There is little left that defines New York City basketball, save for the Knicks’ eternal search for an impactful lead guard. It’s a search that has always been inflamed, exacerbated and magnified by the abundance of point guards bred by the city.
There was the incandescent Pearl Washington, who rode a motorcycle and sometimes wore a fur to playground games, and whose tremendous dribbling for Syracuse destroyed Georgetown’s dominant full-court press in the Big East tournament.
And God Shammgod, the worshiped Harlem guard who played a game within the game by offering the ball up to defenders with his right hand and then ripping it back with his left. The move, still replicated in NBA games by Russell Westbrook and others, is known as the Shammgod.
From them and others, New York point guards learned that moxie, flair and unimpeachable handles were just as important as the ability to initiate an offense. But the era that established the archetype of the New York point guard — pillared in the 1970s and 80s by Catholic schools that have since closed for lack of funding and playground courts that saw their rims removed during the Covid-19 pandemic — is gone.
For a rare moment on Wednesday night, it was reanimated at a screening of “NYC Point Gods,” a feature-length Showtime documentary that pays homage 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 New York transplant, wore Dior as he doled out hugs to the documentary’s subjects. Kleiman, a native, gleamed in gold aviator glasses as he introduced the film to shouts from the audience that referred to him as Ace, as in Rothstein, the protagonist of the movie “Casino.”
The venue was Manhattan West Plaza, a cathedral to the power of real estate development ordained into usefulness by a New York tradition: hoopers paying homage to hoopers.
That term is an honorific that disregards professional status and statistics and can be conferred only by another hooper. It doesn’t matter if you had a 20-year NBA career or if your best performances are now remembered only by basketball griots. There’s a reverence among hoopers. Did you make those who watched you play love the game as you did? Did you give the crowd an “I was there when” story?
Outside the theater, camera flashes greeted Rafer Alston and Kenny Anderson, who walked the red carpet with his mom. Sabrina Ionescu, of the WNBA’s Liberty, sat up for hugs with Nancy Lieberman and Niesha Butler. Jayson Tatum, of the Boston Celtics, deferentially cupped hands with Anderson as Paul Pierce spelled his name for a puzzled list-holding publicist.
Once the filmed rolled, though, the guards’ trademark toughness washed away as they listened to each other’s stories. “It was very emotional, not just for myself, but, you know, I lived and witnessed those stories of the other guys and girls too,” said Mark Jackson, a former Knicks point guard who starred at St. John’s. Seated alongside his four children, he dabbed at his eyes as he heard Kenny Smith, a Queens-born retired NBA champion, describe how Jackson’s smarts led him to a nearly 17-year pro career.
At its heart, “Point Gods” is the hoopers’ oral history of how the city created a lineage at the position. Shammgod developed his dribble because his gym teacher, Tiny Archibald, told him it would make him perpetually valuable to any team. Only by watching a VHS mixtape compilation of point guard highlights called “Below the Rim” did he learn of Archibald’s previous work.
That revelation drew a crack of laughter inside the screening, where, earlier, attendees jostled over seats and settled in with the shoulder-to-shoulder intimacy of the city’s bandbox parks. Dao-Yi Chow, a lauded fashion designer, sat near a far wall wearing Jackson’s Knicks jersey. Clark Kent, whose real name is Rodolfo Franklin and who goes by the Rucker Park-ian nickname “God’s Favorite DJ,” held down a back-row seat. Kent produced a chunk of Jay-Z’s debut “Reasonable Doubt,” which dropped in 1996, the year Jeff Van Gundy took over the Knicks.
For his part, Jay-Z had welcomed Shammgod on a nearby rooftop patio before the screening. The rapper and mogul was a mainstay of Rucker Park’s Entertainer’s Basketball Classic in the early aughts, and his attempt to woo Kareem Reid from a rival’s team with a bag of cash was told by that rival, the rapper Fat Joe. The exact sum, rumored to be in the thousands, is bleeped out in the retelling as Joe recounts the Mafioso-style meeting he had with Reid to convince him not to jump ship. Reid, who had a cup of coffee with the NBA’s 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 tallying her attendance and bringing Harlem into the room.
In another scene, the rapper Cam’ron — a Harlem native who played on several high school travel teams alongside some of the documentary’s subjects — explained that oohs and ahhs from the crowd were worth “five or six points” to a New York point guard. .
Cut to Anderson in a 1991 ACC game. He’d been a high school legend at Archbishop Molloy in Queens, and New Yorkers who followed his career at Georgia Tech couldn’t wait to see him mix up Duke’s Bobby Hurley, who was notorious for his lax defense. The point guard cast hypes up what’s about to come, and Smith urges the director to pull the game footage up so he can narrate a grainy ESPN clip of the one-on-one clash.
Anderson meets Hurley at the elbow, then takes his dribble behind his back and between his legs before gliding past a dazed Hurley for a floating layup. Unnoted was the fact that Duke won the game.
Small matter. When it happened, only Dickie V’s hyperventilation on ESPN marked the moment as something special. “NYC Point Gods,” though, layered in the soundtrack of the hoopers who have told and retold the story as one of many chapters in their aggrandizing mythology.
On film, though, Shammgod is awed. Stephon Marbury, who sported Anderson’s center-parted haircut in high school and followed him to Georgia Tech, leans into the retelling. The unscripted, ephemeral whoops from inside the screening, from NBA stars and high school coaches and their playground peers, fell again upon Anderson in the theater’s darkness.