Back in the day in my early 20’s I played on a travel basketball team, Brooklyn USA. My guy Ziggy ran the team and would gather up basketball players from around New York City. We would compete in summer leagues, tournaments and there were times we played in State prisons against the inmates. The prisoners loved us.
On a hot Saturday afternoon in July, we had a game at Rucker Park. As we sat on an empty, uptown D-train headed to Rucker, Ziggy was telling me the guys he had coming to the game. While he ran off the names, I recognized all of them except for one; Billy Rieser.
“Who’s Billy Rieser?” I asked Ziggy as our train pulled into 125th street.
“You never heard of White Jesus?”
Ziggy didn’t bother to explain.
Well after two hours at Rucker, where we lost the game, I headed back to Brooklyn knowing all about Billy Rieser.
I recently caught up with Billy and asked him about his life of growing up in East Harlem, basketball and his life today. Here is part one of my four-part interview.
When and where did you first start playing basketball?
I remember playing in the 5th grade at the Boys Club in East Harlem. I played on my first team in the 6th grade for Our Lady of Mount Carmel. I recall playing at a high level out-playing everyone and scoring at will.
My 6th grade teacher gave me my first book to read and it was, Foul: The Connie Hawkins Story. He became one of my first idols and someone I tried to emulate.
(Editor’s Note: I too read ‘Foul’ when I was a kid. I highly recommend it, it’s one of the best books I have ever read.)
What do you recall about that first experience with the game of basketball?
I fell in love with the game of basketball and knew early on what it meant to dominate games and humiliate my opponents.
I remember playing in the 8th grade championship game at the PAL gym downtown and putting on a dunking exhibition during warm-ups on the lay-up line. I imagine it was quite the surprise to see a six-foot nothing white kid who thought he was Connie Hawkins play like that.
We won the game before the jump-ball.
As time went on, I grew four more inches to 6’4″ but never had big hands required to palm a basketball the way I wanted.
I had strong thick hands but short fingers. My forty-four inch vertical and speed made up for my height and small hands.
I learned how to tomahawk a basketball with two hands with a ferocity in addition to learning how to cup a basketball between my hand and forearm. This made for some really hard dunks over people as I learned by watching the Hawkins, Julius Erving, Herman “Helicopter” Knowings and Earl “The Goat” Manigault (who went to my high school, Benjamin Franklin).
The bar was raised and the example was set for how I wanted to play by studying how all these players graced us with their remarkable basketball skills.
What was your high school experience like on the basketball court? What are some of your favorite memories?
High School basketball for me was all about being patient for two years until I transferred from St. Agnes Boys High School on 44th street and Grand Central Station to Ben Franklin; which happened to be located in my neighborhood.
Word on the street was Ben Franklin was making a comeback. There was a buzz around the city about our team and this kid (Billy Rieser) who had respect on the asphalt and ran with some of the best in Harlem.
I remember stepping on the court for my first practice and the gym was packed with people wanting to see me. I was blown away by how a different culture than my own loved and adored me and my game.
All I knew was to play hard, not even realizing that we were the hottest basketball ticket in town.
The first significant moment on the court was against Taft at City College. Taft had someone who went by “Cornbread” and a guy named Artie Green.
The gym was packed and before the opening tip I told my point guard that I was going to out-jump Cornbread and tip the ball to him.
“When you get the ball hand it off to me and I will thrown it down to get us off on a good start,” were my exact words.
I won the tip and the ball was handed off to me while Cornbread was guarding me. I remember not even making a move, just driving toward the basket from the left side of the court. I took off with Cornbread on me and in one of those moments you wished they had caught on film I took off in the air and can remember being so high above the rim that my eyes looked down and I threw down a two-handed “Sidney Moncrief” type-dunk over Cornbread.
(Editor’s note: For all who are unaware of a Sidney Moncrief dunk, it’s a two-handed, tomahawk. The day Billy and I played together at Rucker, he threw down the Moncrief)
Then something happened that I never expected. A block party broke out on the court and I was swarmed by people celebrating; It was over, we won the game on that play.
Despite the dunk, I didn’t have a great game.
I rarely dunked the ball on breakaway lay-ups because for me, every dunk had to have a purpose and the purpose of a dunk was to throw it down on somebody and humiliate them.
I can remember throwing it down so hard on people my wrists would bleed. Vincent Malozzi, a New York Times writer and the author of “Asphalt Gods” called me the “hardest dunking white boy in the history of New York City.”
My most memorable game was a loss that devastated me at the time but looking back on the game it might have been my best game ever. We played against Morris at Madison Square Garden. I was matched up against my good friend David Crosby. David was a slick, tall, power forward who had me by three inches.
For me this game meant the world to play on the court where my Knicks played.
I was a huge Knicks fan and here we were about to play on the Garden floor right before the Knicks were to play. The Knicks had guys like Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere and Willis Reed. DeBusschere wore number twenty-two, which also happened to be my number.
My teammates got caught up in the moment and did not play their best game. As a result I hardly touched the ball.
But if there was ever an equivalent of having a perfect game, that would be the game. I don’t recall missing a shot that night and scoring 36 points on moves I never knew I had.
I had one of those “in the zone” type-games where I could have scored 70 points if I had the touches.
I remember hitting bank shots from tweny-five feet out and going off the dribble past my man David but he and Morris got the best of us that day even though I had one of my best games ever.
One other game worth mentioning is when we played Lehman in the Bronx. I remember this game vividly because I was in so much pain. My knee shut down with a case of tendonitis. I was in bad shape.
I could hardly walk but nothing could keep me off the court in those days.
I had nothing through the first three quarters of the game. We found ourselves trailing by a lot. My coach, Stan Dinner broke his foot at halftime kicking some weights during his half-time tirade and speech.
We got down by 25 points early in the fourth quarter; I was in excruciating pain. As I pressed on, thinking I could not move an inch, all of a sudden the pain left my knee and during the next six minutes my teammates knew I was back.
I took over with a barrage of dunks and blocked shots. I scored our last 26 points of the game. We won the game by one as I swatted a lay-up off the rim at the buzzer.
(Editor’s Note: Clearly a game for the magazine, Basketball Digest: “The Game I’ll Never Forget.”)
Looking back on those days, it was amazing to me how basketball created an opportunity for me to be a central figure in a different culture.
(NEXT UP: DECIDING ON A COLLEGE )