Let me try to take you back to many years ago. See that picture of a basketball court on top of this blog? I can’t remember exactly when but years ago on that same court I was playing pick up on a typical sunny weekend afternoon. It was way too hot to be out of the shade but there I was anyway along with a bunch of other basketball ‘adiks’ like me, getting a game in before there’d be too many people trying to play on two courts.
I don’t know exactly what made it happen but during a lull in the game I looked up at the blue, cloudless sky. There were a few branches from the trees in the way but for the most part it was a perfect sky. On a perfect afternoon. On the perfect time of day with me doing the most perfect thing I can think of: playing pick up ball.
And it hit me that right there, right then I did not want to do anything else anywhere anyhow anywhy. I was playing pick up and everything else in my world could go straight to hell and I couldn’t give a fuck (and a lot of it was at the time).
I remember thinking: Right now on that rough cement court I loved the game and as I was playing it I was loving my life. I loved the sound our sneakers made. I loved the sweat dripping off my chin. I loved the near smooth basketball even if everyone was avoiding the responsibility of buying a new one and it was getting smoother each week. I even loved the sweaty idiots I was with, many of whom I would never have reason to talk to if it weren’t for the fact they loved the game too.
I loved the game with every stitch and every pore and every atom in my body and to this day the distant sound of a bouncing ball or the whistle of a referee from a nearby school would send me reminiscing about all those battles, all those relationships, all those hours sitting by the court itching at a chance to play.
It’s my life. It’s why I made this blog. It’s the very core of who I am. My memories of pick up ball are both beautiful and bitter sweet. Why bitter sweet? I’ll let you know in a second.
Flash to today
Last July 6 I was invited to a screening of Kevin Couliau and Bobbito Garcia’s ‘Doin’ It In The Park, Pick Up Basketball, New York City‘, a multi awarded documentary about you guessed it, NYC’s pick up basketball scene. In 1.25 hrs Kevin and Bobbito bicycled across NY’s city 180 courts in five boroughs recording 75 days worth of interviews, games and everything else that defined the ‘history, culture, and social impact of New York’s outdoor summer b-ball scene, the worldwide “Mecca” of the sport‘.
It was absolutely as advertised. Kevin and Bobbito waded through the different courts and talked to so many interesting and colorful characters each with their own unique stories. There was a lot of talk of history, about where the first courts started and who were the guys that brought the idea of putting up courts there for people to play with. Particularly interesting is how many of them decided to allow free access to the courts to anyone at anytime 24/7 because it gave the youth a chance to avoid the the tough streets NY is also known for (attention local village courts).
Kevin and Bobbito treat us to a visual and audible feast along the way, giving us a 3d kaleidoscope of what the scene looks, sounds and feels like. Players are trash talking to an almost rhythmic rhyme. Interviewees talk about NBA stars who got their start there past and present, the local flavor of their culture thick in their accents, choice of words and how they speak. NBA guys talk about their experiences growing up in the ‘hood’ in complete awe of the scene, the people they played with, the games, the experiences and all and everything in between.
Everyone is pretty much saying the same thing: Pick Up Basketball saved their lives. They had nothing, they played, and then they had something. It was the same for the guy trying to get a game on a NY park and the guy locked up in a nearby NY detention area for pushing drugs or assault. Pick up meant the world to them, and as they spoke I knew what they meant.
The film isn’t perfect. First off there is no order in how Kevin and Bobbito go about their story. I’m not sure if they started chronologically, or if they went to the nearest court in their neighborhood and worked their way from there, or if they went from east to west or whichever.
There’s also no order in the traditional story telling fashion as well where you’d have a Chapter 1, 2 and so on, moving towards something. Instead we get interviews upon interviews on top of great game footage, then flashbacks, then a story of a player and how he got his ‘handle’ then another interview etc. Around 45 minutes into it I caught myself starting to wonder where all of this was going, if there was a point they were trying to make or were they just going to meander along (they meandered along). Mind you this is no biggie due to the quality of interviews and video. It’s just sometimes you need to breathe a bit and get ready for what would come next.
I thought about it though and it felt apt. The interviewees themselves speak in that similar fashion where they aren’t particular, jumping from a topic to another using words that hope to deliver in aggregate the feel, look and sounds of the courts, the people and the games. I doubt the filmmakers planned it but that’s how it is. I like order in my story telling but I wouldn’t tell Kevin and Bobbito how to do it inasmuch as they wouldn’t tell their interviewees to speak in proper English, so that’s that.
Did I relate?
Of course I did, and I’m sure so did a lot in the crowd. Even Mac Mac Cardona, whom I was standing near to, said “Parang baranggay lang ‘e no?‘, when I overheard him greet a friend, no doubt referring to his own experiences playing pick up probably in Mandaluyong.
I did find one thing particularly lacking though, which explains the ‘bittersweet’ in my description above. The reason pick up ball drew me in was that at the time, I literally had nothing else to do. I had no money, I had no options, I had no job and I didn’t want to spend the time sulking at home. In short, I took to basketball as an escape. It rewarded me a hundred times over by teaching me maturity, self respect, patience and confidence, but the path towards that was long and difficult.
Doin’ It In The Park had a light and easy air to it, almost happy due to the background samba music used. But as I looked into the eyes of some of the guys they interviewed I knew exactly how they felt. There’s a reason why they were on a basketball court instead of sipping juice at a country club, playing golf or taking the yacht out to sea. I mean who in hell wanted to be hang out with guys who might shoot or stab you if they didn’t like how you dressed?
The reason they were there was because they also had limited options. They didn’t have any money, but they also didn’t want to do drugs. They didn’t want to steal, beg or fight. So they went to the courts to play ball. It’s the only thing available to them, same as it was then to me. And same as it is to many kids out there on a thousand courts in Manila on any given weekend afternoon.
Doin’ It In The Park has a ton of awards and it looks like Kevin and Bobbito are having a good time travelling around the world, and justifiably so. However it’s no Hoop Dreams. It’s not even like ‘My Game‘, the movie Nike first invited me to in ’07. There’s none of that gritty sadness I remember clearly, when I grappled with questions in my life and the only thing clear to me was basketball because it at least made me feel I had some control.
Watch it for the fun interviews, the glimpse of the culture and to learn which parks out there in NY are worth going to. But that’s all there is. It’s just fun.