The playground blacktop, church gyms and rec centers in many areas of this country are where hoop legends are born. Locally, before it left the hood and moved near downtown St. Paul, our local playground league was the Howard Pulley League.
Out East in Philadelphia, it was the Charles Baker Memorial Basketball League, which existed over four decades dating back to 1960, a rival to New York City’s Rucker League. A new film has captured some of this nearly lost hoop history.
A hoops’ Who’s Who: Wilt Chamberlain, Ray Scott and Guy Rodgers were Philly guys who spent many summers playing in the Baker. “The Baker League quickly established itself as the country’s top off-season showcase for pro basketball talent,” said a 1991 Sports Illustrated article.
“Wilt Chamberlain is considered the greatest player of all time,” proudly noted Antonio (Tony) Paris, the New York City native who has lived in the City of Brotherly Love for 20 years. “He changed the game — a lot of rules had to change…[widening] the lane and goaltending. Earl ‘The Pearl’ Monroe, introduced the playground [style] to the NBA and is one of the greatest players of all time,”
The filmmaker premiered The Baker League Story May 22 on the University of Pennsylvania campus.
“This story is giving a broad perspective to people across the nation on what Philadelphia basketball was all about,” noted Paris in a recent MSR phone interview. It features archival footage of Chamberlain, Monroe and Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, who’s better known as Kobe’s father; Lewis “Black Magic” Lloyd, who “scored 50 points back-to-back” and once dunked on Charles Barkley in a Baker League game; and Earl Cureton, who “used to come to the Baker League, and he dunked on everybody.”
Also in the film are “the people who did the scoreboard, scorebook — people that run the recreation centers in the neighborhood, and how they brought basketball in the rec centers and to the playgrounds. It’s a great historical piece for everybody to know and everybody to see,” he emphasized.
“Paris…did an outstanding job of telling a truthful story,” observed the Philadelphia Tribune’s Daryl Bell in his film review.
“This is my 10th documentary,” Paris pointed out. “Philadelphia is rich in tradition when it comes to basketball.” His previous films include Chocolate Thunder Documentary: The Story of Darryl Dawkins and Hank Gathers: Made in Philly.
“Basketball is my passion,” admitted Paris. “I am an old-school retired basketball player. I currently coach professional basketball during the summertime. I train college and professional athletes. I also run a high school basketball program for kids to get into college.”
But he’s also a filmmaker who over the years heard countless hoop stories, “and it prompted me to want to go to school and learn more about doing film,” recalled Paris. “I went to school in Philadelphia for film production. I started telling these stories about basketball.”
Many of our present generation are clueless on hoop history. The NBA once was a Whites-only league: “Black players weren’t allowed to play,” said Paris. When team rosters began integrating, “You’d have quotas — you were allowed one or two Blacks to play on each team. A lot of young kids don’t know that history. They see all these African Americans playing basketball now and think it was always like that.”
Paris hopes that The Baker League Story will go national. “We are searching for other locations — New York, Cleveland, maybe Minnesota. Then after that we are going to be on one of the networks” such as Comcast, NBA TV or ESPN.
“People in Minnesota definitely will get to see it, and they will love it,” he promised.
Information from Sports Illustrated, the Philadelphia Tribune and other sources were used in this report.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.