just ended after 17 years. 

20. Ken Charles (Brooklyn Prep): Played under control. Cool. HiQ. Oozed confidence. Remindful of a three-piece solid blue suit Walt Frazier. Replaced surgically-impaired Ernie DiGregorio in the Braves‘ starting lineup alongside Randy Smith. Loved coaching Earl Foreman, Sam Worthen and him at Rucker Park and value their friendships to this day.

21. Mike Dunleavy (Nazareth): A sixth-round draft pick (No 99) by the 76ers, he stuck around because Gene Shue probably liked the way he stuck his nose into tight situations knowing he was going to pay for it. Moreover, Mike played like a coach and became a poisonous three-point shooter.

Afterthought: Lone person to coach Lakers and Clippers [though Joe Mullaney coached LAL and Buffalo Braves]. If and when he takes over the LA Kings, Dunleavy will get a statue erected outside every Staples in North America.

22. Steve Bracey (Midwood): Know very little about him other than he won a title with the ‘75 Warriors, and thus a lifetime pass to the Cow Palace.

23. Stew Granger (Nazareth): He came to work every day, played like an underachiever, and proved he belonged he got as far as he got.  

24. Jerry Reynolds (Alexander Hamilton): Similar to Scottie Pippen, as in able to play 1, 2 or 3, great vision. Smooth as anyone you’ve seen come out of NYC. He was a successful pro, but I expected stardom. 

Afterthought: Ice was the third-leading scorer with ‘89-‘90 expansion Magic, and the only one who knows seamy underbelly of Matt Guokas.

25. Carey Scurry (Alexander Hamilton): A high riser with serious hops. Some blocked shots, his chest seemed like it was at the rim. Not much of a shooter. Nicknamed Moet. Bad habit earned him early exit. 

Afterthought: Scurry was Utah’s  second-round choice in ‘85, behind Karl Malone. One of them turned into a decent role player for few seasons.

26. Lorenzo Charles (Brooklyn Tech): A great team player. Would command a double team on the block. His ‘right place, right time’ tourney winner in ‘83 (North Carolina State over Houston) proved NCAA was both unscripted and unscrupled, if there is or isn’t such a word. 

27. Sam Worthen (Franklin K Lane):  Magic before Magic, as in heat size and understanding of the game. Extreme peripheral vision.  And1 dribbling and passing skills long before And1. “Me and Kenny Smith went up against his team in a summer tournament,” said Mark Jackson. “Neither one of us wanted to guard Sam.” Only flaw? People claimed he couldn’t shoot. I saw him shoot over many defenders from mid range. Worthen’s actual flaw was infrequently looking to shoot. 

28. Rolando Blackman (Grady): Just got better and more dependable every year, at every pressure level. Could not be outworked. I would applaud his Hall of Fame induction. 

29. Mark Jackson (Bishop Loughlin): Worthen says there are very few guys he would pay to see play and Mark’s one of them. “I loved watching his advanced passing and how he saw the floor. I would be in the stands and see what he saw, but he would do it.”

30. Sam Perkins (Tilden): Despite being drafted No. 4, one pick behind his North Carolina teammate, he was a very underrated talent. Bulls’ GM Rod Thorn told em, had Michael Jordan been picked No. 1 of 2, he would’ve selected Perkins No. 3.  One of the first big forwards you had to guard beyond the 3-point line.

31. George Johnson (New Utrecht): Played like a point guard as a center. Directed traffic. Offensive flowed through him. Posted up and made the correct play. Had the whole package. If only he’d been bad to the marrow like Bernard King. Thought he was much better all around than Bernard. But for what Bernard did, he didn’t have to be all around. “We don’t go to the Final Four if we don’t experience what he was giving us in scrimmages going into that season,” Jackson stated. “He’d show up at St. John’s and dominate Walter Berry and Bill Wennington.”

32. George Thompson (Erasmus): By far, he is the most overlooked player in Marquette (20.4) basketball history despite holding the school’s scoring record for 40 years while playing but three seasons. Teammate Dean ‘The Dream’ Meminger got all the headlines when Al McGuire’s squads were contending for titles, but the smart money wanted the ball in the sure hands of Thompson, who finished his pro career with the Bucks, with court about to be adjourned. His five ABA seasons (15.6) went equally unnoticed, basically because he had the misfortune to play for losing outfits. Still, when the ABA All Stars evenly battled the NBA All Stars at Nassau Coliseum in 1972, coach Al Bianchi made sure Thompson was in uniform.  

33. Larry Fogle (Boys): Had a lot of Bernard King in him. They were very similar. People distinctly remember him cutting out the number on his jersey, front and back, in a Citywide Tournament. The commissioner told him he couldn’t play. “If I don’t play, nobody plays,” Fogle threatened. He played the whole tourney. Guys like Bernard and Fogle let you know they ain’t backing down.

In honor of Fogle, we just cut the number at 33.