There is little left that defines New York City basketball other than the Knicks’ eternal pursuit of an influential lead guard. It’s a quest that’s always been fueled, fueled, and magnified by the plethora of guardians the city has produced.
There was the incandescent Pearl Washington, who rode a motorcycle and sometimes wore fur to playground games, and whose towering dribble at Syracuse destroyed Georgetown’s dominant full-court press in the Big East Tournament.
And the god Shamgod, the revered Harlem defender who played in the game, would offer the ball to defenders with his right hand and then return it with his left. This move, still repeated in NBA games by Russell Westbrook and others, is known as the shamgod.
From them and others, New York’s guards learned that moxie, wits and unyielding handles were as important as the ability to initiate offense. But the era that defined the archetype of the New York quarterback — a mainstay of Catholic schools in the 1970s and ’80s that have since closed due to lack of funding and playgrounds that saw their hoops removed during the Covid-19 pandemic — is gone.
In a rare moment Wednesday night, it was revived at a screening of “NYC Point Gods,” a feature-length Showtime documentary honoring the guardians who gave the city its life. The film is produced by Kevin Durant and his business partner and agent Rich Clayman. Durant, a New York transplant, wore Dior as she hugged the documentary’s subjects. Clayman, a native, glowed in gold aviator sunglasses as he introduced the film to audience cheers that referred to him as Ace, as in Rothstein, the title character of the movie “Casino.”
The venue was Manhattan’s West Plaza, a cathedral of real-estate development power defined in favor by New York tradition: Hoopers worshiping Hoopers.
This term is an honorific that ignores professional status and statistics and can only be awarded to other denominations. It doesn’t matter if you had a 20-year NBA career or if your best performances are now only remembered by basketball players. There is respect among Hoopers. Did you make those who watched you play love the game as much as you did? Give the crowd a “I was there when” story?
Outside the theater, camera flashes met Rafer Alston and Kenny Anderson, who walked the red carpet with their mother. Sabrina Ionescu of the WNBA’s Liberty hugs Nancy Lieberman and Nisha Butler. Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum respectfully clasped Anderson’s hand as Paul Pierce signed his name for the publicist holding the elusive list.
As the film rolled in, the guards’ trademark sternness disappeared as they listened to each other’s stories. “It was very emotional, not just for me, but, you know, I’ve lived and witnessed the stories for other guys and girls,” said Mark Jackson, a former Knicks guard who played at St. John’s. Sitting with his four children, he blinked as he heard Kenny Smith, a retired Queens-born NBA champion, describe how Jackson’s smarts led him through his nearly 17-year professional career.
At its heart, “Point Gods” is the Hoppers’ oral history of how the town came to be in this position. Shamgod developed his dribbling because his gym teacher, Tiny Archibald, told him it would make him forever valuable to any team. It was only by watching a VHS mixtape compilation of Guardians highlights called “Blow the Rim” that he learned of Archibald’s previous work.
The revelation drew laughter from inside the show, where, previously, attendees sat on benches and settled into the shoulder-deep vicinity of the city’s gang parks. Dao-Yi Chou, a celebrated fashion designer, sat against the far wall wearing Jackson’s Knicks jersey. Clark Kent, whose real name is Rodolfo Franklin and whose Rucker Park nickname is “God’s Favorite DJ,” occupied a back row seat. Kent produced Jay-Z’s debut album, “Reasonable Doubt,” which dropped in 1996, the year Jeff Van Gundy took over Nicks.
For his part, Jay-Z greeted Shamgod on a nearby rooftop patio before the show. In his early years, the rapper and mogul was a mainstay at Rucker Park’s Entertainer’s Basketball Classic, and his attempt to lure Kareem Reed away from a rival team with a bag of money is narrated by that rival, rapper Fat Joe. The exact amount, rumored to be in the thousands, is revealed in the story when Joe recounts the mobster-style meeting he had with Reed to convince him not to jump ship. Reed, who had a cup of coffee with the NBA’s Hornets in 2003, stayed.
As the film showed LeBron James, Beyoncé and NBA commissioner David Stern (wearing Joe’s platinum and diamond chain) making a summer pilgrimage to the park, a woman four rows from the screen yelled, “I was there,” “I was there.” “There too,” he calculated his presence, and Harlem was ushered into the room.
In another scene, rapper Cameron — a Harlem native who played on several high school travel teams, along with some of the documentary’s subjects — explained that the crowd’s oohs and aahs were worth “five or six points” for the New York quarterback. .
Cut to Anderson in 1991 ACC game. He was a legend at Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens, and the New Yorkers who followed his career at Georgia Tech couldn’t wait to mix him up with Duke’s Bobby Hurley, who was known for his lackluster defense. The linebacker stirs up what’s going to happen, and Smith urges the director to get some footage of the play so he can narrate a grainy ESPN clip of the one-on-one scrimmage.
Anderson gets in Hurley’s elbow, then dribbles behind his back and between the legs before slipping past a beaming Hurley for a floating layup. What was overlooked was the fact that Duke won the game.
A trifle. When it did, only Dickie V’s hyperventilation on ESPN marked the moment as something special. However, “NYC Point Gods” is included in the soundtrack of the Hoopers who told and rewrote the story as one of the chapters in their glorified mythology.
However, in the film, Shamgod is delighted. Stephon Marbury, who gave Anderson a haircut in high school and followed him to Georgia Tech, spilled the beans. The unscripted, ephemeral noise from inside the screen, from NBA stars and high school coaches and their playground peers, fell upon Anderson again in the darkness of the theater.