One-on-one basketball is pure, honest truth. Man vs. man, ego vs. ego. It’s bragging rights on a silver platter. But one-on-one is also why ballers hailing from all over the Tri-State Area made their way to 135th and 5th in the heart of Harlem for the New York qualifier of the Red Bull King of the Rock tournament. Alright, so the chance to flap your gums with no one threatening your reign wasn’t the only reason why dudes showed up as early as 7:30 a.m. – the winner would walk away with a cool G and the two finalists would win a trip to Alcatraz for a chance at 10 Gs.
The 100-degree New York City heat did little to slow these guys down. We thought the smack talk wouldn’t materialize until everyone hit the court, but we were wrong. Everyone from high school youngins to former Division I studs talked up their games and strutted with confidence. With cash and pride on the line, that should have come as no surprise. Although the jawing only intensified as the day wore on, more noteworthy was the eclectic mix of talent, stories and personalities that made its way to Lincoln Playground. The New York qualifier featured a former St. Francis guard rocking a Seinfeld warm-up shirt, an aging vet who turned into a crowd favorite, and an unafraid, confident woman. When I spoke to her pre-game, she was already sizing up the competition and pointing out the scrubs she could take out with ease.
A little before 11 a.m., the tournament kicked off as guys who had been waiting for hours to play finally had the chance to show their on-the-court mettle. As the tournament progressed, the pretenders found themselves sitting on the sidelines and the contenders moved into the later rounds. Operating the game clock and scoreboard, I was able to ignore my slowly charring skin and sweat-drenched shirt because of the enormous talent that graced the court. (Well that and the post-game interviews.) After each successive win, I had the chance to catch up with some of the winners as they spewed their unrelenting swagger and pushed their record labels, Twitter accounts and other businesses. One such man, Amseshem “OJay” Henderson, turned those on-camera predictions to reality when he found his way to the finals against Jerrell Strickland. The battle that ensued represented the culmination of the day’s large crowd and bigger egos.
One of the first players to arrive at Harlem’s Lincoln Playground early Saturday morning, Henderson was also the last to leave, taking the New York city qualifying tournament of the Red Bull King of the Rock series. The last man standing out of the 64-man tournament, Henderson, who runs entertainment website Pow-TV.net as his day job and played at SUNY New Paltz, defeated Brooklyn native Strickland, 26, in the finals. Before the games began, both told us that there was no doubt they’d punch their tickets to Alcatraz.
“I’m winning today,” Henderson said shortly after arriving. “Mark my words.”
Marked, noted and by the end of the afternoon, believed. Neither Henderson nor his competitor disappointed. Joining the two in the final field of eight was physical Lithuanian Marius Bausys, former Sacramento State guard Haron Hargrave, former Chilean pro A. Rashaun Banjo, Josiah Austin, Rocco Rubino and Jabar Jefferson.
To begin the games in the Elite Eight portion of the tournament, Bausys and his rough-and-tough style clashed with Banjo in the most physical game of the day, resulting in a Bausys busted lip. But in the end, the Lithuanian, living in New York for six months for his bank job, prevailed with a one-point victory. Strickland beat Jefferson to field a match up with smooth operator Rubino, 21, who’s looking to gain Italian citizenship and passports to play overseas after playing at St. Francis College and Hunter College. But in the end, Strickland, like Henderson, was too much for the competition, and a number of overtime games between other players could have led to fatigue in the summer heat.
And he got there, but barely. In the final against Henderson, Strickland just didn’t have enough energy left in the tank to handle the bigger and aptly skilled Henderson, falling 16-6 and putting the $1,000 winnings in Henderson’s pocket.
“I’m feeling excellent,” Henderson after it was said and done. “I told you I would win a thousand. Here I come, Cali.”
If you would want to play in upcoming King of the Rock qualifiers in Philly (July 30) Washington, D.C. (August 13), Boston (August 14), or Norfolk, Va. (August 20), send us an e-mail at KOTR@dimemag.com or give us a call on our special King of the Rock athlete line at 917.651.5414.
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