It’s about five blocks from Joe Hammond’s building to the basketball court in Harlem. He can’t walk one of them without inspiring admiration.
“Right here, this is the best there’s ever been,” says a man with an eye patch and a shopping cart.
Hammond shuffles along with his cane and crocs on his feet, moving rapidly with no regard for traffic signals. He hasn’t planned on this trip to Charles Young Playground, but I showed up unannounced in his lobby this Sunday afternoon, waking up a security guard who was fast asleep.
“I lost three phones,” Hammond says, explaining why the calls went straight to voicemail. “That’s why I gave you the address.”
Another man shouts from the sidewalk, “What’s up with you Joe, I was just telling somebody about the time you dropped over 70 at Rucker.”
We arrive at the court for a youth game, the kind Hammond dominated in the 1960s. The younger referee uses a break to pay homage, shaking Hammond’s hand and telling him, “It’s an honor to ref in front of you.”
“I’m always hearing it,” Hammond says later. “I’m not surprised. Like Ringling Brothers, I know they’ve seen the Greatest Show on Earth.”
At 69, Hammond has lost his teeth and money, but certainly not his wit or status on these Harlem streets. Here, he’s still revered as ‘The Destroyer’ – the transcendent streetballer who outplayed Dr. J and other professional All-Stars, who set the scoring record at Rucker Park and was drafted by the Lakers despite never playing a game in high school or college.
Maybe that’s why Joe Hammond never left, even while the drugs he sold and snorted left him broke and imprisoned.
“This story is deeper than damn basketball,” Hammond says. “It’s hilarious, it’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry, and in the end you gonna say, ‘Damn, he wasn’t the damn bastard they tried to make him.’”
It’s July of 1971, the afternoon of the greatest of all Rucker Park games. Spectators are hanging on trees, fences and light poles, observing with binoculars from windows in the Polo Grounds projects across the way. Pee Wee Kirkland, who was Hammond’s dynamic backcourt mate on their Milbank Community Center team, had provoked future NBA All-Star Charlie Scott into this moment of streetball lore, challenging his machismo when it was vulnerable.
“At that time, I had my girlfriend with me,” Scott says in a documentary, ‘A Cut Above.’ “You can’t show me up in front of my girlfriend. That’s what it was about.”
Pete Vecsey, a Hall of Fame basketball writer then with the Daily News, was coaching Scott’s team — dubbed the Westsiders — and also brought the day’s main attraction: Julius Erving.
There are wildly different versions about what happened after tip-off, specifically regarding Hammond. Some recall him arriving at halftime, making a grand entrance out of a limousine and dropping a 50-point nuclear bomb on Dr. J.
Bob McCullough, a former NBA draft pick who served as commissioner of the Rucker Pro League, spins it with gripping drama. Sitting on a park bench last month, he settles into the story he’s told many times over, about how ‘The Destroyer’ nearly protested the game because he felt disrespected in the streets.
“When Julius Erving was coming, Joe came to me and said, ‘Mac, I don’t think I want to play against the Westsiders. Everywhere I go, people are asking me how I think I’m going to do against Julius. They should be asking Julius how he’s going to do against me,’” McCullough says.
Hammond arrived at the entrance on 154th street and “the crowd parted like the Red Sea,” says McCullough.
“And I heard this uproar, ‘Haaaaa,’ and I ducked like shots were coming," he goes on. "And it was because Joe Hammond was coming from the side gate. And all you could hear was the thunder of applause. And he walked in on the court. The whole game stopped. And he went in.”
Hammond insists his actions weren’t so calculated. He simply had the wrong time and was busy shooting dice. A detour to the side of the park was necessitated by a crowd overflowing the main entrance.
“They told me the game was at 3 o’clock. When I got there, it was probably five to 3 — and the game already started at 2 o’clock,” Hammond says. “When I got there, I looked at my coach, I said, ‘I’m here,’. “He said, ‘Are you out of your f---king mind, Joe? Look at the score Joe.’
“I looked at the score, we were down about 12. I said, ‘oh sh--.’”
In the July 30, 1971 edition of the Daily News, Vecsey wrote that Hammond single-handedly erased a 12-point deficit down the stretch of regulation — “faster than amphetamines” — before Scott carried the Westsiders in overtime to their 117-108 victory.
Today, Vecsey agrees that Hammond was fantastic, but the rest of the 47-year-old morphing story? “It’s all bull----. Total fabrication.”
“Joe wanted to make a grand entrance, which he did, but he played the whole game. And Joe did not destroy Julius. They didn’t guard each other,” Vecsey says, echoing Dr. J’s version.
About the only consensus is that the Westsiders beat Milbank in a close, exhilarating game that sent all of Rucker Park into a frenzy.
"Like Ringling Brothers, I know they’ve seen the Greatest Show on Earth.”
“I had about 40, Joe had about 40, Julius about 30, Pee Wee had about 30,” says Charlie Scott, a Harlem product and Naismith Hall of Famer who played for Dean Smith at North Carolina. “And at the end of the game, we’re on the side and a friend of Joe, he looked at me and said, ‘Good game. Don’t come past 116th street anymore or you’ll be dead.’
“So people took the game seriously. And the funny thing about it, I never went past 116th after they told me that,” says Scott.
This is all part of the allure of New York streetball in that era. There are no record books. No official scorers. No video. Only mythical stories of heroes and villains with colorful nicknames like ‘Destroyer’ Hammond, ‘Pee Wee’ Kirkland, Earl ‘The Goat’ Manigault, Connie ‘The Hawk’ Hawkins, ‘Helicopter’ Knowlings and ‘Fly’ Williams. Stories of celestial soarers and behind-the-back alley oops. Stories of the NBA colliding with playground legends and the streets.
The NBA stars today play in private gyms over the summer, shielded from embarrassment by personal trainers and handlers who only release carefully edited snippets of their scrimmages. If Carmelo Anthony so much as misses a shot in these workouts, it disappears from existence. LeBron James once confiscated videos that showed him getting dunked on.
But Rucker Park was open to the public, for free, and players wagered their reputations. It was Summer League before the NBA took over and monetized it.
Freddie Crawford Sr., a Harlem lifer who helped set up the Rucker Pro League, romanticizes the era with a tale of a local bar team beating the Knicks in the 1960s. Crawford was a guard on the Knicks at the time, and had been asked by GM Eddie Donovan to bring his teammates to Rucker so they might do something productive in the summer. Their roster included Willis Reed, Walt Frazier and Bill Bradley. And they lost to a bar called “Sweet and Sour.”
“The place went berserk,” Crawford says. “They had a parade around the park with the Cadillacs and Mercedes down 7th Avenue. They had a guy named Pablo Robertson, he was a magician. And I knew those guys from the neighborhood, so even though I lost I enjoyed the sh-- out of it.”
Hammond was a better scorer than all the streetball legends, a skinny sniper from the perimeter who preferred to bank in his jumpers and could also elevate for highlight dunks.
He set Rucker Park’s scoring record at 73 points, then broke it by dropping 74 while “incoherently high,” according to a witness. His mark remains on top, surviving trips to Rucker by Kevin Durant (who scored 66 points) and Kobe Bryant (a disappointing 15 points in a rainout).
Richie Adams, the former UNLV star, says he was never a match for ‘The Destroyer’ despite being 14 years younger.
“Me and (former Iona star) Gary Springer, when we were in our prime — 18 or 19 years old — Joe gave us 48 points in the half and said he’ll teach us something later on,” says Adams, who returned to Harlem in July after a 20-year prison bid in Attica for manslaughter. “In fact, when I first met Joe, he asked me if I played basketball. I said, ‘Yeah.’ Then he said, ‘Go get your team and meet us in the park.’ So I got my team and that’s when he schooled us.”
About a month after his fabled game against Dr. J, Hammond was picked by the Lakers in the first-ever Hardship Draft of 1971. The draft was a compromise from the NBA, relaxing a rule that required draft picks to stay in school for four years. The Hardship Draft allowed prospects to enter early as long as they could prove the financial need.
Hammond was a high school dropout who never played scholastically above middle school. His father drove the New York subway and his mother died when he was young, leaving him in the care of a grandmother who also passed away. His mainstream resume was highlighted only by a season in the long-defunct Eastern Basketball Association with the Allentown Jets.
Yet Hammond’s reputation was such that the Lakers took the unusual step of flying across the country for a pre-draft workout at Pace University.
“They spent the summer in New York to make sure Joe Hammond would be at practice,” Hammond says.
Following the practice that included Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor, Hammond was asked to play one-on-one against a 26-year-old backup guard named Pat Riley. According to Amsterdam News writer Howie Evans, Hammond crushed and humiliated Riley, prompting the future Knicks coach to pick up his opponent and slam him on the court.
“Six years later, Pat Riley apologized,” says Hammond.
There may have been some embellishing from Evans, who, not coincidentally, also served as Hammond’s agent and pushed the story on multiple outlets.
Riley, through a Heat spokesman, denied that he ever slammed Hammond to the ground. Though he does acknowledge Hammond “may have hit the floor a few times” during a competitive and close one-on-one, that would’ve been the result of physical basketball.
Riley doesn’t remember apologizing, either.
“Pat was like the 12th man on the Lakers at the time and he was thinking this guy was trying to take his job,” the Heat spokesman says. “So he was going hard.”
Riley had reasons for concern. The Lakers drafted Hammond after the workout and offered him a one-year, $50,000 contract, but it wasn’t enough for somebody earning more dealing drugs and gambling. Hammond also distrusted Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke.
“What I said was, ‘Just give me $100,000 dollars,'” Hammond recalls. “Kent Cooke said, ‘I’ll give you $50,000 and listen to me, if it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t be playing.’ Then I got hot. So I said, ‘What about my mother and father? And he looked at me and turned red as a tomato.'
“You have to understand: At that time in Harlem, they had Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, 5 percenters, and they were always talking about, ‘Watch the white man, he ain’t no good and all that sh--.' So I was like, in a way, like I had that inferior complex like he’s trying to do some harm to me.”
Hammond’s fears were perhaps warranted. He claims Cooke blackballed him from the NBA, refusing to relinquish his rights unless an outrageous price was met.
“The Knicks asked for me before they got Earl Monroe (in a trade in October of 1971). Kent Cooke said to the Knicks, ‘Give me $500,000,’” Hammond says. “He X’d me out that way. That was the X-out right there.”
Hammond squandered another promising opportunity when he declined an invitation from the New York Nets of the ABA and their coach, Lou Carnesecca. According to the book ‘Asphalt Gods,’ Carnesecca’s contract offer totaled $105,000 guaranteed over three years. That was roughly an average NBA salary in the early 1970s.
“But there was a lot of nights I played craps and I won $20,000, $15,000,” Hammond explains.
The Nets' decision was probably Hammond’s last chance to take his game into the mainstream. He continued to amaze at Rucker Park, the Wagner Community Center and the LaGuardia House, but his legend was confined to where it resides today: Harlem.
In that era, the playground heroes who made it big out of Rucker Park (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Nate Archibald, Charlie Scott, Connie Hawkins) could be measured equally against those who went to jail (Hammond, Pee Wee Kirkland, Fly Williams, Manigault).
“Joe was unstoppable,” Nate Archibald, the NBA Hall of Famer, told Slam Magazine. “But, he wouldn't leave the city. Matter fact, if we invited him up to the Bronx, he might get lost. … You’re talking about one of the best players ever, that did not play in the NBA, and his name was the Destroyer, he was about 6-foot-2 tops, and could shoot, handle, I'm talking about a basketball junkie. But see, the environment in New York, can take people away from what they love doing the most.”
Joe Hammond loves two things: basketball and gambling.
His passions for both arrived early, colliding at a place he called, "The Big Track," an underground casino in Harlem. Inside, Hammond made connections and picked up gambling tips from old timers.
“They used to say, ‘Let ‘Basketball’ in.’ Cause I was young and they called me ‘Basketball,” Hammond says. “All the big gangsters used to be in there.”
The heroin epidemic was ravaging Harlem in the late-60s and 70s, leaving many in the streets either strung out or filthy rich. Hammond was there for the windfall. It helps explain why he chose Harlem over the Lakers at a time the NBA was paying its players middle-class wages.
“Harlem was the dope capital of the United States. It wasn’t nothing to go to any corner and see a craps game with thousands of dollars in people’s hands,” says Hammond. “I’m talking about you see it in kids’ hands, you see kids with five or six hundred dollars rolling dice. I used to make money off the drug dealers because they had the money and they were suckers.
“And another thing about Joe: Joe turned out to be a magician with dice and cards,” says Hammond, often slipping into the third person. “So that means I could get paid any time I wanted to get paid. I can make the dice disappear right in front of us right here. And you’ll say where it’s at and then I’ll show you where it’s at. I’m like David Blaine.”
Hammond still carries red dice in his pants, pulling them out on demand as proof. He has stories of winning thousands off Charles Barkley and Dominique Wilkins at an All-Star weekend, and ripping off Mike Tyson and Puff Daddy with fake Gucci merchandise.
But today, the big-money games and schemes are gone. Gentrification spreads and yoga studios sprout. Harlem has a Whole Foods.
The dice remain in Hammond’s back pocket.
“People don’t play dice anymore: there’s no money anymore. It’s not the drug capital,” says Hammond. “[Former Mayor Rudy] Giuliani tore this f---ing joint apart. But really, I’m glad he did. Because if you get raised by the streets, you’re going to get involved with it. And if you get raised by the streets in my day, you could get some money out of it and get some big f---ing jail time.”
Hammond is animated and outspoken about his gambling prowess. On the subject of selling and using drugs, however, he speaks in hushed tones and with little elaboration. It could be because of some shame or guilt he still feels, or something else entirely. As he says about dealing heroin, “I didn’t enjoy that as much I enjoyed beating the big drug sellers in craps and cards.”
Nonetheless, drugs were behind his multiple stints in prison, including a three-year spell for conspiracy to sell. In perhaps the most telling sign of Hammond’s status in the streets, he was gifted high-powered defense attorney Ronald Rubinstein for his defense.
This was the 1980s, when the heroin epidemic was transitioning smoothly to cocaine and crack. As somebody who attended elementary schools in the Bronx and Harlem around that time, I can recall making a game out of smashing the empty crack vials that surrounded every park bench. Blue caps were worth double.
Hammond, back then, was broke and strung out. But Rubinstein says “street people” paid the lawyer fees. He still won’t reveal their names.
“These are guys who used to bet on games, and there was a lot of money being won on those games from my understanding,” says Rubinstein. “But (Hammond) was going downhill at the time, he was downhill.
“And without any expectation of any benefit, these guys paid for my services thinking I could be the best person to represent him. They thought that highly of Joe.”
With several priors on his rap sheet, Hammond was sentenced to prison on conspiracy charges, according to Rubinstein. His term started in Lake Placid, but Hammond was transferred to the maximum security prison in Dannemora, sharing the facility with David Berkowitz, The Son of Sam.
Hammond continued to gamble and play basketball while locked up, claiming he won so many cans of tuna fish that guards accused him of selling drugs. Luckily, he had powerful witnesses to speak on his behalf.
“It was the Captain and the Sargeant — they used to bet that I couldn’t make 23 of 25 from the line. It got so deep they started bringing in 48, 60, 50 cans of tuna,” Hammond says. “One of them came in with 100 cans. When I came out of prison I had 600 cans of tuna under my bed.”
Talking to people who haven’t seen Hammond in decades, there’s often a response of relief — and surprise — that he’s still alive. Hammond’s drug addiction, according to a Slam Magazine feature in 1994, left him begging on the streets and peddling stolen clothes.
Darryl Washington, who grew up idolizing Hammond while watching him at Rucker Park, says Hammond was so inebriated one game that he passed out in a huddle.
It also happened to be the game when Hammond broke Rucker Park’s scoring record with 74 points, doing it against NBA player Larry McNeill.
“Joe fell out in the huddle with about five minutes left in the game. He was incoherent coming into the park,” says Washington, who is currently the basketball coach and athletic director at Thurgood Marshall Academy. “My sister, who was probably Joe’s best friend in life, she stuck Joe’s head in a hydrant like, ‘How you going to come to the game high playing against Larry McNeill?’
“Joe was like, ‘I don’t give a damn about all that.’ Kept his head under that hydrant for five minutes. And Joe didn’t miss a shot in that game until the third quarter.”
Whatever his predicament, Hammond had a reputation for generosity and selflessness, paying it forward after being mentored by Earl ‘The Goat’ Manigault.
“To this day, why I’d always love Joe Hammond – when he thought I was leaning toward the streets, he was like, ‘You have an A average in school, you don’t need this sh--,’” Washington says. “Joe bought me a Law book. A Law dictionary. He said, ‘Before this summer ends, you need to talk to me about everything in this book.’
“I remember when he was real messed up, I would always stop and give him money. People were, 'Like why?' I owe him my life. Because people like that made sure I didn’t turn out like they turned out.”
Hammond denies abusing drugs until he retired from basketball at 35 years old, when he started sniffing coke. He is most insistent that he never did heroin, citing Manigault as his deterrent.
Manigault’s own tale of hoops, drugs and redemption was detailed in a 1996 HBO film starring Don Cheadle. Two years later, when he was 53, Manigault died of congestive heart failure.
“Earl said, ‘Joe don’t never use a needle,’” says Hammond. “I said, ‘I ain’t going to do that because I want to be a basketball player.’ He said, ‘I wanted to be one, too.’
“He was like an uncle to me. He just didn’t want me to f--k up. He was scared I might go through what he been through.”
Hammond rolls up his sleeves to show his forearms. He says they’re proof that he kept away from needles.
“Smooth like babies arms,” he says.
After you consume Hammond’s story in its entirety, you expect a man soaked in regret and grief, a soul tortured by ‘what ifs.’
A reporter once expressed surprise to Hammond that the player hadn't turned into an incoherent vegetable, considering the tales of drug abuse.
But Hammond, who’ll turn 70 on New Year’s Day, is neither regretful nor incapacitated. He still seems comfortable in his province of Central Harlem, living inside a single-room apartment with easy access to familiarity and adoring fans roving the street.
“I’m not beat down by drugs or nothing like that,” says Hammond, a grandfather with four kids of his own. “I weighed 165 pounds when I played basketball. And I’m 180 right now.”
In 2010, Hammond sued Nike for $10 million because the company put his name on a t-shirt without his permission. They settled out of court and Hammond’s attorney, Royce Russell, says both parties agreed not to disclose the amount. But Hammond is certainly not living like a millionaire, and it’s unlikely he got anything close to the figure in that lawsuit.
At a deli around the corner from his home, Hammond haggles with the worker over the amount of meat in his sandwich. He leaves with a sense of accomplishment after getting an extra slice of turkey.
He’s still hustling, just in different ways.
“I’m going to outlive them all,” Hammond says. “That’ll show them."