Handmade Rims Still Rule NYC Parks

by May 30, 2010

A feature on focusing on basketball rims in New York City parks ran on the front page of the NY Times today.

We recommend you read the article in its entirety. But here’s an extended excerpt:

The old steel rim that presides over this public basketball court absorbs missed shots with an angry clank, sending the ball careening upward and the wood and metal backboard into a rickety seizure.

Like generations before them, the young men who play at the ramshackle court in St. Nicholas Park in Harlem know the rim is so troublesome that they tend to avoid perimeter jump shots in favor of aggressive drives to the basket, where perhaps its vagaries will be less pronounced.

“These are ghetto rims,” said Quaeshawn Berry, a lanky 14-year-old who is a regular at the park. “But I prefer these. I’ve been playing on these my whole life.”

These unforgiving, practically unbreakable orange rims — built so simply that there are no hooks to accommodate a net — are longstanding fixtures of the public basketball courts throughout New York City, where they play a minor, if usually overlooked, role in countless pick-up games.

But largely unknown to even the most devoted practitioners of the city game is that most of the basketball rims on these courts have been individually crafted by a team of blacksmiths who cut, weld and paint each by hand.

Using a century-old method that has long since vanished elsewhere, the half-dozen parks department employees — all basketball players themselves — have forged thousands of rims, each one worked into a microcosm of the local game.

“There are minor differences,” said John Fitzgerald, the longtime city blacksmith in charge of making the rims. “It’s like no snowflakes are exactly the same.”

Even if fewer of these rims are being made, those already in the parks are not going anywhere soon.

Those made with a slightly different design, which features a double rim and straight steel supports, were discontinued years ago but remain a common sight in schoolyards, public parks and small lots around the city.

They have survived endless rounds of slam dunks, and occasionally served as chin-up bars and, for the especially nimble, even as spectator seating. Once, the blacksmiths strung a cable around a rim inside the workshop, which they used to tow a van halfway off the ground. That led them to conclude that their handiwork was, with all due humility, indestructible.

“These are the strongest hoops you’ll ever find,” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “They last forever. You could hand them down to your grandkids.”