Film Review: Doin' it in the Park: Pick-Up Basketball, New York City

Documentary about New York street basketball offers great technical quality and admirably insider interviews, but celebrates the subject unquestioningly, without a larger context.

More so than stickball, stoopball or any other storied New York street game, pickup basketball not only endures but thrives. An informal minor league for local NBA stars, outdoor basketball in the boroughs is a world with its own rules, language and legends. This documentary by two aficionados—one of whom, DJ and media personality Robert "Bobbito" Garcia, says he has played basketball in 35 countries on five continents—is slickly shot and edited and has a remarkable array of apt interview subjects all providing an insider's perspective. Where Doin' It in the Park: Pick-up Basketball, New York City—a title that goes into double-overtime—falls short is in its reliance on sports clichés that fail to coalesce into any larger, less surfacey observations, and a narrator, Garcia himself, whose enthusiastic patois may have been meant to provide authenticity but instead makes this otherwise professional film seem less authoritative than it is. Together, those things leave one feeling, "Hey, good introduction to the subject. Can't wait for Errol Morris or Barbara Kopple to do one on this!"

And that's a shame, since Garcia and fellow filmmaker Kevin Couliau, a French photographer specializing in basketball, get the lowdown from such street-ball legends as James "Fly" Williams, Richard "Pee Wee" Kirkland, "Black Jack" Ryan—one of just two Caucasian players interviewed—Ed Davis and Sherman Anthony. They also speak with current and former NBA pros who came up from New York City courts, such as Milwaukee Bucks' guard Brandon "The Takeover" Jennings—whom the filmmakers serendipitously caught when he stopped by the famed 4th Street Playground in Greenwich Village and, like other pros who occasionally do, jumped in to play alongside the regulars. Others include Harlem Globetrotter Kenny "The Blenda" Rodriguez and past pros Geoff Huston, Kenny "Chibbs" Anderson, Kenny "The Jet" Smith, God Shammgod and "Smush" Parker.

The filmmakers expansively cover topics from the general to such specifics as outdoor basketball at Rikers Island jail, female street-ball players, deaf players, trash talk and even the unwritten dress code: Don't show up in new clothes. No NBA jersey, though NBA shorts and socks are OK. No mesh. Don't walk in with color-coordinated purple-and-yellow and your girl on your arm, because then, as Davis says, "We are going to embarrass that guy. He's a target." And check which borough you're in—apparently, Manhattan and Brooklyn have different fashion police.

It's fortunate that New York street basketball, which touches on the larger urban culture, is so intrinsically interesting that Doin' It in the Park remains fascinating throughout, even if the ballplayers' braggadocio gets wearying at times—it might have been nice to have more than a few seconds of a single author to provide outside perspective. Basketball purists, after all, have bemoaned how showboaty street-ball has become the coin of the NBA, and the obvious palming, traveling and other examples of sloppy hot-dogging here would be less dismaying if the pros didn't exhibit them as well.

So a larger context would have been welcome: The players tell us over and over that they're out there every day, that basketball is like a religion, that you "win by all means necessary," and the narrator enthuses that New York City claims street basketball "110 percent"—my least-favorite false percentage, since it's so overused and stupid. But what does it all mean? Calling "next" doesn't mean you get to play next if someone meaner, better-known or otherwise higher in the pecking order wants to instead. You're expected to answer roughhousing fouls with roughhousing fouls. One street-baller coaching some white and Asian players berates them for smiling and laughing as they play. That comes off as (presumably) inadvertent racism, without the narrator or anyone else explaining why this different, less life-or-death way of playing, compared with that of the almost 100% black and Hispanic players in this documentary, is wrong.

The movie, in fact, never addresses how the testosterone-fueled one-upmanship that's celebrated here translates to life outside the court. It's might-makes-right, and the elite decide who gets to play—which seems antithetic to the idea that the playground courts are there for everybody, even kids and teens who just want to play a friendly game but can't because these adults have taken over and push out everybody but their cliquish private club. The filmmakers celebrate that, rather than looking at it objectively. And that's fine—many documentaries have a point of view. But that doesn't mean you ignore the larger context completely and offer a one-sided paean that's all unicorns and rainbows. Or to put it another way, what would Errol Morris or Barbara Kopple do?

Note: The film proper ends at 78 minutes, followed after the end credits by four self-indulgent minutes of the two filmmakers playing one-on-one at various New York City outdoor courts