The joys of hustling, scuffling, and trash-talking on the basketball court are celebrated with boisterous (if skin-deep) enthusiasm by Doin’ It In The Park: Pick-Up Basketball, NYC. The documentary traces more than half a century of the history and culture of playground roundball in the five boroughs. Directors Kevin Couliau and Bobbito Garcia spent 90 days playing pick-up games on 180 courts throughout New York City, chatting along the way with a gaggle of local legends who wax nostalgic about the innovation that took place on, and the particular rules of, famed Manhattan and Brooklyn asphalt venues like Rucker Park, Goat Park, or the West 4th Street courts. The documentarians find plenty of old-school stars eager to discuss a variety of topics: the ins and outs of successfully earning some court time by calling “next”; the revolutionary advances, born at these spots in the ’70s and ’80s, that eventually became ubiquitous facets of the modern sport (including basics like the crossover, credited to Richard “Pee Wee” Kirkland); and how specialty games such as 21, a one-on-five NYC staple, helped breed a generation of ball-handling maestro point guards.
Doin’ It In The Park aims to elevate the likes of Kirkland, Earl “The Goat” Manigault, and James “Fly” Williams to the status of unsung icons, though the directors unfortunately only pay passing lip-service to the missteps of drugs, crime, and prison that derailed many promising talents’ paths to the pros. A handful of former NBAers who cut their teeth grinding it out on NYC parks (Kenny Anderson, Kenny Smith, Smush Parker) fondly recall their own childhoods playing pick-up games on broken-down courts from dawn until dusk, and what ultimately comes through is a portrait of sports as a vehicle for building inclusive community bonds free of race or gender barriers. (As the talking heads make clear, what matters isn’t sex or skin color, but whether you can ball.) Too slight to truly portray basketball as a medium for self-discipline and definition, the film nonetheless offers up a lively history lesson on a sports street culture that eventually made its way to the mainstream, with archival clips of Dr. J majestically floating through the air on a 1976 city court synchronizing with recent footage of Milwaukee Bucks star Brandon Jennings spontaneously lacing up his sneakers for a neighborhood contest. Mostly, however, Doin’ It In The Park thrives simply via its myriad sights of nobodies juking and dunking their way past opponents, exuding an authentic for-love-of-the-game competitiveness that’s as infectious as it is intense.