Documentary is an ode to NYC playground basketball
Half-moon hoops, double rims, chain-linked fences for
out-of-bounds lines and no net that anyone can recall.
Such is the imperfect urban landscape of playground basketball,
what many consider the truest expression of the sport. It’s
basketball without referees, coaches or sneaker deals. Anyone can
play, so long as they call ”Next.”
A new documentary, ”Doin’ it in the Park,” is a loving ode to
the blacktop world of New York City pickup. With more than 700
courts, it’s the mecca of pick-up basketball, featuring places like
Rucker Park in Harlem and the West 4th St. court, a kind of fish
bowl of nonstop basketball on view for West Village commuters and
tourists. Basketball is woven into the asphalt fabric of New
”Every court has a story,” says ”Doin’ it in the Park”
co-director Bobbito Garcia, who made the film with Kevin Couliau, a
French photographer of outdoor basketball.
When Garcia was found on a recent sunny spring day at a Village
court off Hudson Street, he was calmly knocking down shot after
shot: ”You take it, `cause I won’t miss,” he says, offering the
ball less with arrogance than matter-of-fact politeness.
Garcia, 46, is not your average documentarian. A New York native
and former basketball pro in Puerto Rico, he’s carved out a career
as a DJ, as an author of a book on shoes, as a New York Knicks
sideline reporter and through countless other basketball-promoting
”I have no aspirations to make another film,” he says. ”It’s
not like I got enchanted by a subject and dove into it for two
years to create a film and now I’m to my next project. This is it.
I just want to play ball.”
He and Couliau made ”Doin’ it in the Park” by visiting 180
courts across all five boroughs over the course of the 2010 summer.
They often traveled between courts on bike, Couliau’s backpack full
of film equipment, Garcia’s with just a basketball. Couliau crashed
on Garcia’s couch in Harlem.
They tried to capture the culture of New York basketball, one
dented backboard at a time. Their urban odyssey took them from
rough Coney Island courts (the point guard hotbed that produced
Stephan Marbury and Sebastian Telfair) to the daily prisoner games
of Rikers Island.
The movie is something of a cultural guide to the world of New
York playground basketball (Garcia disdains the demeaning ”street
ball” name), cataloguing its courts, its legends, its local
characters and its peculiar customs.
The film takes the viewer through the sometimes fraught process
of getting into the most competitive runs; examines the fierce
competitiveness that makes the playground an incubator of talent;
and presents the peculiarities of the game ”21,” (in which three
or more players play individually against each other).
Kenny Smith, the former NBA guard and current TNT analyst,
recalls growing up on the courts in Queens. The day he made it into
a game on ”the big boy court” in his neighborhood as a
15-year-old, Smith says, remains his most cherished basketball
memory. (He’s a two-time NBA champion.)
Richard ”Pee Wee” Kirkland, the Rucker Park legend and top
scorer, calls pick-up ”the essence of basketball,” in the
”One time I played at Tompkins Square Park and there was a
priest on the court, a woman who had played college ball, me, a
Wall Street banker and two homeless dudes – we didn’t have
enough,” Garcia says. ”Where are you going to find that mix of
people engaged in a physical activity? It’s not going to happen in
the club where it’s members only. It’s not going to happen indoors.
It’s going to happen in the park. It’s going to happen
Often, the filmmakers would (not reluctantly) be pulled into the
games they were filming.
”We weren’t just witnesses,” says Couliau, by phone from
Paris. ”We were also taking part of the movement on the
playgrounds. We aren’t like filmmakers trying to understand a
culture. We just wanted to capture it and show it to the
Often, Couliau would have to lure Garcia away from a game,
reminding him that he ”couldn’t be in every shot.” Sometimes, he
would simply put the camera on a tripod and let it roll. The two
engaged in a one-on-one battle throughout the making of the
Most groups happily received the pair, but some were protective
of their territory. In Brooklyn, Garcia says, they had to get
permission to shoot from the local guy who runs the park.
”Everywhere else we were received with open arms,” says
Garcia. ”But in Brooklyn, it was like, `Yo, what are you all
doin’? You cops?”’
To release ”Doin’ it in the Park,” Garcia and Couliau have
taken a DIY approach in line with their subject. Earlier in May,
they released it themselves on the film’s website for $9.99 a
download. They’ve booked theatrical runs themselves at theaters (it
opens in a New York theater May 22, and follows in other cities)
and they’ve organized community screenings. Nike is sponsoring them
on a world tour through August that will bring the film to many
different – but also similar – international cultures of pick-up
”President Obama, Lebron James, the 65-year-old dude right here
and the scrub out of junior high school behind us – they all play
pick-up,” says Garcia, gesturing at the courts around him.
”Everybody plays pick-up.”
Leaning back on a park bench, Garcia smiles broadly, basking in
the cacophony of balls bouncing around him. One court nearby is
teaming with 10 kids, none older than 9.
”It’s alive,” he says, pointing to the kids. ”I can’t make
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