The last time I played a game of pick up basketball, I was sixteen and got hassled on man-on-man coverage by a pudgy kid who spilled out of a church van wearing dolphin shorts and a perm. I don’t need to tell you any more about my athleticism in absentia. By the time I found out sports didn’t belong solely to the po-dunk yeomanry elite of northeast Indiana, I was in college and it was too late; I flounder on the court like Charles Barkeley when he gets called out for doing Weight Watchers. As a child of the nineties and a Hoosier, basketball swam through the collective consciousness of my friends and community, but I turned my back to the game and said it was sour grapes when I still watched NBA games multiple times a week. Doin’ It in the Park captures on film the Elysian fields of all the kids I knew in Indiana sporting Iversons with And 1 shorts: the pick up basketball courts of New York City. A love letter orally conveyed by dozens of figures from borough legends to NBA all-stars, the documentary provides exactly what those who flock to it want: a sense of fellowship in their ardor many others (including myself) don’t understand.
Co-directors Bobbito Garcia, a NYC native who wrote a book about the city’s sneaker culture, and Kevin Couliau, a Frenchman renowned in the world of pick up ball photography, set out with a simple premise: visit as many courts as they could throughout the Five Boroughs over the course of a summer. Their aim was to construct a narrative explaining the zealotry surrounding playground basketball in New York, and New York stood up swarming them with an oral history that could flood the Field Museum. Tracing the game from its peach bucket genesis at the hands of Dr. James Naismith, Garcia and Couliau make an ardent and convincing case for outdoor basketball as the true heir to the Dr.’s intentions for the game. Melding images and history of the unknown architects who shot oblong balls into trash cans and milk crates fixed onto brick walls alongside testimony of the esoteric legends who were the living faces of the game’s evolution, the two directors infuse into sixteen-millimeter a sports sub-culture unblemished by external influence.
In the footage from their games and their interviews, egalitarianism is in one way or another professed by all as the core tenet in the House of Hoops. The constant shift in focus of the interview subject from someone like Corey “Homicide” Williams, a legend in the Bronx but relatively unknown outside of New York, to someone like Julius Erving or Kenny Smith keeps the documentary at a fast, unpredictable cadence. The universal element is in the stories: NBA legends and top players on specific courts alike reminiscing about being young, waiting for their shot to play, working their way up, and earning respect. The effect leaves you feeling like the baddest kids ever just walked by you in the hallway, but there’s no way you could ever join the club — you can just stand in awe.
The objective of the film is to translate and convey the pickup basketball culture. The idea is executed, but not without a maudlin veneer smeared over the proceedings. The words “respect” and “safe” are bandied by nearly everyone interviewed, and from what the audience is exposed to the courts seem like forums where egos and vitriol writhe, but when the last shot’s down olive branches are handed out by the bundle. Not so. While Garcia and Couliau visit Rikers Island to speak to the prisoners and their love of the game, there’s a) the fact these inmates didn’t commit crimes on basketball courts, and b) the sense everyone’s trying to make you believe basketball is this redemptive panacea. What bothered me is the filmmakers didn’t touch on the shootings that happen on pick up courts through New York. I’m not saying the city’s rife with them, but I can recall reading a story about a shooting at a Harlem court Chicago Bull Nate Robinson was at (he wasn’t involved and wasn’t hurt, just there) that left five injured, and a four year-old who was shot in head during a shootout over a game. I don’t want to spoil the open gym atmosphere of the film, but the filmmakers demonstrate some objective bias in not including every facet of what the culture they want others to experience has experienced.
When the credits rolled and b-stock footage of pick-up games mixed with the title track, I thought of the summers my brother and friends spent at basketball camp while I ran around playing with fireworks and reading Dumas novels. An unsettled feeling of dismissal and jealousy clung to my rib cage like a passerby at a game looking through the chain link, wondering how they can just play basketball for hours on end. This film is made by, and made for, that inner club, for the kids who were rigging up floodlights to play longer when I had been inside for hours.