BASKETBALL; Legend of the Playground
By VINCENT M. MALLOZZI
Published: November 11, 1990
"POUND for pound, Joe Hammond was the greatest basketball player to ever come out of Harlem. There is a major difference between Joe and legendary schoolyard players like Earl Manigault and Helicopter Knowings. The rest of them had a chance to make it and didn't. But Joe, he was certain to make it, and just didn't want to." -- Don Adams, basketball coach, Taft High School, the Bronx.
UNDER the lamplight of an East Harlem street, a group of youngsters played touch football, their game interrupted on occasion by slow-walking pedestrians and passing cars. On the sidewalk, three older men were clustered in the doorway of an abandoned building, chatting, watching the game, and hiding from a howling October wind.
They watched as a man hobbled out of the shadows of a nearby alley and made his way onto the cement playing field.
"Yo, get your bum-self off the field," said one of the boys. "We're playing a game."
The stranger, wearing a baseball cap, and dressed in a baggy sweatshirt, which he wore inside-out, and a pair of tattered blue-jeans, continued on his course, forcing the game to a halt.
"Yo, my man, you deaf or something?" asked another boy.
It wasn't until the man stepped directly beneath the lamplight that he came into focus; a light-skinned black man with a short beard, middle-aged, tall, and slender. In his large hands, he clutched a brown paper bag.
"I got address books and greeting cards I'm trying to sell," he told the group of angry boys. "I'm just trying to get something to eat."
As he spoke, one of the older men rushed from the doorway out onto the street. The two men stood face-to-face, and as the stranger repeated his sales pitch, the older man's eyes grew wide in disbelief.
"Joe Hammond, the Destroyer?" he asked. "Is that you?"
"Yeah, it's me, man. It's me."
"It's been a long time," said the older man. "How've you been?"
"I've seen better days," said Hammond. "Right now, I'm just trying to get me something to eat."
The neighborhood boys watched as the two men spoke for a while. The older man finally gave Hammond some money, and the two shook hands. Then, still clutching his paper bag, Joe Hammond disappeared into the night.
"I had to get out of there," Hammond said later. "It hurts to have the people I know see me this way. This is not the way I want them to remember me. To most of them, I'm still a legend."
Hammond, who is now 40 years old, was a product of the Harlem playgrounds who, as the story goes, became a basketball legend in his spare time.
In Harlem, and in many other neighborhoods in New York, the mention of Joe Hammond's name still brings a smile to the face of anyone who saw him play the game. Nicknamed the Destroyer, for his ability to crush an opposing defense, Hammond never played high school or college basketball, yet, at the age of 19, he had already achieved professional status, and was touted by National Basketball Association scouts as a future star in their league.
The son of a New York City transit worker, Hammond dropped out of Taft High School in the Bronx in the ninth grade. "He always hated school," recalled Don Adams, the only coach Hammond ever had at the amateur level. "I remember him being away from his classes for long periods of time."
But Hammond didn't use a school team to showcase his talents. He was a king who ruled another domain, the Harlem summer leagues. His primary stage was the Rucker Tournament, made up mostly of college all-Americans who were home from school and pro players who needed a competitive tune-up in their off season. Throughout the 1970's, according to those who saw him, Hammond electrified crowds with dunks, precision shooting, and whopping scoring totals.
"You're talking about a guy who showed up at these tournament games whenever he felt like it and scored 40 or 50 points per game against top professional players," said Adams. "In his day, he was on a par with guys like Dean Meminger and Tiny Archibald, and for his size, he was better than they were."
A 6-foot-3 1/2-inch guard, Hammond was selected by the Los Angeles Lakers in the N.B.A.'s hardship draft of 1971 (a class that included Phil Chenier and Cyril Baptiste), but a contract dispute prevented him from signing with the team. Also, Hammond by then had another source of income: a lucrative drug trade on the Harlem streets.