For some people, pickup basketball is simply a casual hobby or a way to drop a few extra pounds. But for many others, it's a way of life. From weeknight pickup leagues to weekends at the local park, devoted ballers put their bodies and minds on the line night after night, week after week, and year after year. To immerse yourself in pickup is to become a part of something larger. Make no mistake: Pickup basketball is a subculture unto itself. Every league has a set of rules, every court a code of ethics, and every gym a cast of characters.

And while each pickup experience has its own unique flavor, there are still certain universal constants. You could share similar stories with other pickup ballers across the United States, even throughout Europe and Asia: Tales of hotly contested game points, amateur superstars, critical roleplayers, lockdown defenders, guys who can't (or won't) play defense, injuries, fights, fouls, and disputes.

Strangely enough, pickup hoops hasn't gotten a lot of coverage. However, that might be changing. Dugway Pictures is soon releasing a new documentary on pickup basketball called "Ballin' At The Graveyard: A story about life and pickup basketball at one American park" (go to the official site to watch some preview clips). The following is my interview with co-creator Basil Anastassiou.

Describe your history/experience as a pickup baller.

I've been playing pickup ball since I was six or seven. I started playing down the street from my house with a group of older guys, and I've been addicted ever since. Everywhere I've lived, I've looked for a game to play in. In Syracuse, where I grew up, to LA and Florida where I lived for several years, to Albany, my current home, I'm always out looking for a game. But the Graveyard in Washington Park in Albany is my pickup home. I've played there for the last 20 years. I'm 44, and it's still the most intense competition and workout I get.

Wow. 30+ years playing pickup ball...that's a lot of experience. How has your game changed over the years? I've noticed that the individual game evolves with age, 20s, 30s, 40s.

I've lost a step. Other than that, physically I do what I've always done. I shoot pretty well, play hard defense, scrap for everything. Right now I'm sporting a nasty scratch on my cheek from scrambling for a loose ball last weekend -- and two weeks ago, fighting for a rebound, I took a hard shot to the bridge of my nose that opened up a gusher. Ruined my best t-shirt. It's getting harder and harder to face my wife looking like that.

Mentally, I'm a much better player than I used to be. The impatience is gone. I see the court more. I don't try to make the impossible pass, I'm usually in a better position on D. I set screens, etc. I've also become a more skillful trash talker, which helps when I'm trying to cover lightning quick 19-year-olds.

I figure I have about 5, 6 years left before I'm done playing at the Graveyard; 50 appears to be the cutoff point. I hear the clock ticking (maybe that's my knee squeaking).

What is "Ballin' at the Graveyard"?

It's an inside look at the history, the game, the players and the unique culture of pickup ball at one American park. The summertime weekend game at the Graveyard in Albany has been going on for 40 years and it's a wild place full of great characters, hardcore ballers, entertainers, buffoons, pros, judges, convicts, old, young, fathers, sons, white, black etc. Back in the day, even former New York Governor Mario Cuomo played there. There's a court like the Graveyard in most cities across America. I'm sure you know some just like it -- the court with the history, the place where local legends are born and die, where getting next really matters. We take a look at the players lives on and off the court, as well as the unique unwritten rules that define pickup ball -- getting next, calling fouls, settling disputes, trash talk, etc.

What inspired you to film "Ballin' at the Graveyard"?

My partner Paul Kentoffio and I were just about to start another project when it occurred to me that the court where I had been playing ball for the last 20 years had a great story to tell -- about people, race, friendship, status, about the great leveling power of a pickup basketball, where it doesn't matter who you are or where you come from, but only if you can hold your own on the court. There are not many places in society where people can come together like that. The passion and commitment people have to that court is like nothing I've ever seen. It took Paul all of 15 minutes to realize he was hooked, not only by the quality of the play, but also by the great characters. So we decided to scrap the other project and make a documentary about the Graveyard.

As unique a place as the Graveyard is, this is a universal story. There are thousands of courts like the Graveyard all across America, in every kind of community, each with their own history, culture, characters and pulse. Millions of pickup ballers will recognize aspects of the Graveyard on their own court. And there's a common bond between most pickup ballers: Most are addicted to the game. Its the most fun they have in their lives.

How did you go about getting it done?

We just showed up to the court one day and told the guys what our aim was -- to tell the story of the Graveyard and the players who play there. Since I've been playing there for 20 years, most of the guys took me at my word when I told them that we were doing it for the love of the game. After that, we settled in. For two summers, every weekend, we were there, shooting. I played while Paul shot the action. In the end, we took more than 100 hours of tape. We shot on the court, right in the action, closer than most people have ever seen. Interestingly, instead of focusing on the ball going in the basket, most times we focused on the emotion, intensity and energy of the player in the moment. Anybody can show a basketball game -- we wanted to show the pulse of pickup ball. So that's what we did. We also did in-depth offcourt interviews with a group of players, as well as following them at work, etc.

Describe the experience of actually shooting the documentary.

It was wild. The experience of making the film has been much like the experience of playing pickup ball -- you never know what you're going to get. Fights, great plays, intense moments, stellar trash talk, hilarious comments. The most important thing we did was to keep the camera rolling through everything. There were many times when I had to grab Paul as he wandered too far onto the court to get a shot and almost got bulldozed by someone driving to the hoop.The result is a unique, authentic look at the world of pickup ball with no filters. Logistically, for the most part, we used one camera and a single shotgun mic. It gave us quick mobility and stealthy opportunities to be in the mix and get the shots we needed. It's truly the definition of independent filmmaking.

Did your presence affect the people playing ball?

For the first few days of filming, some of the guys were a little uneasy about the camera being around. They would make comments, act silly, etc. But after a the second weekend, it was like we became part of the court. Everyone got so used to the camera being around, it was treated like another player, ie. if someone called a foul, sometimes the reply would be " Roll back the muthafu**ing tape! That's a clean block!" It was amazing to see how comfortable the guys got with the camera. In the end, it was like we weren't there. Obviously, the fact that I was one of the longtimers at the Graveyard helped make guys comfortable.

What did you learn about basketball in general, and pickup ballers in particular, by shooting the film?

First and foremost, we learned that pickup basketball matters. This is an addicted crew. There's no other way to describe them. I know because I'm one of them. This is not only the most intense workout they get each week, its the barbershop, the confessional, the place where they belong. The energy on that court, the intensity of feeling, is like an injection. They (I) feel lost without it.

For most of the guys at the Graveyard, a good portion of their lives have been spent on the court. Some have passed down the court to their kids -- who now play alongside them. It is a proving ground and a rite of passage.

As far as the game goes, its all-out, no holds barred. Skills matter, no question, but so does the mental aspect of the game. How confident are you? Can you hold your winners against a flood of others who claim they called it first? Can you take being heckled and laughed at by 50 guys after turning the ball over at point game or after shooting an airball? Can you stare down the thug with the 10 inch scar up his cheek who threatens to "hurt you" the next time you foul him? Pick up ball is intense, start to finish. The "game" starts when you arrive at the court.

Has what you learned changed your game at all?

No. I've been playing ball for 35 years, so I am what I am. Decent shooter. Scrappy defender. Won't back down. Susceptible to a decent crossover. Can be too mouthy for my own good. That's the way it is with most of the guys at the court. I could give you a 15 second rundown of each of their games. They are what they are.

How would you describe the competition at the Graveyard in comparison to "typical" pickup basketball?

The competition at the Graveyard is the best of anywhere I've ever played. Guys who come up from New York City tell us that the Graveyard is tougher than most courts down there. And again, I'm talking about both physical skill and mental attitude. Guys who have played on suburban courts or at the local gym may be able to hang physically, but negotiating the intricate world of of the Graveyard is about much, much more than that. As one of the Graveyard players, Mr. Tickles says, "Anybody who come up here from different cities thinking it's gonna be an easy trail, forget about it. It's not going to be easy. EVER."

Is there any "rookie hazing"? In my league, new guys get the rough treatment and have to earn respect. I'd imagine it's the same at the Graveyard.

Oh yeah.

First off, newcomers to the court better bring along a chair and a good book, because it's going to be a long wait. The guys at the Graveyard take great pride in putting new guys through the ringer the same way they were put through. It's hilarious to see unsuspecting newbies decked out with their baller outfits and "I'm the shit" attitudes, call next and wait on the sidelines for their game, only to be told at the last minute " Nah man, you ain't got next. I was at the store. I told Jamel to hold my spot." Some guys fight it, some understand that it's useless and move on. The bottom line is, unless you're a serious talent, if you're an outsider, you're going to wait -- and wait some more.

Second, if and when you finally persevere and get a run, get ready for some serious trash talk, some hard fouling and some overall initiation rites. The guys are going to push the limits, see how much you can take, whether you crumble under stress, where your weak points are. If you make it through that hazing and want to come back the next week, maybe you'll get a little respect. But respect is measured in years, not weeks at the Graveyard.

It took me about 5 years to be accepted. After 20 years, some days it feels like I'm a rookie again.

I noticed from the video clips that the players are predominantly African American. What are race relations like at the Graveyard?

When it comes to white guys ballin' at the Graveyard, I'm it. The one other white guy who shows up to the Graveyard is Gil, who's in his 50's. He used to play, but now he just watches. Race is an issue, but it's never serious. Sure, there are a couple of guys who will never accept me because I'm white, but the vast majority of guys couldn't care less. Most days I get razzed: "The white guy did it," or, if I throw an errant pass "Oh? That's the way it is? All black guys look the same?" etc. It's all done in jest, funny and honest. I think if there was more of that racial honesty in general society, we'd be stronger for it.

Bottom line, the Graveyard gives me a small taste of what's its like to be the minority and to have to prove myself a little more because the color of my skin. Clearly, what I deal with on the court doesn't come close to the bias that black men face everyday, but it's an instructive experience.

We asked a bunch of the guys if race mattered on the court, and almost all of them said no. If you have skills, if you can play -- it doesn't matter what color you are. The point of pick up ball is to stay on the court. Period.

This is a tough topic to cover. But do you think pickup basketball cultures like the Graveyard are a dying breed? A lot of the courts I used to play at, especially the outdoor courts, are usually empty and deserted, even on the weekends. Have you noticed this, and has it effected the Graveyard?

I'm not sure. I can tell you that when I get back to my hometown of Syracuse on occasion, I drive by my old hoop haunts, and the courts that used to be hopping are empty. I don't know where Syracuse pickup ball has gone, but it's not nearly what it used to be.

On the other hand, Albany has a buffet of pickup ball. Along with the Graveyard, there are at least two other parks where you can set your clock to the games. There are also some serious pickup runs at a few of the Y's in the area. Each of these games has its own vibe. They're not the Graveyard, but they have their moments too.

The young guys are the ones who will keep the pickup ball traditions going in our communities. But lately I've noticed that there are fewer and fewer teenagers on the courts. We have a group of teenagers and guys in their early twenties at the Graveyard, but their numbers are much smaller than the guys in their 30's and 40's. When we asked these young guys why they come, they told us that they learn a lot about the game by playing against the old dudes -- fundamentals and the mental aspects of the game -- and they utilize these skills on their high school and college teams. Many of them try to entice their young friends to come down on the weekend, but they don't have many takers. I'm not sure why that is, but i t's a shame. Pickup ball is not only great entertainment and an unbelievable workout – it's a life lesson every time out. It would be great if more young people experienced that environment.

When will "Ballin' At The Graveyard" be released?

Three months, we hope. Editing is a bee-atch.

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Blogger B-Will said...
Awesome article. I really think it would suck to come and wait to play pick up basketball and then have someone tell me that I couldn't get in on a game. I think that people like that are generally just assholes. In the pick up games I have played we are always nice to new guys. Being from Utah the games around here are primarily very Caucasian. When I have travel with my work I always try to play at local YMCA's. They have always been nice to me, and just give me the general heckling and testing that you give any new guy. And they always at least let me play. Maybe it is different when you are on the street than it is playing in-doors.

Blogger MCBias said...
^ And I see that Brad did know about your site, ha. Good to see that there's going to be even more attention given to pickup basketball.

Piggy-backing on Brad's comment, I've never had a problem on all-black courts before, either. Oh, I get kidded a little bit, but the players make sure I get in when I got next and don't foul me just because I'm new. But, I admit that I don't think I've been to the very top-notch courts, either. Maybe there people are pickier. Anyway, I linked to ballin' at the graveyard myself on my blog and can't wait until it launches; way to be the first to interview the creator of the video!

Anonymous Anonymous said...
What ever happened to this thing? I never found out.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
We've got a nice pickup scene in Amsterdam. Guys are friendly and the basketball a decent level. Check out the twitter feed when you're in town to see when we're running.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
This film is about so much more than basketball! I left the film feeling uplifted and optimistic about the future of our cities, our country and the world. Really! It was that good!