By Laura Amato
Al Stark considers himself an idea man.
He’s not a writer and he’s not a basketball player, but somehow both of those things have become the center of his life and it all started with a single idea.
Stark, who grew up in the Pomonok Houses, has always been a hoops fan, but six years ago, he took that fandom to a whole new level, helping SLAM Magazine publish the top 500 basketball players of all time. Now, he’s got a few new ideas and a few new names to add to that list with a revised edition set to be published in SLAM China later this year.
“Everybody had their opinion,” Stark said. “For me, it wasn’t so much this person is better than that person, I wanted the exposure for all these players. Not the top-50, numbers 400 to 500. They took a picture of my index cards. I’d be in Barnes & Noble at Bay Terrace and I’d see people looking at it and that was always really cool.”
Stark’s road to SLAM Magazine began years ago when he and his friends first started playing pick-up basketball. There were no rules. Sometimes, weren’t even lights, but as long as there was a ball and a hoop, Stark knew there was still a game to be played.
“You used to give the key and you’d get a ball and you never stole the ball because you wanted your key back,” Stark said. “We’d play day and night and sometimes when we’d got older, we’d play late into the night by the lights from Kissena Boulevard.”
Stark spent a handful of summers at Kutshers Country Club in Monticello and it was there that he discovered just how life-changing basketball could be. He and his friends pooled their money to take in the annual Maurice Stokes charity game, bumping elbows with some of the NBA’s best in the early 1960s as the all-stars came out to raise money for the former Rookie of the Year after he suffered a career-ending injury.
“There were no entourages. I’d be playing basketball and Wilt Chamberlain was right there,” Stark said. “They were just there, hanging out, and that was one of the reasons I loved it. It struck a chord with me.”
From there on out, Stark spent every moment he could on the sidelines — watching, observing, and remembering. Stark is a treasure trove of basketball information, a walking encyclopedia of players from every era and every team, even those who barely spent any time on the NBA hardwood.
He’s also a wealth of New York City hoops knowledge because, for as long as he can remember, New York City hoops has been at the center of everything.
“Back in the day, before ESPN before all this other stuff, to play at Madison Square Garden was a big deal,” Stark said. “Going way, way back, the early 50s, college basketball, the mecca was in New York. There’s no question about it. College basketball double headers would sell out in a heart beat, while the Knicks would be bumped to the Armory.”
Stark’s knowledge, and his penchant for remembering every basketball fact he’s ever learned, led him to SLAM Magazine and an opportunity that was, simply, too good to pass up. His cousin, Rick, parent company and put Stark in touch with then-editor Ben Osborne who was thrilled at the prospect of ranking the all-time greats.
“I go on the Subway to 23rd Street to SLAM Magazine and I came in with a knapsack of one thousand index cards,” Stark said. “A couple of weeks later, I’m on a conference call with corporate talking about the 500 NBA players of all time. [I got invited] to meet all the writers of SLAM, now here I am, I was 60-something years old at the time and I go down there and everybody’s in sweatshirts, ripped jeans, hat backwards and I’m the oldest guy by far. “
Stark helped rank players and even wrote a few of the bios that ran in the special-edition magazine, but, mostly, he wanted to highlight everything basketball was and still is. There’s plenty of talent in the NBA, but there’s more than Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Stark wants to shine a light on those forgotten names, something he hopes to do when the revised list is published in China in October.
“It’s like a bowl of soup with all different things that I have to kind of consider when I’m making the list,” Stark said. “It was a combination of the old and the new. And sometimes I’d agonize, especially at the end. They’re all well represented.”
Stark isn’t sure where his lists or his ideas will take him next, but he does know one thing: He’s always going to be on the sidelines. He’s loved every moment watching basketball and that’s never going to change.
“I’ve just been around the game a long, long time,” Stark said. “Seeing so many high school players come and go and watching the PSAL and Catholic school league, it’s just part of my life.”