Documentary captures street ball culture
With 700 playgrounds, 500,000 players and 8 million stories, New York City is the perfect petri dish for street ball culture to thrive in. The sound of a basketball hitting asphalt is as common as a car horn in the Big Apple.
Amid the grit of the five boroughs, street ballers have been flourishing for decades. Their story is told in "Doin' It in the Park," a documentary co-directed and 100 percent self-funded by Kevin "Ze Frenchmen" Couliau and hip-hop cultural icon Bobbito "Kool Bob Love" Garcia. The film uncovers the street ball movement through playground legends, NBA athletes and average players. Starting in 2010, Couliau and Garcia visited 180 courts throughout NYC primarily by bicycle, carrying video equipment and a basketball in their backpacks to find out who had game.
"The beauty of playground ball in New York is that our scene has its own culture, own behavior patterns, dress codes, forms of mentoring; and in the film we explored all those things," Garcia said.
For 85 minutes, viewers are treated to scenes as vivid as the city streets, played out to a soundtrack of hip-hop groups like the Roots and the familiar beats of Latino culture. NBA players and New York City legends Kenny Anderson, Kenny "The Jet" Smith, Smush Parker and Julius "Dr. J" Erving all make appearances.
"New York City pickup basketball is the essence of basketball. I don't know if you can be a basketball player without experiencing pickup basketball," said Pee Wee Kirkland, a street ball legend who is rumored to have scored 465 points in eight games while in prison.
It wouldn't be a street ball film if it didn't include a cast of colorfully nicknamed players like M&M, the Blenda, Homicide, Mookie, Headache, Black Jack, the Latin Assassin, Shammgod and White Chocolate.
But the style of play in "Doin' It In The Park" isn't the flashy, high-flying and insanely dribbling-focused play from the popular AND1 basketball tournaments. Instead, the documentary focuses on average people putting differences aside to worship in the church of basketball.
Garcia stresses the importance of the inclusive nature of the game. A street ball game is probably the only outdoor environment in New York where you could find a parolee, a priest, a Wall Street banker, a homeless person and a college women's basketball player working together.
"It's basketball, so as long as you show out you get respect," said Niki "The Ratchet" Avery, 26, a professional baller from Harlem who appears in the film. "We speak this language everywhere and that's why this film is so powerful, because we can take it across countries and everyone still understands."
Jack "Black Jack" Ryan, a street baller and NBA halftime performer, added, "There are only a certain amount of elite street ballers in New York but the number of people who are just average Joes or just a notch or two under the NBA is huge. That's why we are doing a movie on the thousands of players who make this culture what it is."
Being New York City, there's plenty of showmanship on display. Players with superior dribbling skills are said to have the "bop bop," "disco" or "boogie," which leaves defenders stunned and is often accompanied by trash talk, making for great asphalt theater.
"When you're a New York outdoor ballplayer, you have a tendency to be a crowd pleaser because on any given day you could have 35 to 40 people hanging on the fence watching you," Garcia said.
Garcia has done the ultimate crossover by taking his "bop bop" style from the court to audiences in screenings around the world. "Doin' It in the Park" won the Audience Award for Best Feature Film at the 2012 Urbanworld Film Festival.
The two directors are currently pushing for commercial release of the film. Because the "Doin' It in the Park" movement is already worldwide and thousands strong, Garcia said selling the movie would be easier than "an alley-oop on an eight-foot rim" for any distributor who picks it up.
Distribution and a major motion picture release would be the ultimate assist for the ballers-turned-filmmakers, because the goal of the film is to spread the story of, not just legends, but everyday New York City basketball culture.
"At the core, I'm an advocate of outdoor basketball," Garcia said. "Creating this movie was not a niche desire. This is what I've been doing my entire life.
"I'm a ballplayer 'til I die."