Commentary

From American gangster to crossover legend

Pee Wee Kirkland once turned down the Chicago Bulls to return to dealing drugs on the streets of Harlem. Now he's preaching a different message.

Originally Published: February 7, 2008
By Mary Buckheit | ESPN.com

He's been compared to NBA legends Tiny Archibald and Julius Erving, but he was probably more akin to "American Gangsters" characters Frank Lucas and "Mr. Untouchable" Nicky Barnes.

The rap group Clipse put it best in their 2002 smash, "Grindin'" (still their top song on iTunes):

From ghetto to ghetto, to backyard to yard
I sell it whip on whip, it's off the hard
I'm the neighborhood pusha
call me subwoofer, 'cause I pump "base" like that, Jack
on or off the track …
The jewels is flirting me, damned if I'm hurting
Legend in two games like I'm Pee Wee Kirkland

Enshrined in hip-hop lyrics and New York City lore, the drug kingpin and Rucker Park street ball legend Pee Wee Kirkland created a revolution all his own in the 1960s and '70s.

Growing up in poverty on 116th Street, Kirkland says he was selling drugs by age 13. Through hustling, gambling and craps, he became so good at the game so quickly that he had a Rolls Royce before he had a driver's license. But somehow, the underworld glamour never quite waylaid the Charles Evans Hughes High School all-city point guard from basketball -- the other game he excelled in.

And thus began Pee Wee Kirkland's renowned life of duplicity that now resonates well beyond the New York neighborhoods he once presided over.

Black Magic

"Black Magic," which features Pee Wee Kirkland, is a four-hour, two-part film scheduled to debut on ESPN at 9 p.m., ET, on Sunday, March 16, and Monday, March 17, 2008, immediately following the men's and women's NCAA Tournament selection specials. Directed and produced by award-winning filmmaker Dan Klores ("The Boys of Second Street Park," "Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story," "Viva Baseball" and "Crazy Love"), the film tells the story of the injustice which characterized the civil rights movement in America as told through the lives of basketball players and coaches who attended historically black colleges and universities.

Earl "The Pearl" Monroe is a co-producer. Wynton Marsalis and Samuel L. Jackson are the narrtors. Julius Erving will introduce the film on the first night, while Chris Paul will make the introduction on the second night.

While the basketball talent was always there, it didn't take long for crime's glory and glitz to take the front seat. In the book "Gangsters of Harlem," author Ron Chepesiuk describes the exploits of the city's most infamous organized crime leaders. In it, Kirkland, a.k.a. "The Bank of Harlem," has his own chapter.

"My family was poor. I used to tell my mom I was selling newspapers, but the money came fast. … At that time, Martin Luther King was preaching about strength of mind and character, but I didn't get it," 62-year-old Kirkland says from his home in New York City. "I was out there with the cars and the drugs, the jewelry, the entourage. I was giving out money and making it back over again. I had the gangster style, I was the guy who was carrying two guns. That life is like quicksand. I knew right from wrong, but once you're in, it's almost impossible to get out."

In fact, there was a time when Kirkland was in so deep he actually bailed on the Chicago Bulls so he could return to the more lucrative operations he ran in Harlem. Drafted by the Bulls in the 13th round in 1968 out of Norfolk State, he left the team in preseason and by 1971 was locked up in the maximum security prison in Lewisburg, Pa., on drug-related conspiracy chargers. Four years later, he got out -- only to land behind the bars of the La Tuna Federal Correctional Institution in Texas from 1981 to 1988.

"There was the first incarceration, probably a long time coming," Kirkland says. "Then the second was just because of all the money from the operations of the first." (Kirkland landed in prison for tax evasion.)

With the notoriety that is attached to big city players, it's no wonder the legend of Pee Wee Kirkland is viral on the streets. But what makes his life so interesting is the other chamber of Kirkland, a separate face of a man that warrants a scripture in and of itself.

The other side of Kirkland shed the fur coat for a pair of Chuck Taylors, then nabbed scoring titles during the prime years of the Rucker League. It is that side of Kirkland that is credited with the creation of the cross-over dribble and the original spin move to the basket. That side, Kirkland says, had John Wooden sending scouts to Norfolk to get him to transfer to UCLA. That Kirkland, who was once dubbed "the fastest man in college basketball" by Sports Illustrated, was drafted by the Bulls and later garnered a telegram from Knicks coach Red Holzman urging a tryout.

[+] EnlargePee Wee Kirkland
AP Photo/Tina FinebergPlayground hoops legends Pee Wee Kirkland, right, and Joe Hammond (shown here in August 2003), are products of the Rucker Park courts in New York.
So why isn't that Pee Wee Kirkland in the Hall of Fame, or at least somewhere behind Dr. James Naismith in annals of hoops history books?

"Because it was different then, at Rucker and at black colleges," he explains about an era stretching from the 1940 into the early 1970s. "Nothing was recorded, or written down. If it was it didn't count for anything. Put it this way: I could have gone to UCLA and started as a freshman, had four years to play with Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] even though I already had two years of college at Norfolk State. Because little black universities didn't count. So many people played where their accomplishments didn't mean anything. No one was keeping official records.

"There are lives and legacies of people who can't and shouldn't be forgotten, but there was nothing commemorating the greatness of black accomplishments in sports, or life in general, at that time."

Kirkland understands the stories that live in the shadows of segregation and repression, and he knows that his fame, much like his talent, is the exception to the rule. "My reputation has become bigger than the reality. My story has spread because of the gangster life I had aside from basketball," he says. "I am blessed to have the love of the people; because of that, I don't need institutional recognition. But there are people -- black people, great athletes -- who deserve it. Maybe they are known in the black community, but that's it; their talents were never really exposed. It's a very emotional reality."

Today, Kirkland is thankful for a film that finally depicts this reality. "Black Magic" is a two-part, four-hour documentary airing on ESPN without commercial interruption on March 16 and 17 at 8 p.m. ET. Directed by Dan Klores and co-produced by NBA legend Earl Monroe, the movie is a history of Civil Rights-era America as seen through the basketball players and coaches at historically black colleges (Monroe played at Winston-Salem State).

"I credit this movie and the people responsible for having the courage to explore that period of time," Kirkland says. "Their accomplishments need to be exposed. We had real icons of the game but they are still not recognized by the NCAA or the NBA. I think that message becomes apparent through their personal stories. Because of this documentary, the truth is now out there."

[+] EnlargePee Wee Kirkland
Ray Tamarra/Getty ImagesIn December 2005, Pee Wee was in his element at the taping of the 'Ultimater Hustler' season finale at CBS Studios in New York.
"Black Magic" reveals the plight of players and coaches in their stark but proud commission. With separate leagues, facilities, championship games and titles that never made into history books and even integrated "underground" games, this era laid the groundwork for modern athletes and future generations.

Today's generation is one Kirkland tries to reach through his School of Skillz -- a weekly life seminar set beneath the veneer of a basketball clinic. Kirkland founded the School of Skillz in New York in 1994 with help from Nike. Today it's a national campaign. Kirkland says that while behind bars, he realized the consequences of his actions and he came to think about all the people affected by his delinquency. He understood the impact of missing out on big-time college and NBA opportunities, and aspired to make some amends. Learning those lessons while serving time as his basketball peers became professional superstars, Kirkland emerged with a poignant sense of purpose. His life vocation became connecting with at-risk young people, just like he once was; his popularity and name recognition among urban youth today is remarkable.

"I meet kids now, young boys, who tell me that they've been dying to meet me all their lives. … That's because they are completely enamored with the gangster lifestyle that I represent to them. By the time they are teenagers. Imagine that."

Kirkland operates under the belief that we are witness to two very different Americas -- one of freedoms forged through the civil rights movement and one that governs urban youth today, which he argues is dictated by hip-hop. He knows he is able to reach today's youth through an understanding of hip-hop culture, and how adolescent culture reflects the music.

"Hip-hop culture is controlling their lives," he says. "It's all handed down by whoever everybody is listening to. It's become 'follow the leader.' Everybody looks the same, dress the same, acts the same, talks the same. It's a reaction. There is no contemplation with kids. They don't know how to conversate; it's all arguing and everybody carries a weapon because that's the message they take from the music.

"I want them to listen to their music, but understand that 'keeping it real' is not doing whatever rappers say. Most of today's rappers aren't living the gangster lives that they're talking about in their music, but the young people don't know that. That's the kind of thing we talk about."

As someone who actually lived the gangster life, the reformed Kirkland has a persuasive platform to preach from. "They respect me and my past," he says. "I'm different from the social workers that come at them with nothing but empirical research and have never been there in the communities."

[+] EnlargePee Wee Kirkland
ESPNAt Norfolk State, Pee Wee was called 'the fastest man in college basketball' by Sports Illustrated.
For the record, Kirkland does have a master's degree in human services from Lincoln University in Pennsylvannia, with a thesis on youth violence, but no doubt most of his wisdom stems from his life of street ball and street life. That is how he makes connections, one basketball clinic at a time.

"The life of crime is what they respect," Kirkland says. "I am not trying to glorify my mistakes, but that's the reason why I have their respect and their attention. It would be like John Gotti telling all the Italian kids that the mafia is wrong and can never be right. There is no such thing as a gangster gene; kids learn that through a process. So when someone who has been there goes into the neighborhoods and clarifies the real consequences, that is a message they hear."

Kirkland's message has been heard by thousands of young people. He's gone into penitentiaries and been embraced by inmates. He is often thanked by mothers and girlfriends, and introduced to children by reverential fathers. He is asked to sign autographs for toddlers and has the big-time endorsements from the likes of Ludacris.

In short, like the move he allegedly patented, he, too, has crossed over.

It's believed that point guards make those around them better. Pee Wee Kirkland is living proof.

Mary Buckheit is a Page 2 columnist. She can be reached at marybuckheit@hotmail.com.

Mary Buckheit started as ESPN.com's college intern in 2000. She signed on full-time as an editor in 2002 and became a Page 2 Columnist in 2006. She went west to cover life in California, the UFC, AVP, X Games and anything else she can dig up under the sun.