by Dennis D’Agostino
Knicks team historian
The mystery began with a worn photograph more than 60 years old, and ended with the discovery of a forgotten pioneer.
The old picture was among several sent along to the Knicks office a few weeks ago, a team photo taken in training camp at the Bear Mountain Inn in upstate New York. Its owner, Hall of Famer Harry Gallatin, cited 1950 as the date, and a quick cross-check of the players shown confirmed that, indeed, it was taken during the opening days of camp prior to the 1950-51 campaign.
That season ---- 1950-51 ---- was a watershed year for both the Knicks and the NBA. Not only would it mark the first of New York’s three straight appearances in the NBA Finals, but was also the season that Knicks legend Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton --- along with Washington’s Earl Lloyd and Boston’s Chuck Cooper --- would enter the League as its first African-American players, with Lloyd the first to actually appear in a game.
And, indeed, there was a young African-American in the picture that Harry the Horse had sent along, kneeling second from the left among a cast that included Hall of Famers Gallatin, coach Joe Lapchick and Dick McGuire and Knicks stalwarts Vince Boryla, Connie Simmons, Max Zaslofsky and Ray Lumpp.
But an eye well-versed in Knicks history immediately picked up a startling fact.
The player in question wasn’t Sweetwater Clifton.
The man kneeling in the photo was slim and compact, 6-foot-1, maybe 6-foot-2. Sweetwater was listed at 6-foot-6, 235, and was perhaps even bigger.
Quickly called at his Illinois home, Gallatin didn’t remember the presence of the mystery player. He did recall, however, that Clifton arrived very late to training camp for his rookie NBA season, and the Knicks played the bulk of the preseason without him. A newspaper search revealed, indeed, that Sweets had permission to report to camp on October 16 following extensive dental work. Preseason camp at Bear Mountain, meanwhile, had opened during the first week of October.
Gallatin and his son Jim had included a left-to-right caption for the photo. The man kneeling second-from-the-left was identified as “John Rucker”.
That gave him a name. And since he was in camp weeks before Clifton’s arrival, it also gave him --- in all probability --- an unmistakable, unforgettable distinction.
The very first African-American to wear a Knicks uniform.
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Online research revealed that “John Rucker” was a basketball and baseball standout at Brooklyn’s Erasmus Hall High School, Class of 1950. He was named the school’s best male athlete in his senior year and earned a spot on the 1950 All-Brooklyn scholastic hoop team alongside the likes of future NBA coaching legend Frank Layden; Boris Nachamkin, who played at New York University and then briefly for the Rochester Royals, and future Fordham standout Ed Conlin. Another search turned up a clipping from the long-defunct African-American newspaper The New York Age (dated October 7, 1950), stating that both Clifton and “John Rucker” were among those headed to Knicks camp at Bear Mountain.
More online research turned up ages, locations and phone numbers for a host of “John Ruckers”. And several days later, on the other end of the phone, came the vibrant voice of an 81-year old retired police officer whose unique role in Knicks history had just been uncovered.
“No, it really didn’t (hit me),” said John Rucker from his Florida home. “Remember, I’m from Brooklyn and I lived in a predominantly white neighborhood. All my friends, all the guys I played with, were white guys, let’s put it that way. When I’d go into downtown Brooklyn or into Manhattan, and I’m 17 or 18, that’s when I started mingling with those fellows. So I was used to being the only African-American in the crowd, it didn’t really bother me, it didn’t dawn on me. I didn’t ask about it. And if (you guys) hadn’t told me about it, I wouldn’t have thought any more about it.”
How John Rucker became a Knick – briefly but notably --- was just one chapter in his whirlwind year of 1950.
After graduating from Erasmus, his original plans to attend NYU fell through. Not wanting to leave home for college, Rucker instead signed a minor league baseball contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
“Al Campanis of the Dodgers came to me and offered me a contract,” said John, who wound up playing five minor league seasons in the 1950s, wrapped around a two-year service stint. “I didn’t have any college prospects anymore, so I signed. When it got back to the Knicks that I had signed, I was now a professional, and I guess they wanted to give me a shot.
“When you signed a contract in one sport, it knocked your amateur status out altogether, so I was sort of stuck with it.”
At age 19, Rucker was a professional. It was a situation similar to that of Carl Braun, who had signed a minor league baseball contract while still at Colgate and was thus able to become a Knick in 1947, having just turned 20.
Now, a few years later, in the fall of 1950, the Knicks reached out to the youngster from Erasmus.
“I don’t know who contacted me,” said Rucker. “I don’t know if we had a phone in the house in those days. I honestly don’t recall how I got there, but somebody contacted me and gave me the ins and outs of it, and asked me if I’d like to try out. I told them, of course, yes. I don’t really recall how it came about.
“I’m not even sure about how I got up there (to Bear Mountain). I went to the Garden and they had to take me up there because I didn’t have any transportation in those days. I wouldn’t have known where to go. So I reported to the Old Garden and went from there by whatever transportation they had provided for me. I’m not really clear on how I got up there, but that’s what happened.”
Rucker recalled that he was not signed merely as a “practice” player. His impression, then and now, was that he would be given a legitimate shot to make the team. His signing came about a month after Clifton’s, following the purchase of Sweets’ contract from the Harlem Globetrotters.
“They gave me a contract for $3,500 and I thought that was all the money in the world,” he said. “I just signed it as a matter of fact. Things were happening in my life pretty fast at that stage. I signed it and went up there, and I didn’t keep a copy of it because I didn’t think it was important. That was all.”
And when he arrived at Bear Mountain, he couldn’t have been less aware of the barrier he was about to break.
“I knew I was the only (African-American) in the camp, but I didn’t know I was ‘the’ first,” recalled Rucker. “I just never thought about it. It didn’t enter my head, and so I just went on. If someone doesn’t make a big deal of it. . .I was very nonchalant about a lot of things at that point in my life, I guess. I was kind of carefree.”
Once at Bear Mountain, the teenager exhibited the attitude and mindset of a veteran, as one already-established Knick found out.
“Vinny Boryla! We were up there in camp, and we were working on what was called the give-and-go back then,” recalled Rucker. “You gave the ball up and then you just cut to the basket. Anyhow, I was doing that play and I gave it [to Boryla] and then I didn’t cut toward the basket. He asked me why and I said, `I didn’t think you knew it!’ Now, I’m talking to the pro and I’m the rookie, and I didn’t think he knew it! Which was a little laughable because this is my first experience with pros, and I don’t know what they knew, but I thought they should know more than I did!”
Along with Rucker, the Gallatin team photo featured several other Knick hopefuls who never appeared in a regular season game: Len Cohen, Leland Byrd and Jack Byrnes.
Byrnes --- not to be confused with Original Knick Tommy Byrnes --- was a figure that remained fresh in Rucker’s memory for decades to come. . .and not just because the two kneeled together, side-by-side, in the team photo.
“A guy named Jack Byrnes was also trying out on that team, and it seemed like he was always matched up against me,” said Rucker. “And he constantly harassed me until I finally had to punch him out, to tell you the truth. Coach Lapchick asked me if I was trying to hurt him and I said no. But I tried my best to knock his head off, if I remember, because he was messing with me for three or four days. That’s the guy I remember most because I had the confrontation with him. And I’m next to him in the photo!”
Rucker stressed that his battles with Byrnes had everything to do with competition and nothing whatsoever to do with race. In fact, he does not recall one uncomfortable or unpleasant racial incident during his brief time in Bear Mountain, a far cry from what Clifton, Cooper, Lloyd and their brethren would experience in their early NBA careers, especially on the road.
“I can’t remember any incidents,” John said, more than six decades later. “I had a room to myself, which was odd. The other guys were sharing rooms. Other than that, there was no real difference. No name-calling, nothing like that. No picking on me just because of that. I felt right at home playing with them, to tell you the truth.”
That atmosphere was undoubtedly fostered by Lapchick, the Hall of Fame mentor who was famously color-blind and whose attitudes toward civil rights and integration were highly progressive for the times. The young Rucker’s relationship with the fabled coach was short but memorable.
“We only had two conversations that I can recall. One was about Byrnes, of course,” he laughed. “And the other was about passing the ball. I mentioned something about Dick McGuire passing the ball too hard. Dickie was a good passer, but he threw the ball hard and you didn’t always handle it well unless you were really ready for it. Those were the only conversations we had. I thought easier passes would be more manageable, but Joe told me (he worried) about the ball being intercepted. In giving it to the man in the middle, I liked to give a nice, looping pass. But Dick would just shoot it in there.”
Rucker and Clifton were never in camp at the same time, although Rucker remembered meeting and scrimmaging against Sweetwater the following summer in New York.
“I don’t remember much about him,” said John. “I remember talking with him, saying hello, but nothing unusual. No long-term friendship or anything like that. I only met him on one occasion.”
It’s impossible to determine exactly how long Rucker was in camp. . .several days at least, perhaps a week or more. By the time Clifton arrived in mid-October, John Rucker was gone. His NBA dreams ended just as the Knicks were beginning their exhibition schedule.
“I was there up until the first (preseason) game,” recalled John. “They were going up to Syracuse. They told me I was going to go, and then they changed their mind the day before or the day of the game. They told me to stay behind and they’d talk to me later. . .I didn’t practice with the Knicks anymore.
“When you’re that age and have competition among your friends and teammates, I just wanted to show them that I could have played two or three games [with the Knicks],” he recalled. “I could go to them and say, `I made it and you didn’t.’ I had that type of attitude at that point. I just never thought much about it because I didn’t make the team. I thought that I was good enough, but I was also raw materially, you might say. I was kind of raw. That’s me looking back on it now.”
Cut from the Knicks, Rucker wound up playing two seasons in the Eastern League, in addition to his minor league baseball career. His role as an NBA pioneer didn’t even rate a footnote. He left behind no record, no statistics, no name in a boxscore.
Years later, you ask him if he had saved anything --- any souvenir or keepsake --- from his brief but trailblazing time in a Knicks uniform.
“No,” he laughed. “I’m not a souvenir person. I pretty much wipe the slate clean when something doesn’t work out.”
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After playing minor league baseball and basketball for the bulk of the ‘50s, John Rucker returned home and carved out a 20-year career with the New York City Police Department, including 10 years as a detective.
“Then when I had a chance to retire, I ran,” he says. “I was tired of being cold and I came down to Florida. I dislike cold with a passion, and if you’re a policeman you start out at the bottom. If you don’t think it’s cold in New York, try at two or three o’clock in the morning when you’re out there by yourself. After about two years of that I knew I didn’t want to be cold anymore.”
So now you reach him at his home about 70 miles outside Orlando, in a community populated by a host of former Big Apple police and firemen. Florida residents for more than 30 years, John and his wife dote on four sons (a fifth is deceased) and five grandchildren.
He still keeps tabs on the Knicks, especially when they come South to play the Magic. He applauded the acquisition of “the kid from Syracuse, who played for the Western team”, a nod to Carmelo Anthony.
His days as a two-sport scholastic star, and then as a groundbreaking Knick, come up only rarely. When they do, they sometimes meet with a skeptical audience, which is another way to say “grandchildren”.
“I have one grandson who’s 17 now, he’s playing ball in high school,” says John. “I used to work out with him a little bit and give him some pointers, and he’d give me a little `Yeah, yeah, yeah’ stuff. You know, here’s Grandpa telling another story, and here we go again.
“I spend a lot of time with my grandchildren. They lived with me for a while and it was a pleasurable part of my life. I loved to see them grow. But he just didn’t believe I did everything, `Aw, yeah, Grandpa did everything. He played basketball, he played baseball.’ He really didn’t believe me. But when I told him about this, and I showed him the (Gallatin) picture, I got a little more credible.”
Maybe now he’ll pay a little more attention to his grandfather’s legacy. . .the story of a true pioneer, forgotten no longer.