Few things remain that define New York basketball except for the Knicks’ eternal search for a hard-hitting point guard. It’s a search that has always been inflamed, exacerbated and amplified by the abundance of leaders bred by the city.
There was the incandescent Pearl Washington, who rode a motorcycle and sometimes wore fur to playground games, and whose huge dribbles for Syracuse destroyed Georgetown’s dominating all-court press at the Big East Tournament.
And God Shammgod, the revered Harlem keeper who played a game in the game by offering the ball to defenders with his right hand and then tearing it apart with his left. The move, still replicated in NBA games by Russell Westbrook and others, is known as Shammgod.
From them and others, New York’s point guards learned that moxie, flair and impeccable grips were just as important as the ability to initiate an offense. But the era that established the archetypal New York point guard – buoyed in the 1970s and 80s by Catholic schools that have since closed due to lack of funding and playgrounds that had their rims removed during the Covid-19 pandemic – is over.
For a rare moment Wednesday night, he was revived during a screening of “NYC Point Gods,” a Showtime feature-length documentary that pays tribute to the guards who gave the city its rep. The film was produced by Kevin Durant and his business partner and agent, Rich Kleiman. Durant, a transplant from New York, wore Dior as he handed out hugs to the subjects of the documentary. Kleiman, a native, shone in gold aviator goggles as he introduced the film to cheers from the audience who called him Ace, as in Rothstein, the protagonist of the movie “Casino.”
The place was Manhattan West Plaza, a cathedral of real estate development power ordered in utility by a New York tradition: hoopers paying homage to hoopers.
This term is an honorary title that does not take into account professional status and statistics and can only be conferred by another hooper. It doesn’t matter if you’ve had a 20-year career in the NBA or your best performances are now remembered only by basketball griots. There is a reverence among the hoopers. Did you make those watching you play enjoy the game the way you did? Did you give the crowd a “I was there when” story?
Outside the theater, camera flashes greeted Rafer Alston and Kenny Anderson, who walked the red carpet with his mother. WNBA’s Liberty’s Sabrina Ionescu slipped in for hugs with Nancy Lieberman and Niesha Butler. Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics deferentially took Anderson’s hands as Paul Pierce spelled his name for a puzzled publicist holding a list.
Once the film was filmed, however, the guards’ characteristic tenacity dissipated as they listened to each other’s stories. “It was very emotional, not just for me, but, you know, I lived and witnessed these stories from other guys and girls too,” said Mark Jackson, a former Knicks point guard who played at St. John’s. Sitting alongside his four children, he dabbed at his eyes as he heard Kenny Smith, a retired NBA champion born in Queens, describe how Jackson’s intelligence led him to a professional career up close. 17 years old.
At its heart, “Point Gods” is the hoopers’ oral history of how the city created a bloodline at the position. Shammgod developed his dribbling because his gym teacher, Tiny Archibald, told him it would make him perpetually valuable to any team. It wasn’t until watching a VHS mixtape compilation of playmaker highlights titled “Below the Rim” that he learned of Archibald’s previous work.
The revelation prompted a roar of laughter inside the screening, where earlier attendees jostled for seats and settled into the side-by-side privacy of the city’s music parks. Dao-Yi Chow, a well-known fashion designer, sat near a back wall wearing the Jackson’s Knicks jersey. Clark Kent, whose real name is Rodolfo Franklin and dubbed by Rucker Park-ian “God’s favorite DJ,” took a back row seat. Kent produced part of Jay-Z’s debut album “Reasonable Doubt,” which dropped in 1996, the year Jeff Van Gundy took over the Knicks.
For his part, Jay-Z had hosted Shammgod on a nearby rooftop terrace before the screening. The rapper and mogul was a mainstay of Rucker Park’s early basketball classic Entertainer, and his attempt to woo a rival’s team’s Kareem Reid with a bag of cash is recounted by that rival, the rapper Fat Joe. The exact sum, believed to be in the thousands, is revealed in the narrative as Joe recounts the mob-style meeting he had with Reid to convince him not to jump ship. Reid, who had a cup of coffee with the NBA Hornets in 2003, stayed.
When the film showed LeBron James, Beyoncé and NBA commissioner David Stern (wearing Joe’s platinum and diamond chain) making summer pilgrimages to the park, a woman seated four rows from the screen yelped, ” I was there”, “I was there”. “There too,” both registering his presence and bringing Harlem into the room.
In another scene, rapper Cam’ron — a Harlem native who played on several high school travel teams alongside some of the documentary’s subjects — explained that the crowd’s oohs and ahhs were worth “five or six points.” to a New York cheerleader.
Cut to Anderson in a 1991 ACC game. He had been a high school legend at Archbishop Molloy in Queens, and New Yorkers who followed his career at Georgia Tech were eager to see him confuse Bobby Hurley of Duke, known for his lax defense. The point guard teased what’s to come, and Smith urges the director to shoot footage from the game so he can narrate a grainy ESPN clip of the one-on-one clash.
Anderson meets Hurley on the elbow, then takes his dribble behind his back and between his legs before sliding past a dazed Hurley for a floating lay-up. Whether Duke won the game was not noted.
Small business. When it happened, only the hyperventilation of Dickie V on ESPN marked the moment as something special. “NYC Point Gods,” however, layered into the soundtrack of the hoopers who told and retold the story as one of many chapters in their growing mythology.
In the movies, however, Shammgod is impressed. Stephon Marbury, who sported Anderson’s central haircut in high school and followed him to Georgia Tech, leans into the narrative. The unscripted and fleeting whoops from inside the projection, NBA stars and high school coaches and their playground peers, fell on Anderson again in the dark of the theater.