New York City used to be known as the Mecca of basketball. Today it’s more like a ghost town.
Gone are the days of Chris Mullin and Julius “Dr. J” Erving crisscrossing the city to challenge some of the best players in the country. The famous Rucker Park, where many street ballers made their name, can now be played on by anyone who ventures to Harlem. The number of great New Yorkers going pro has seemingly decreased.
The Brooklyn Nets are trying to change that. By drafting Chris McCullough in 2015 and Isaiah Whitehead this season, the Nets have infused Brooklyn with some hometown blood.
McCullough hails from the Bronx, while Whitehead is a native of Brooklyn’s Coney Island. Both neighborhoods are hard to grow up in. Violence and toughness are ingrained in the culture. But both players found their way out when their hometown Nets called their names on draft night. Now they are trying to put New York back on the map.
Do I Stay Or Do I Go?
Basketball flourishes in cities thanks to of the simplicity of the game, the low number of people you need for a game, and the prevalence of courts.
It’s also a way for a kid to stay out of trouble and live one of life’s greatest fantasies: sinking the final shot at the buzzer and wheeling off in celebration — preferably wearing the jersey of your favorite team.
But millions of kids are daydreaming about the same shot and the same opportunity.
“There are other kids out there working who want the same dream job as you,” McCullough said. “So when you come from a tough community it builds you up for this and it’s what you want.”
McCullough attended three different prep schools before going to Syracuse. He cited the educational advantages as the main reason he left the city. He added that the competition in New York City could grow stale.
“There's not really as much good basketball in the city as there is in the other states,” he said.
Whitehead had a different approach. He stayed in his native Coney Island and attended one of the most renowned basketball schools in the city: Abraham Lincoln High School. Abraham Lincoln has produced NBA talents such as Sebastian Telfair, Stephon Marbury, Lance Stephenson, and now, Whitehead.
His decision to play locally speaks volumes about his desire to represent his city.
“I just felt like I wanted to do it the old way,” he said. “Me, watching people grow up, they never left for prep school. They all stayed home and really just represented their high school, no matter if they were good or bad.”
“It was about giving back to the people who supported you before high school,” he added. “So that always stuck in my mind, just giving back to New York City as it gave to me.”
Staying at Lincoln worked out well for Whitehead. He won a PSAL city championship and earned a spot on Seton Hall’s team, just 30 miles from his home in Surfside Gardens.
As for those who choose to leave the city, Whitehead doesn’t fault them. But he likes to emphasize that New York City is still one of the best places to build your skills. He speaks of having an NYC attitude every time you step on the court — especially in Brooklyn where nothing comes easy.
“You really just got to go into New York City games with a toughness and a really competitive nature,” Whitehead said. “Everybody that you play in New York City is going to have that New York City attitude that they’re not going to back down.”
McCullough knows that well from playing all over the city. If you grow up in New York, you can test yourself at Dyckman and Rucker, two of the most famous parks.
“You just have to come to compete,” McCullough said. “A lot of people in the parks are watching you. You have a big name where people know you and they want to see you compete and see you play. You just have to get your name up and work hard.”
Big Apple Ballers
Although McCullough and Whiteside took relatively different paths to the NBA, they ended up on the same team in the city that molded them into the players they’ve become. Whether you stay for high school ball or choose to leave, Whitehead insists a New Yorker is a New Yorker. Period.
“A lot of people don’t understand that just because people went to prep school doesn’t mean they’re not from New York,” Whitehead said. “Of course they aren’t graduating from New York high schools but, officially, they are from New York City.”
Whether it’s on the courts of the Rucker, the Garden in Coney Island, or Barclays Center, Whitehead and McCullough are perfect examples of one thing: There is plenty of skill left in "The City That Never Sleeps."
“You can bring someone from anywhere and if they played in Brooklyn against the weakest competition they’re going to be stunned at how good [that competition is]," Whitehead said. "There are a lot of hidden gems and the people who didn’t make it out.”
“Brooklyn is definitely the best borough.”
Photos: Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images (McCullough action), Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images (Whiteside action (x2)), Elsa/Getty Images (McCullough drive), Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images (Whiteside Coney Island)