Remembering Holcombe Rucker, the black humanitarian honored by Harlem's Rucker Park

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Yesterday, the New York Times sat down with Mary Rucker-Thomas. You may not know Rucker-Thomas, but you will find the story of her late husband’s legacy is one worth commemorating.

In an effort to provide better opportunities for inner city youth in Harlem, Rucker-Thomas’ late husband, Holcombe Rucker, established a basketball youth league and summer tournament in 1947.

“Rucker’s goal was to help people who had stepped outside the box, and didn’t know how to get back in, find their way back,” his widow told the Times.

Rucker came from a poor upbringing with little money, food or education according to the article. He didn’t want the youth of his community to go through the same struggles; his hope was to broaden their horizons through the program. The summer tournament aimed to empower young, disadvantaged African-American kids in Harlem and it succeeded. Rucker helped more than 700 players receive scholarships because his popular program attracted college coaches and administrators, with whom he built relationships.

Rucker was inspired by encountering the youth he met through his initiative to obtain his high school equivalency diploma, then going on to get his college degree from City College. He wanted to make himself an example of achievement in education for the many children he sought to help.

Today, the location of Rucker’s basketball youth league and summer tournament has been officially named Holcombe Rucker Park in his honor. The Harlem park has attracted big names over the years, including Kevin Durant and Wilt Chamberlin. Holcombe’s grandson Sharif Rucker also keeps the family legacy strong as principal of the Holcombe Rucker School for Community Research in the Bronx.

Rucker died at 39 of cancer in 1965. Despite all the success the community experienced through the youth league and summer tournament, Mary Rucker-Thomas does not feel that her husband’s legacy is in good hands. Commercialization of her husband’s project endangers its pure intent.

“Over the decades since Rucker died in 1965, the offshoots of his tournament have become partners with businesses,” the Times explains. “For example, the Entertainers Basketball Classic tournament, which runs five days a week through Aug. 17, recently announced an official sponsorship with AT&T. But in his effort to keep the focus on education, Rucker resisted the temptation to go for grants and sponsorships.”

Mary insisted that her husband wanted basketball to be a means to an end focused on education for students. He had no interest in growing the tournament itself. Even though control of the league has passed out of her jurisdiction, Rucker-Thomas is proud of the man and name that embodies the essence of her late spouses message.

“The name is still honorable,” Rucker-Thomas concluded in the piece. “It’s beyond belief that 47 years after he died, it’s like he’s still living. I’m so proud of Rucker; I’m so proud of his legacy because that’s who he is, that’s who he was.”

Follow Chivone Smith on Twitter at @misswriterinc