The Wandering Legend

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February 5, 2013 by Ian Goldstein

By Ian Goldstein

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NBA games are recorded in myriad ways. All around the country, if not the world, people can sit, turn on the TV and watch an NBA game. Viewers can pause, rewind and re-watch LeBron drive to the basket over and over. On YouTube you can find Russell and Chamberlain trying to top one another, Oakley and Barkley throwing fists and Jordan crossing Bird. NBA games and its players are accessible.

Streetball can be forgotten.

Street basketball is recorded in the mind. It’s not nationally televised and on YouTube if you want to find videos of street legends like Pewee Kirkland and Joe Hammond, good luck.

“It’s not like the NBA. It’s not like the ABA. It’s not like any other professional reality. Street basketball is a street thing. People remember you in their hearts. They love the highlights you place inside their mind that otherwise might not ever exist,” Kirkland says in Fathers of the Sport, a documentary about the history of street basketball. It chronicles the fame of Rucker Park and the memorable players that competed on its iconic court. Julius Erving, Joe Bryant, Fly Williams, Pee Wee Kirkland and Joe Hammond are some of those legends. Every NBA fan  knows Dr. J, his talent, his dunks, and his hair. Joe “Jellybean” Bryant is the father of arguably one of the top five NBA players of all time, Kobe. The light dimly shines on the rest of the list. Fly Williams scored 100 points in a game during an IS8 basketball game—the top New York City high school tournament. He was drafted in 1974 by the Denver Nuggets, moved around the ABA, eventually scoring only 9.4 points per game for the Spirits of St. Louis, a now defunct ABA team. His career ended after a failed robbery attempt that left him wounded, with a decreased lung capacity, and a scar on his back.

Peewee Kirkland and Joe Hammond were celebrities of street ball in the 1970s. They traded NBA Stardom for the crime-fueled-life that garnered them fur coats, women and stylish cars. Kirkland, originally from Harlem, refers to himself in both third person and first, as if he is someone else watching his own life, shifting between perspectives. In 1968, the 6-foot-1-inch point guard was drafted by the Chicago Bulls, but Kirkland wasn’t happy in the NBA, reportedly fighting with his coach, Dick Motta, over playing time. He was lured back to the flashy lifestyle of street crime that landed him in jail in 1971.

The casual NBA fan likely hasn’t heard of Joe Hammond either, the man from Harlem who scored 50 points against Julius Erving in a street game in the early 1970s, the man who said he was drafted by the Lakers in 1971, was offered a $50,000 contract to sign as a rookie, but turned it down. Vincent M. Mallozzi discusses this in a 1990 article for The New York Times: “Legend of the Playground”: ‘”They thought they were offering the world to this poor kid from the ghetto, but I didn’t need the money,” Hammond said. “I was dealing drugs and shooting dice on the street from the age of 10, and by the time I was 15, I had my father hiding $50,000 for me in his bank account…By the time the Lakers made their offer, I had over $200,000 stashed in my apartment. I was making thousands of dollars a year selling marijuana and heroin. What was I going to do with $50,000?”‘

When this article was published in 1990, Hammond was wandering the streets looking for cash to survive day-to-day. In 2008—when Fathers of the Sport was made—life didn’t seem too different for him. He hobbled along sidewalks, looking more like a beggar than a basketball legend.

Lou Carnesecca, the former coach of the New York Nets in the early ‘70s said: “I can remember sitting at the table, after a nice plate of pasta, and I said ‘Look, I would like to offer [Hammond] a contract, three years, no cut, starting $35,000, $40,000 and $45,000…guaranteed. And the thing that astounded me was that he said ‘I can do better the way I’m doing now.’” He chose that lifestyle and ended up in jail on drug charges in 1971. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

Everyone who knew him and watched him play in his youth called the 6’3 Hammond, one of the greatest players they’ve seen and placed him in the ranks with Jordan and Magic. “You just don’t become a street legend because you played one good game, you become a street legend after you stop playing basketball,” Kirkland said. You become a legend when you’ve played against the greatest of the greats. And Hammond did. But people either forget or never knew.

In some dingy restaurant on a cloudy day Hammond sells away his life.  Near the end of Fathers of the Sport the limping Joe Hammond, in his red jacket and blue WLIB hat, meets with a producer.  Hammond gazes out the window at the gray sky above him. The producer looks at Hammond and tells him the details of the contract he is prepared to sign. He is about to get two money orders of $500—$1000 for his life story. Hammond says it’ll take two movies to cover the entirety of the Joe Hammond story.

When a company like Nike sells a T-shirt with your name on it, it’s one of the highest forms of flattery for any athlete. When you’re not consulted as to the creation of the shirt or aware that it’s being sold, its humiliating. Nobody cares about the person. It’s the name that matters. But the name was misspelled. In 2010 Hammond sued Nike and Foot Locker for $5 million for using his misspelled name on a T-shirt—it read “Joe The Destroyer Hammon.”

Julius Erving makes an appearance in Fathers of the Sport to greet the legends he played with 30 years prior. The contrast between Erving and Hammond is evident. Erving wears a gold watch and a gold chain over a black T-shirt. Hammond looks tired, he’s missing teeth and his hair is messy. Erving greets Hammond, someone he hasn’t seen in decades, as if he was a child; they hug, Hammond has his mouth open in glee, admiring the man he famously defeated. Erving pats Hammond’s head and smiles like he is his father. Erving won an NBA championship with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1983; he was an 11-time all-star and won an NBA MVP award in 1981. This is all documented, in pictures and on film, on trophies, and in the Naismith Hall of Fame—Erving was inducted in 1993. Hammond scored 50 points playing against Erving in the early ‘70s. He never played in the NBA; he was content throwing dice and selling drugs. All the trophies he won were sold while he was in prison. He has only the memories, the mental recordings of his peers to confirm his accolades  He was one of the best basketball players to come out of Harlem, but his story is only the stuff of legend.

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4 thoughts on “The Wandering Legend

  1. Rafael C says:

    Reminds me of this documentary: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2168208/

  2. It is a shame this man did not play in the NBA. Maybe if the money were like it is now, he would have, who knows. But, to be that great and never have anyone in the mainstream see it is like Picasso hiding his artwork in a dungeon. Hammond, alomg with Pee Wee Kirkland, would have ruled the NBA if the street lifestyle hadn’t ruled their minds.

    • Absolutely. It’s really a shame that Hammond was more intrigued by the money he was making from crime than what he could have made from the NBA. If he was paid like these guys are now his decision likely would have been to join the latter.

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