Doc Pays Homage to NYC Playground Basketball
Filmakers hit the courts downtown
By Jake Coyle
Many consider playground basketball to be 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 pick-up basketball. 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 commuters and tourists in lower Manhattan. Basketball is woven into the asphalt fabric of New York.
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 pro basketball sideline reporter and through countless other basketball-promoting activities.
"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 NBA stars 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 the New York City borough of 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 film.
"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 outdoors."
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 world."
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 documentary.
To release Doin' it in the Park, Garcia and Couliau have taken a do-it-yourself 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 Harlem theater this week, 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 basketball.
"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 this up."
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