NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his series, "One On 1," with a profile of one of New York's schoolyard basketball legends, Pee Wee Kirkland.
He was once mentioned in the same breath as players who would become NBA greats, like Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Julius Erving, but you won't find Pee Wee Kirkland in any NBA record books. He never made it to the pros. He made it to prison.
But the memories of Pee Wee Kirkland's playing days still echo throughout the famed Rucker Court in Harlem, the stuff of New York City schoolyard basketball legend.
You hear stories about this guy did this and this guy did this, but the beauty of the Rucker is that no one can really check.
“But the thing about Rucker is word of mouth. People saw it,” he says. “We had people that actually saw Rucker, and the tradition of Rucker actually existed in the minds of the people. So it was a different kind of history than we are used to, because it wasn't written history.”
The word of mouth about Pee Wee Kirkland comes from people who were kids when they saw him play, and contemporaries who would go on to star in the NBA.
“I’ve known Pee Wee for about maybe 40 years almost, and I used to play against him here in New York and in Philadelphia,” says Basketball Hall of Famer and former New York Knick Earl Monroe. “I always admired him.”
Kirkland turned 60 this year. It's been quite a journey.
He showed an early talent for basketball. Crime, too, forsaking the NBA for the street and eventually two stints in prison on drug and tax charges.
And then, after all of that, he came back home to create a new legacy - "The School of Skillz." For the last 15 years, Kirkland has helped thousands of kids with his weekly program.
If you think it's just about basketball, think again.
“For some reason in America our youth has gotten to the point where they really do believe it's more important to focus on hip-hop than it is their grades," he tells the kids.
“My gift to reach young people has to do with what I came through in the streets, what I survived in the street, what I learned and survived in prison," he says. “I could never teach a person on a basketball court an ability that could impact their lives like I could teach a young person the meaning of respect, what the value of your mother is, the importance of school, the importance of not being involved in a life of crime, the importance of civic citizenship."
Understood. But watching a game at the Rucker with Pee Wee Kirkland is like getting a tutorial in some of the subtleties of basketball.
The stereotype of schoolyard basketball and games at the Rucker is showtime, dazzle the crowd. But Kirkland says, not necessarily in his day.
“Well, for sure it was more important to impress the crowd, but not as important as winning the game,” he says. “And the reason why is because back then the fundamentals came before the trick. If we did all the tricks and made the crowd go crazy and lost, we were the ones who got tricked. That's how we saw it.”
Many a pro player in the 60s and early 70s came up to the Rucker during the summer. Players like Walt Frazier, Willis Reed and the Doctor, Julius Erving.
"When the pro's got on the court at Rucker you could see them lay up. They was extremely confident,” says Kirkland. “Five minutes into the game I could see shock treatment on their face, because then they realized that although they were professional players on professional teams, they're actually dealing with players on the court who not only had more skills in many cases, but also guys who could think the game from the neck up.”
So why did Pee Wee Kirkland, by so many accounts one of the great players in New York City history, never make it to the NBA? The story starts long before he was actually drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 1969.
Kirkland grew up poor at Lenox Avenue and 117th Street.
“It's hard to understand poverty if you've never been in poverty,” he says. “It's hard to understand tears if you've never cried. It's hard to understand prison if you've never been to prison."
One thing Kirkland clearly understood was the city game.
"Basketball meant more than education. It meant more than my girlfriend. It meant more than everything," he says.
Kirkland admits he was just as successful in the life of crime. But he left for junior college in North Carolina and led the nation in scoring. Then it was on to Norfolk State, where he was named Small College All-America.
Because of the relative anonymity of the school, the Chicago Bulls didn't draft him until the 13th round. It's been said he left the Bulls because the team didn't give him a fair shake after he outplayed their top draft pick. Kirkland has said he overheard the coach saying that if Pee Wee didn't play, there might be violence.
In the end, Kirkland found the lure of New York's streets greater than the lure of a two-year, $40,000 contract.
“The streets is like a monster, you know what I mean? And it's a vacuum, you know what I mean? And only the strong survive,” he says. “That's why they say that. Because one choice, one bad decision - it took almost 40 years to re-acclimate my life and come back to society and be the Pee Wee Kirkland that I was always meant to be."
Kirkland was sent to prison for four years in the 70's on drug charges, and eight years in the 80s for tax evasion. As he sat, the player who he often opposed at the Rucker, and to whom he was most frequently compared, Nate "Tiny" Archibald, led the NBA in scoring and was eventually inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
“I always admired the fact that Tiny could resist the jewelry, the cars, the money, the Rolls Royce’s, the super fly image,” he says. “Tiny just was a guy who had tunnel vision. His focus was to go to school, stay in school, excel in school and hope that he got to the NBA, and he did."
As Archibald dazzled in the NBA, Kirkland’s story became a classic “what might have been?” Were there tough nights of, ÎIf I could have just reined it in a little bit, I would’ve been there?”
“Oh yeah, no doubt about it," he says. “One time my daughter came, the first visit, and she didn't understand that I would be in prison for a long time. When her mother told her I'd be there for 15 years, she was hysterical. And then she cried, and I cried, and then when I went back inside, those are the times that you just think to yourself, ÎSuppose I had just made the right choice? Suppose I had just held on?’”
New York's schoolyard legends have been written about extensively, in old books like “The City Game” and new ones like “Asphalt Gods.” Maybe the hundreds of kids in the “School of Skillz” know about Kirkland's past, both good and bad, maybe not.
What they certainly know is what they see: A guy who gives them a place to go every Sunday free of charge; a guy who talks to them, and it's not always pretty.
“It's your father's fault he's not there, not your mother's fault. Your father is not in your life cause he don't want to be in your life,” he tells them. “Your mother's in your life because you mean more to her than her own life means to her."
Kirkland now takes the idea of the "School of Skillz" on the road, talking to kids all over the country. Teaching someone the game on the court might be the hook, but advice about life off the court? That’s the real assist.
“Sometimes I think I went through what I went through in this life to be able to become that authority to talk to young kids and say don't go through what I went through,” he says. “So my life went beyond basketball, but it's because of basketball that I am who I am."
- Budd Mishkin