Film Study: 'Doin' It In The Park: Pick-Up Basketball, NYC'

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Remember when you were about 10 years old, hitting the nearby playground basketball courts for the first time? You saw a few of your friends trying their crossovers but getting the ball caught in their shorts because no one was very tall. You boldly called next on the main court, but your brother and his boys were on it (10 minutes later, he got embarrassed). The half courts on the opposite end of the park were full, so you got pushed over to the monkey bars or even the baby swings, hoping to get your pick-up basketball career started before the sun goes down.

Millions of us have gone through similar experiences, but as we waited, we also took in basketball in the most open and creative form there is. Thanks to a brand-new documentary, we have the chance to relive those moments in one of the most unique settings around.

Ten months ago for FOX Deportes, Ed had the chance to speak with co-directors Bobbito Garcia and Kevin Couliau about their film, “Doin’ It in the Park: Pick-Up Basketball, NYC,” a documentary that showcases the largest participatory sport in the city. Fortunately, being in the five boroughs provided your 387th favorite Scribe a chance to screen the film prior to its upcoming theatrical release (it was released digitally last Tuesday). The day after the screening, the co-directors took some time to speak about the film, its purpose, its characters and the indelible mark it hopes to leave for the most passionate of fan.

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TSFJ: How did you guys come together to make this documentary?

Bobbito: I grew up immersed in this culture, and I was fortunate in having the opportunity to document our movement via Bounce Magazine (Bobbito was the co-founder and editor). With Kevin, the first published photograph was in our magazine, and that’s how we became cool. So, I’ve had other opportunity to document this beloved sport of ours.

Pick-up basketball is the common denominator when you want to play ball, whether you’re President Obama or LeBron James or a guy who works at the UPS store. No one had ever done a film about it, at least one based in New York where the general consensus is that we’re the mecca of the sport. [After all], we have over 700 courts.

TSFJ: Kevin, coming from Paris, it’s said that the city is trying to emulate some of the New York hoops culture. For those of us who don’t know about Paris or France in general, how could you compare the pick-up basketball scene now in 2013?

Kevin: When it comes to pick-up basketball, we play more 3-on-3, 4-on-4, 5-on-5, but we don’t play 21. We don’t play 5-2. All the specialty games described in the film we don’t really have in our culture. As far as trash talk and dress code, it’s nearly the same. We’re just as focused on the fashion of street wear as they are in New York City. Even if we are known for the luxury fashion, we’re on top of our game as far as street wear goes, but we’re trying to apply that to our pick-up culture as well. I grew up playing both basketball and skateboarding at the same time, and I grew up reading SLAM Magazine and Skateboarder Magazine, even though they were only in English. So, my brother and I were already influenced by New York City because they were the mecca for both sports. It was a natural evolution for me to start looking at basketball as I did with skateboarding.

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TSFJ: As you mentioned that crossover between skateboarding and pick-up hoops, and after watching "Doin’ It In The Park," I immediately think of a film you narrated, "Just for Kicks," looking for elements between the two that may be similar in highlighting a part of hip-hop culture. How would you compare "Just for Kicks" with "Doin’ It In The Park"?

Bobbito: We want "Doin’ It In The Park" to be for pick-up basketball what "Just for Kicks" was for sneaker culture and "Style Wars" is to what hip-hop in the 1980s was. We hope that 10 years from now, 30 years from now, that people look at our film and see it’s a perfect portrait of urban culture. Charlie Ahearn, who directed "Wild Style," said, “This isn’t just my favorite sports docs, but it’s one of my top five docs I’ve ever seen, period,” so we got the co-sign from the hip-hop world.

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TSFJ: There are a lot of people who will watch this documentary that aren’t from New York City, and certainly there are people who get tired of the NYC hype, not just about basketball but the city in general. What do you want people who aren’t from New York to understand about this film?

Kevin: This is a documentary about the whole culture. I hope the people who aren’t from New York take something from pick-up basketball from the city. The only information you can have about the culture are the few books and documentaries on the subject. On the daily basis with all the basketball players I play with, they don’t really know their history, don’t know the pick-up culture. We want to give a missing piece that has been missing on the basketball market.

Bobbito: I want to add that sure, if you’re not from New York, when you watch this film, you might very well become enchanted by this city and curious about it. Just like how people all around the world want to play at the Rucker. I get emails from Japan saying, “Hey, I’m coming into the city, and I want to play ball in Harlem, in Brooklyn.” That’s how I met Kevin, and I introduced him to the courts.

We didn’t create the film to be a tour guide, even though it’s become that. The location, even though it’s important because it’s the mecca, we’ve actually played it down. We had a lot of people through the interviews we did were like “yeah, yeah, New York is number one” and we actually didn’t include that in the edit. If you can play ball, you can identify with that passion no matter where you live in the world. We just want to show because that’s what Kevin and I know best, but we’re about to do a world tour with Nike; they’re about to bring us to 11 international cities in South Africa, Mexico, China, the Philippines. We’re going to document pick-up basketball in all these places, and maybe that’s the next film.

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TSFJ: Two of the scenes that stood out in the film were the one in Rikers Island (the infamous main jail complex for NYC) and at the Each One, Teach One playgrounds in East Harlem. At Rikers, when the inmates play, there’s no crowd except for the guards in the bleachers and the inmates in the hallway. As for Each One, Teach One, the players there were hearing-impaired, relying on their sign language and some speaking abilities to communicate throughout the game. You guys have seen basketball played all over the world, but how striking was it to watch the game played in these environments?

Bobbito: First of all, I would say that we were blessed to be given access to film in those environments, and that is out of the respect and connections that I have. What Kevin and I wanted to create was a respectful and honest portrait of those two communities. To me, I didn’t just want to film the legends of New York or the great players of New York; I wanted to even out the ground. People who are incarcerated at Rikers Island are New Yorkers. They’re citizens, they’re human beings and they’re valid in our city. Same thing with people that are handicapped. We wanted to show the full gamut of what the city has to offer, and that’s why we went there, and it’s special. People who are at Rikers Island, inmates, they can only play two hours a week. The kids that are hearing-impaired, they only play on Fridays and they come from all five boroughs, and they do it on their own. I think it’s revealing about how passionate they are about basketball, that they can exist in this unstructured environment (of pick-up basketball).

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TSFJ: Beyond the playground legends like Pee Wee Kirkland and James “Fly” Williams, you had former NBA players as well. Dr. J made a cameo, Smush Parker said he grew up on the West 4th Street court, Kenny Smith, Kenny Anderson. With the co-signing of the NBA brand, guys who played for the most famous league in the world, how did those guys receive the chance to speak about playing pick-up ball coming up?

Bobbito: Well, you saw how happy Kenny Smith was. When he said, “I’m not just saying this for your film, but my favorite moment in my entire career was the day that I graduated from the B-court to the A-court at Lefrak City (Queens).” If you’ve done it, you don’t even have to be from here to appreciate that feeling. Again, it’s the common denominator; everybody plays pick-up.

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TSFJ: Another fascinating factor of the film was seeing many older guys playing on the courts. As long as you’re physically able, you’ll see guys in the 40s and 50s like Jack Ryan playing in a game that’s a little unstructured. Being older, playing on the asphalt with much younger guys, what were their reactions in speaking about their experiences?

Kevin: They love it. They love it. A guy like Jack Ryan is an example of someone dedicating their lives to pick-up basketball. He’s 51 now. When we filmed he was 49. He managed to make a living as a basketball entertainer. When I’ve come to New York, I’ve been impressed to see kids at 17, but only in New York — or maybe China — will you really see guys playing at 50 years old. You don’t really see that anywhere else. It’s unusual, and all those characters in the film really enjoy telling their stories because they’re their moments of shine, and some of them have been waiting their entire lives to get on camera.

Bobbito: Like Uki Williams at Tillery Park in Brooklyn. These guys are out at 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Now, there are people who if they gotta go to work or go to school at 6:30, they’re not waking up. These guys, every Saturday at 6:30 in the morning, these guys are out there, and they’ve been doing it for years. When we interviewed Uki, he shined. He could be an unedited DVD extra in and of himself. Jack is not an anomaly; there are a lot of older players out here.

TSFJ: Last question: you guys also played each other while filming this throughout various courts in the City. Who won the series?

Bobbito: Well, it ends at Rucker Park. We didn’t have every game that we played in the film. We played, I don’t know, 15, maybe 20 one-on-one games throughout the summer. When Kevin beat me, he destroyed me; it wasn’t even funny. So, that’s why I had to foul him to stop him from scoring. I mean, I’m 46, that’s an old-man move. When we were finished, Kevin looked at me dead in my eyes and said, “This is the most fun I had doing anything ever in my life.” And it’s all documented.

Kevin: You didn’t answer, though. Who won?

Bobbito: Oh, I did win the series. I only beat him by one game, and it was by one point.

Kevin: I got to give him credit, to be 46 and in that shape. He had some advantages, though, because I was carrying the equipment, and he knows all the dead spots of the courts all over.

"Doin’ It In The Park: Pick-Up Basketball, NYC" is an independent documentary directed by Bobbito Garcia and Kevin Couliau. The film explores the history, culture and social impact of New York’s summer basketball scene, widely recognized as the worldwide “mecca” of the sport. Want a copy of the movie? You can buy the film via digital download for just $9.99.

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