To the 5 Boroughs

by Ben Osborne | @bosborne17

NBA stars may get our bills paid, in terms of cover sales, advertisements, etc, but SLAM can never be accused of ignoring our favorite sport’s roots as an outdoor game played with, as filmmaker and narrator Bobbito Garcia says in his new film (made along with Kevin Couliau), “No governing body, no schedules, no coaches or referees present. Only unwritten rules that change from playground to playground.”

The film, Doin’ It In The Park: Pick-Up Basketball, NYC, is a fun and informative 80-minute romp through the plentiful playgrounds of Brooklyn, Bronx, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island.

The film was created by Garcia, an author/ballplayer/DJ of impeccable credentials when it comes to playground hoops, and Couliau, a Frenchman who’s got serious game as well, not to mention years of experience behind the camera (still and video).

While the film does not have a commercial release date yet, it is being shown all summer long at various community events and film festivals around the city and the globe (visit for a screening schedule; you may remember our coverage of the world premiere). And what makes a movie about pick-up basketball’s roots in NYC such a must-see for hoop heads everywhere?

“With more than 700 playgrounds, New York is unquestionably the epicenter of basketball cutlure and is still influencing players from all around the world,” says Couliau. “I’m French and I’m really passionate about New York basketball. Bobbito and I have traveled to many events and witnessed the impact of New York streetball and we know that whether you are in Japan, South Dakota or Eastern Europe, you will learn something from this movie and have a basketball jones when it ends.”

Topics covered in the beautifully shot and great-sounding movie (besides some great hip-hop tracks, the film’s original score was done by Grammy-winning pianist Eddie Palmieri) include histories of legendary spots like Rucker Park, explanations of the roots of games such as 21, the importance of nicknames and fashion on the playground and pick-up’s role in prison. There are also interviews with some of the greatest players New York has produced, whether they made the NBA or will be forever revered for what they did in the parks.

For more background and visuals on the film, check out the great photos (at the bottom of this post) and their captions, which are exact quotes from Bobbito himself, and SLAM’s extended interview (which did not appear with the rest of the story in SLAM 160) with Couliau below.

SLAM: What is your basketball-playing history?

Kevin Couliau: I started basketball early, at the age of six years old. The game is organized differently in France, you learn basketball in clubs that are independent from the school system. So I was lucky to have a great teacher and a good structure five minutes away from my house in Nantes, on the West coast of France. I would spend all my evenings in the gym, training with my team or shooting around during the women training. As a kid, I was averaging 25+ points per game, always keeping an eye on the stats sheet after the games. At age 16, I was among the top kids of my generation (1982, like Tony Parker) in my hometown. I was picked to study and play in one of our rare specialized sports school but never went there because I was experiencing a parallel life through the world of skateboarding. It had opened my eyes dramatically, to the point where my perception of basketball changed. I never stopped, but reaching a pro-level wasn’t the priority anymore. I spent a lot of time on the playground, working on my handle, bringing my creative skills to the organized game despite some coaches trying to change my game. I’m currently playing amateur, at a good level in France, we are trying to reach “Nationale 3” level which is four steps below PRO A.

SLAM: What is your film history? What else have you done and worked on?

KC: I started film photography in 2004 with a report on my local playground for a French basketball magazine. The next summer, I flew to New York, documented my first trip and encounter with Bobbito on Super 8 film and had my brother edit this short clip called “Harlem Shuffle.” I was mostly a basketball photographer, following the dunking squad “Slam Nation” all over Europe and shooting New York’s streetball for some publications. But, in 2009, I invested in a Canon 5D Mark II and shot a short clip: “Heart & Soul Of New York City” for rap artist Red Café and a German basketball brand. The piece received a tremendous feedback within the basketball and urban communities. It has motivated me to continue. Later on, I got the chance to work as a camera operator on several editions of Jordan Brand’s Quai 54 in Paris, as a director of photography with The New Explorers of Canal+, a documentary series broadcasted on Canal+ TV channel. And more recently on a short clip for The New York Knicks’ “Battle of The Borough” night.

SLAM: How much time did you spend filming Doin’ it in the Park?

KC: We spent 75 days on our bicycles, exploring the city with the video equipment in the backpacks. Our journey started in 2010. I spent the whole summer at Bobbito’s apartment, sleeping on the couch, eating watermelon chunks, riding the bike, playing ball, filming, unloading the footage into the hard drives every night. It was so special because there was no typical day, no routine. During weekdays we would take our bikes and ride in random directions; on the weekend we tried to localize the best runs and head to those famous or secret courts. Some days we would film from 10 a.m. to midnight, and other times we would only spend two hours filming. In 2011, the process was different because we had already started editing the film, so once we were outside, we knew what was missing.

SLAM: How much time did you spend playing pick-up while you were filming?

KC: Our playing time varied depending on the situations we were in. Once we hit a playground our priority was to film the pick-up games, kids or adults. Whoever was on the court we would film and then play with them, or Bobbito would play and I would film. If the park was empty we would put the camera on a tripod and play one-on-one, Horse, 5-2, Taps… so I discovered some shooting games I didn’t know about. The most difficult thing was to alternate pick-up games and filming. Being all sweaty and manipulating the camera afterwards was kind of tricky.

SLAM: How many hours of footage did you compile in total?

KC: Approximately 80 hours of footage on two consecutive summers. And you can add 10 hours of archive material that we have collected from various sources. Bobbito and I have been documenting New York streetball for many years, so we also had some great photos, old VHS or DVD’s with some incredible imagery.

SLAM: Where in France did you grow up?

KC: I grew up in Nantes, on the west coast of France, which is one the biggest areas over there when it comes to basketball.

SLAM: Is there a pick-up basketball culture there?

KC: Yes, we are lucky to have a great playground in a big park called “Parc de Procé.” Six half-courts with different rims heights so you can practice your dunks on lower hoops. Getting there as a kid was tough because the guys would steal your ball, and you needed to earn a rep playing with the few dudes dominating the playground. We mainly played 3-on-3 games, with a lot of picks and passes, Euro-style. And back in the days we were lucky to have chain link nets, so you really felt that gritty vibe. Because we were all highly influenced by New York and US basketball culture, our pick-up culture was exactly the same than a kid from Minnesota would have. We didn’t know anything about games like Taps, 5-2, 21…games that are typically from NYC. So if we were three on a playground, we would leave because playing 21 wasn’t something we had heard of or experienced.

SLAM: How is pick-up basketball there different then in NYC?

KC: In New York City, the game is not only considered a sport, but also as a recreational activity. That’s the big difference. I’ve seen kids playing one-on-one full court in Brooklyn, 70 years old men running with teenagers…you can play with people from all ages and backgrounds and that’s pretty unique. On the individual aspect, New Yorkers are better, more athletic and  great ball-handlers, but sharing the ball and moving around is not part of their habits.

The number of playgrounds in New York is just outrageous compared to other cities in the states and the rest of the world. Just imagine if NYC had only one court, West 4th, for example, this is nearly how I grew up. All the players were gathering on the same playground, so the vibe was super friendly, but competitive at the same time. We still have to learn how to integrate playgrounds in our urban landscapes even though France has always been a big streetball place. In the early 90’s guys like Moustapha Sonko were dominating the Parisian playgrounds, but the NBA wasn’t ready yet.

SLAM: Who was your favorite person to interview?

KC: Pee Wee Kirkland, definitely. I had read a few books and articles mentioning the legendary stickman, but I wasn’t really familiar with the character. I never met him personally. So when I saw him at Milbank Center with his 70’s haircut and attitude, I felt like Marty McFly in Back to The Future. But once he started answering, I realized how deep New York basketball culture is and the impact that his generation of players had on our modern basketball. I also really enjoyed filming Kenny Smith and Kenny Anderson. I was a big fan and was really surprised to see how enthusiastic they were while talking about their childhood in Lefrak City.

SLAM: What was your favorite part of filming this movie?

KC: Besides the satisfaction of playing ball everyday, we had our funniest moments with kids. Whatever the neighborhood, our most animated characters were the youth of New York City. Each time we would set-up the tripod and play, those little kids would interact with the camera, comment on the games or get behind it to start filming. In Ron Artest’s Queensbridge, for example, as soon as we arrived, a 10-year-old kid came at us and said, “ I’m sure me and my friend can beat you 2-on-2.” He had the typical socks and slip-ons style we saw the whole summer. We accepted the challenge, won three games in a row until he called his big brother, but that wasn’t a problem for us. The camera was still rolling, some kids were saying “ Bang-Bang” on each of our made shots and we ended up winning everything. Another good memory was in Lefrak City. I didn’t know what to expect—15 kids were playing 21 in slip-ons, which was amazing, but when I saw the Kenny Smith’s and Kenny Anderson’s logos on the playgrounds, I instantly felt like I was in a legendary place. Our poster photo was taken that day.