written by Bobbito Garcia / @koolboblove
photos by Kevin Couliau / www.kevincouliau.com
On May 11, our film DOIN’ IT IN THE PARK: PICK-UP BASKETBALL, NYC premiered in Mexico City as a free outdoor event, presented by Nike Sportswear Mexico. Co-director Kevin Couliau and I were flown in to do a Q+A as well as play ball at the city’s top courts!
Since the 1980s, I’ve always loved watching pick-up games with exclusively Mexican-born adult players at the Goat (where I grew up) or the White Park (in Spanish Harlem). The pace is fast with lots of passing, and their families spectate so there’s always a fun, festive vibe.
Popotla aka “Cañita,” one of the parks Kevin and I visited in Mexico City, had a similar air. There were five full courts, one with eight-foot biddy rims, and every single one had players on it. The youth tournament had a crowd. Teams with next were shooting on the sides. Army soldiers took turns missing jumpers while laughing. Small children dribbled off their feet and chased the ball with joy as their parents watched.
I spotted a player hitting 15-footers by himself, and asked, “Puedo tirar contigo?” I nailed a couple myself, so he challenged me to a game of 21. As he explained the rules I got excited, as their version was not too far off from the one we play back home! I won by one point, and afterward invited him to our film premiere. He then jubilantly explained that he ran his own youth program, and valued teaching his players the fundamentals of team play. I appreciated his spirit.
After Kevin and I finished our interview for the popular blog The City Loves You, two teenagers from the tournament noticed we could play and challenged us to a two-on-two. Gotta love their hustle! I used to do the same thing when I was a kid and a stranger would come to the Goat. (That’s how I got waxed by U of Dayton star Roosevelt Chapman in the ‘80s, but that’s another story.) The camera was rolling so we gave them their money’s worth. One kid had a little handle so I dapped him up after we won. Nothing but respect all around.
Another playground we hit was Glorieta Insurgentes, featuring seven rims each with a colorfully painted backboard! Some older players were having a grand old time playing casual after-work halfcourt. One had beautiful form on his jumper, and told me he had played college ball.
The courts at Multifamiliar Centro Medico were empty, but the sidelines were alive with 20+ capoeira dancers. There were 10-foot tall pieces on the wall by local aerosol artists. Place was striking.
Across the street was Cuauhtemoc Park where I watched a furious three-on-three. A defender felt so strongly about a bad call, he threw the ball 50 feet away instead of handing it to his opponent. I thought that only happened at West 4th and in Brooklyn!
This was a far cry from the friendly vibe I’d experienced my whole life watching Mexican players at the Goat and had seen during our visit. A stray dog strutted on to the court and a player on the side hurriedly chased him off. I shot around on the side with a player who had next. When he’d hit, I’d give him courtesy and the ball back. When I’d hit, he’d wander off the court or wouldn’t rebound, and when he did rebound, he wouldn’t give me the ball back!
If Cuauhtemoc seemed edgy, it was a cake walk compared to what Kevin and I witnessed at Juan de la Barrera, a playground with four full courts which was hosting a three-on-three tournament, presented by Nike, named in our honor! The contestants were by far the most skilled Mexican-born players I’d ever seen, but unfortunately, they were constantly fouling each other! The championship was so rough, the refs had to stop play repeatedly to prevent a fight from breaking out, and some fans ran onto the court to protect their friends.
Amazingly, after the contest it was all love, especially for the winners who were awarded free sneakers and other goodies. That was fortunate for us, too, as our free DOIN’ IT IN THE PARK screening followed, and the audience as well as ballplayers filled up the stairs in front the outdoor screen to watch.
Judging from the crowd’s glowing reaction to our premiere (a local TV network approached us afterwards about a broadcast), along with our brief experiences in the local parks, it was clear to me that Mexico City has a love affair with outdoor basketball. Although futbol is by far the No. 1 sport, I was told that there are more public bball courts than soccer fields available, and that there are lights for night-time play allowing for games sun up past sun down.
According to Julio Arellano, who was our “guía,” Mexico City even had their own playground legend in Febo Apolo, who dominated the pick-up scene so hard that he wound up playing in the Liga Mexicana without ever having played in college!
Arellano also proudly shared the history of Mexico’s greatest legend, Arturo Guerrero, aka “Mano Santo” (“Holy Hand”), who held the Liga Mexicana single-game scoring record with 52 points, and was among the top scorers for all countries at the 1968 Olympics, where the National Team finished fifth. Long before Horacio Llamas, Eduardo Najera and Gustavo Ayon sipped coffee in the NBA, Guerrero allegedly turned down numerous offers to play in the world’s top league, as it would have conflicted with his year-round duties for Mexico’s National Team. Now that’s dedication!
All in all, Kevin and I had an amazing trip. ESPN Mexico interviewed us along with every major local newspaper, TV station and blog. We did a private press screening which was standing room only. I was told that 100 percent of the RSVPs actually attended, which doesn’t always happen. We caught a round of applause at our free outdoor screening and signed autographs afterward. It is always crazy to me to realize that our film is making on impact on people around the world.
My favorite moment of the entire visit, though, was back at Cuauhtemoc Park. On one of the side courts, I was watching from afar as a proud father rebound for his daughter while she tried seemingly endlessly to make a 10-footer in the lane. A couple of attempts later, the ball went in, she raised her hands, turned away from the basket, and shouted out in joy. It was only then that I realized that the young girl had Down Syndrome.
The whole message and point of our trip crystallized. Kevin Couliau and I made DOIN’ IT IN THE PARK to advocate people worldwide, young and old, healthy and challenged, free and incarcerated, of all backgrounds and nationalities, to play pick-up outdoors for all the positives that result. I love the NBA, but it’s only for 300 athletes to participate in annually. The park, playground, schoolyard, etc. is free and open to all.
Play ball outdoors. Work hard. Have fun.
Bobbito Garcia and Kevin Couliau will be screening DOIN’ IT IN THE PARK: PICK-UP BASKETBALL, NYC this summer in South Africa, China, Philippines, and Europe. The film also opens in US and UK theaters this week, and the digital download/stream is on sale now. For all info, check www.doinitinthepark.com.