Friday September 11th, 2015

This story about Rawle Alkins, the would-be-king of New York basketball, begins at Rucker Park. The hallowed Harlem court is the epicenter of roundball in a city that loves the sport, and it’s long been considered a proving ground for ballplayers with ambition. For a New York kid facing national competition, the playground’s history amplifies the weight of the moment.

The pinnacle of Rucker basketball may have been at its annual summer circuit, the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic, in 2003. In an early foray into basketball, the rapper Jay-Z, ever a showman, rolled out a who’s who of New York products including Queens-bred Clippers forward Lamar Odom and Sports Illustrated coverboy Sebastian Telfair. Telfair was a Brooklyn prep star, as his cousin Stephon Marbury had been before him and as Alkins is now. 

But the value of being New York’s top high school prospect has waned in the ensuing years, relative to the rest of the country. A January 2014 study by Mode Analytics ranked New York the 27th-best state per capita in producing Division I players. The only NBA All-Star in the past decade who played even a single year of high school ball in the city is Joakim Noah (who did so at United Nations International School and Poly Prep Country Day School in New York before graduating from Lawrenceville School in New Jersey).

On this night in July, Adidas has given Rucker Park its first-ever game of high school stars during a live recruiting period, in which coaches can attend events and talk with players and their families. Alkins, who was born and raised in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn and spent his first three years of high school at Christ the King in Queens, is Rivals.com’s No. 9 player in the 2016 class. Last year he was the only five-star prospect playing high school ball in the five boroughs, but that doesn’t mean he's a household name. In fact, the game announcer can't even pronounce it right.

Rawle takes the court as Rawl, (it’s pronounced Raleigh), and he will not be the only victim: also in attendance are fellow five-star guard Cody (Kobi) Simmons, and Texas coach Shonte (Shaka) Smart, who has offered Alkins a scholarship. Other interested coaches there on this night include St. John’s coach Chris Mullin, who has brought two assistants in his all-out pursuit of a fellow Brooklyn native. After taking the job in April, the Hall of Famer’s first recruiting call went to Alkins.

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Media members have frequently compared Alkins to Clippers guard Lance Stephenson, who won back-to-back state titles at Abraham Lincoln High School in Coney Island and is still the state’s all-time high school scoring leader. In 2009, Rivals called Stephenson “a physical guard who plays with an aggressive attitude,” a statement that is a perfect fit for Alkins, who loves to attack the rim. But beyond their physical similarities—they’re both 6’5” with burly builds—the comparisons don’t hold up. Stephenson could be frustrating to his high school coaches: his recruitment had Lincoln’s Dwayne Morton “ready to take a sabbatical from coaching” during his senior year in '09, and he was cut from the U.S. under-18 team by Davidson’s Bob McKillop. Christ the King’s Joe Arbitello can’t remember Alkins swearing aloud once in three years.

On the same Rucker court where Stephenson made his name in 2007 by scoring 38 points in Under Armour's Elite 24 game, history begins to repeat itself. Alkins awakens a standing-room crowd, grabbing a rebound and weaving the length of the floor for a vigorous two-handed jam. Alkins marks his territory, egged on during the game by teammates to go off in his hometown. He finishes with 24 points in 25 minutes and a game-high eight assists. In a game made up of the All-American camp’s elite performers, his team loses by six, 103-97.

This will be one of Alkins’s final games in New York as a high schooler. Because of an old city rule dictating how athletic eligibility functions and a still-pending appeal, Alkins got on a plane Friday to enroll at Word of God Academy in Raleigh, N.C., this fall, leaving New York again without a blue-chip star. 

Alkins says he’s determined to represent his home next season, though he thinks New York might forget him in the end. “Will they call me a New Yorker, even if I graduate from a different state?”

*****

Gregory Payan/AP

Five days later, Rawle works out at his local Brooklyn gym, a massive windowless building more warehouse than fieldhouse. It’s about a 20-minute walk from his home in Canarsie, and it’s where he spends the majority of his time. The aesthetic is old-school: three full-length indoor courts with cracking cement floors and faded lines, dirty sky-blue walls and a weight room. This evening, his friends shoot around on one hoop while a few small pickup games take place on neighboring courts. Rawle says his first youth league was held here and remembers chucking half-court shots in games for fun.

Rawle doesn’t have a personal trainer, but he comes here regularly with his closest friends, three of whom he introduces as cousins (only one is actually related). He’s taking it easy today, carefully examining his puffy left middle fingertip, presently a deep shade of purple. He thinks he injured it playing at Rucker, and will sit out this week’s Vegas trip with his AAU team, the New York Rens, to play it safe.

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He proudly notes that the Rens won the Adidas Gauntlet championship in July, topping teams led by five-star guards Dennis Smith and Kobi Simmons while Rawle averaged 23.8 points with a PER of 28.7. 

Like Simmons and unlike Smith, who recently committed to N.C. State, Alkins has yet to pick a college. In addition to St. John’s, a who’s who of college powers make up his list: Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville, North Carolina and more. His decision will be made more on his living situation, the off-court advantages and how he’ll improve as a player, not whose footsteps he’ll follow in. “That type of stuff is not persuading,” he explains. “I’m the type of person that thinks anywhere I go, we're gonna win.”

His attitude stems, at least in part, from unprecedented success at Christ the King: the first CHSAA (New York’s Catholic school league) three-peat in school history, making them the third school to accomplish the feat, not to mention the back-to-back state championships.

Rawle's high school career got off to an auspicious start. He was so green to the basketball culture as a freshman that he once mistook former Fordham coach Tom Pecora for John Calipari, and his academic struggles led Arbitello to have him sit out 18 games. Rawle went to tutoring, improved his grades and returned to log immediate minutes on the way to city and state titles. 

Arbitello worried Rawle might transfer after sitting out as a freshman, that a wayward New York handler might convince him he’d be better off elsewhere. But Alkins’s family has kept his circle small and kept him on track. He grew up an only child with eight family members under one roof, including his mother, grandmother, aunt and uncle, all Haitian immigrants who raised him and his cousins like brothers. Five more aunts, four with kids of their own, lived within a mile radius of their house. His mother, Derline Zephir, and 28-year-old cousin, Rodney Labossiere, are in charge.

In Rawle's sophomore year, his role increased and the Royals again won titles at city and state. As a junior, he recorded the first triple-double in school history. With no teammate over 6’6”, Rawle was tasked with rebounding, defending the opposition’s best player and making plays for others in addition to leading the team in scoring. They won city a third straight time and narrowly missed at state, losing 79–73 to the Bronx’s Wings Academy despite 24 points from Rawle. This fall, Christ the King will try to become the first school to complete the CHSAA four-peat, but they'll have to do it without him. Arbitello put it bluntly: “It’d be a hell of a lot easier with Rawle Alkins.”

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The CHSAA stipulates that student-athletes can play up to four years of continuous high school basketball. Rawle spent eighth grade in West Palm Beach, Fla., after his mother, who works for Time Warner Cable, was relocated temporarily, and he played eight games on the varsity at Palm Beach Central. It was a long enough stretch to place his New York eligibility as a senior in question.

Rawle has been aware since then that his eligibility could expire, hoping his exemplary on and off-court track record would help his case. The family pressed for a ruling last season after realizing nothing had been resolved, but the CHSAA wouldn’t decide until September 2015. Rawle was left with a choice: Re-enroll at Christ the King and risk missing the transfer deadline at many prep schools if not cleared, or preemptively find an alternative.

Arbitello has supported Rawle’s departure from the start. “I think people need to get with the times,” he said. “One year can make a major difference in his life.”

Rawle took leaving hard at first, but he says he’s over it now. “New York City has their policies, has their rules,” Rawle says. “I would’ve wanted to end my career here [and] be the next All-American out of New York.”

*****

Gregory Payan/AP

One month after the Adidas camp, it is Under Armour’s turn to bring the grassroots show to New York City. The annual Elite 24 game, after leaving Rucker for a two-year stint in Venice Beach, now takes place on a pier at Brooklyn Bridge Park, with the Manhattan skyline and the East River in the background and NBA scouts in the stands. Players practice the day prior in a cramped old Jesuit high school gym in downtown Manhattan.

Nearly every top prospect in the country is here, with the exception of those in the Bahamas on Nike’s dime, a thinly veiled ploy to keep their top players away from the competition. Rawle won MVP at the prestigious Adidas Nations camp earlier in the month, but he thinks he only received an invite to the Under Armour game after some of the Nike kids dropped out. His AAU team, of course, wears Adidas.

Practice brings extended media time. Rawle sits down as reporters circle. He hears familiar things. When people say New York doesn't have great players, how do you feel? What would it to be like to play at Madison Square Garden? His responses are measured; he’s grown accustomed to this process. Still, he likes to bounce questions back and visibly gets a kick out of throwing media a curveball or two.

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When asked, Rawle insists he wants to visit all 11 colleges on his list, which, given time constraints and NCAA regulations will be difficult: players are only allowed to take five official visits. With the prep school decision, he’s had little time to focus on college and has no plans to commit until spring. At Word of God, ACC rivals North Carolina and N.C. State, both of which are already recruiting him, will have the edge in proximity. The final request from reporters: Compare yourself to another player from the city.

He thinks aloud. “Does it have to be a player from New York?” He smirks, then guesses the presumable follow-up. “How about an NBA player?” he asks. “Lance Stephenson?” The reporter struggles to come up with a helpful response.

“I think [Rawle] has a chance to be an NBA player, strong body, improving body control, good vision,” one scout in attendance tells SI in a text message later. “[He’s a] power player but he doesn't just bull you over like [ex-Arizona forward and current Pistons rookie] Stanley Johnson at the same age. He has a little more finesse in the lane. I saw the jump shot fall enough to know he’s capable.”

In the game the next day he challenges Rivals.com’s No. 1 prospect in his class, Josh Jackson, a long-limbed and absurdly athletic forward who guards him closely. Jackson blocks a couple layup attempts, but there’s something to be said for Rawle’s aggressiveness against a player with a bigger reputation. When he finally shakes Jackson with a crossover, he nearly finishes over him with a contested two-handed jam, just missing a signature highlight to the audible chagrin of the crowd. Despite a strong performance for the winning team in his home city, he misses out on one of four MVP awards.

On Sept. 8, Rawle announced his decision to attend Word of God with a tweet. “I've been believing in myself,” he said in July, back in Canarsie. “I'm trying to prove to the media, prove to all the people watching that I'm the best guard in the country, not only just New York.”

His next chance to make that case will come far from Brooklyn.

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