By Charles Hallman
The best basketball players often aren’t found in college or in the NBA, but on the nation’s blacktops.
Using a late 1970s tune by the Blackbyrds as its overall theme, Doin’ It In The Park: Pick-Up Basketball, New York City accurately gives viewers a well-deserved look into pick-up basketball. Although they focused on the Big Apple, in many urban corridors, if you are a hoopster of any note, you will make or break your hoopin’ reputation on the blacktop. Many go on to star on high school and college teams; some even make it to the pros. Many others don’t — but that doesn’t make them any less significant in basketball circles — their streetball exploits will sometimes precede them.
Doin’ It In The Park is a one-hour documentary that was featured on PBS’ AfroPop series earlier this year. Co-directors Robert “Bobbito” Garcia and Kevin Couliau, beginning in 2010, visited an estimated 180 basketball courts located in New York City’s five boroughs, talking to “playground legends, NBA athletes and everyday players.”
The two men recently talked to the MSR about their film.
Playing pick-up ball has no age limit, and according to Garcia, it is just as popular today as it was in the so-called “golden days of hoops” a few decades ago where future legends were made on the hardtop. “Most people over the age of 30 will assume that young people today aren’t playing ball outdoors the way they did back in the day. However, that’s as far from the truth as possible. I would go so far as to say that the majority of people on New York City courts nowadays are actually below the age of 21,” he pointed out.
“Some places were more dangerous than others,” added Couliau, “but we never encountered any problems or felt unsafe. I believe playing basketball with the local communities helped us in being accepted as filmmakers.
“Kids played a big role in our journey,” he continued. “They would be trash talking to us as soon as we entered the projects, or interacting with the camera while I was filming, but in the end we earned their respect on the court.”
Among those featured in the film includes Julius Erving, who grew up playing pick-up basketball, won a Rucker League Tournament title before he became “Dr. J,” first at the University of Massachusetts, then in both the ABA (American Basketball Association) and the NBA, and eventually landed in Basketball Hall of Fame.
Though not as nationally well-known as Erving, “Pee Wee” Kirkland is just as legendary in his own right — a CIAA (Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association) most valuable player in 1968 and a top scorer in the Rucker. He was drafted by Chicago, but opted instead for the street life and soon wound up in prison. Kirkland now coaches youth basketball in Harlem.
“Characters like Pee Wee Kirkland, James “Fly” Williams and even Corey Williams have reached the top of playground basketball,” said Couliau of the three individuals. Fly Williams once led the nation in scoring as a collegian at Austin Peay, and Corey Williams who played college ball at Alabama State, went undrafted by the NBA but later got a tryout at Toronto and became a two-time MVP in the Australian pro league. “But their backgrounds are also interesting. The lessons these people learned in the past are now tools to educate kids and help them follow the right path,” notes Couliau.
Niki Avery is also featured — she played at Western Kentucky, but cut her hoop teeth on the project courts in Spanish Harlem. A former pro player in Puerto Rico and Europe, Avery’s nickname is “The Model,” and she regularly wins bets in shooting games against unsuspecting male hoopsters.
But when asked about Earl “The Goat” Manigault, who is held in as much reverence on these courts as John Wooden in coaching circles and Michael Jordan among the present generation, both Garcia and Couliau couldn’t help but be proud to discuss him, albeit briefly.
“Earl Manigault is in a category by himself,” explained Garcia. “There have been other playground legends who have jumped as high and scored as many points. However, none have had the positive impact Earl had on the community after his playing days. Earl was a father figure and mentor to many, including me. I felt honored to portray his story.”
Added Couliau, “People all around New York City are walking in his steps — organizing basketball clinics, camps, events to keep kids away from street vices.”
Garcia and Couliau’s film has won several film awards in 2012, including Best Documentary (New Jersey International Film Festival), Best Documentary runner-up (San Francisco Black Film Festival) and Best Feature Audience Award (Urbanworld Film Festival).
“It is not just a sport… it is a way of life,” noted the film’s press release on streetball.
“I was born in the 1960s… There are more people [in New York City] playing basketball outdoors than in any era I’ve ever witnessed,” said Garcia.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman @ spokesman-recorder.com