When Julius Erving played at Rucker Park in the 1970s, kids would sit in the trees and fill the rooftops just to see him play. It was in the street games in Harlem that he became the legendary Doctor J. The streetball court is a dream maker. “You either sling crack rock, or you got a wicked jump shot”, Biggie said. In New York streetball is more than just an invitation to enjoyment, it is a parallel social world where play triumphs over order. These are the canvases where play reaches for the creative heights. Le Corbusier said that New York was “a monument to the desire to escape it”, but for those who can’t there’s a pickup game on the corner.
This is not Norman Rockwell’s America. Basketball flourishes where the town planner let his slide-rule slip. Prairies and craters of concrete stretch far deeper into our cities than imagination would have us reckon. In the toughest parts of the metropolis, the places no one planned a green park for, the courts are like pockets of air, oxygenating the streets, giving them life. Empty, particularly empty, as Franck Bobhot’s photos show them, we see them as they catch the imagination of the boy walking past. The city that surrounds him encroaches on his court too. Mute, but adamant, it refuses to assent.
In these photos slight shifts in background signal subtle differences in context: swings, handball courts, housing projects, highways, fences, forests and decaying cinder-blocks. All forms of leisure real or imagined, urban planning gone awry, and even a few enigmatic murals. Tawdry or touching they are there all the same. These courts are inextricable from their city. People have left traces too. A sticker, a graffiti tag, or simply a worn down backboard, testifying to a million bank shots.
No image is more striking than that of a solitary chair left by a hoop, a leftover staircase to the Air Jordan dream of a child’s dunk. It’s not easy to get up and dunk. Unlike almost anything else in sports the adversary is an immovable object. Just you and the hoop in unqualified combat.
In Franck Bohbot’s pictures it is the dreams of the court that come into focus rather than the players. We see the space for what it really is: a social ligament&mdasha stage where the people who live in New York come together, dream, play, and keep score.
Text by Jesse McCarthy and Gabriel Arce-Rollins