The makings of basketball Mecca: Why it will always be New York

credit: Sylvain Gaboury – PMc for MCNY   New York Knicks in a game against the Fort Wayne Pistons, 1953, photograph by Arthur Rothstein and Frank Bauman, Museum of the City of New York, the LOOK Collection, gift of Cowles Magazines, Inc., X2011.4.2770-53.50
credit: Sylvain Gaboury – PMc for MCNY New York Knicks in a game against the Fort Wayne Pistons, 1953, photograph by Arthur Rothstein and Frank Bauman, Museum of the City of New York, the LOOK Collection, gift of Cowles Magazines, Inc., X2011.4.2770-53.50 /

Delving into the vibrant culture of basketball within the five boroughs, the newly-opened City/Game exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York features over a century’s worth of history.

Change is the only constant.

Unceasing evolution makes New York so much of what it is. Neighborhoods shift. Friends move away. Restaurants and bars open and shutter. The things you hold dear are ultimately out of your control. You just grab on tight in the riptide and hope that whatever enters your world betters whatever it replaced. The city is a microcosm for life. Or maybe life is a macrocosm for the city.

No pair of New Yorkers will experience their time here identically. Everyone has their own bubbles and routines, corners and haunts. It’s the ultimate choose-your-own-adventure novel. In the background though, basketball provides a rhythmic soundtrack. A scatterplot of blacktops and hoops intertwine ubiquitously throughout the five-borough concrete jungle.

Over 1,800 public outdoor courts pockmark its map. You can go through nary a neighborhood without seeing one. Basketball may have been invented in Springfield, Mass., but really took its roots in New York. From the turn of the 20th century, various immigrant groups — both men and women — played in their communities. Eventually, leagues and amateur teams formed and the game pervaded the metropolis. The confluence of its immigration and urban setting made New York the basketball Mecca.

To sew together that vast fabric of unique basketball history, the Museum of the City of New York opened its City/Game exhibit after 18 months in the making. The exhibit captures 120 years of archives and culture through audio, video, pictures, art and memorabilia.

“The game is really built into the physical landscape of the city. And there’s a reason for that,” said Lilly Tuttle, curator at MCNY. “The thing about basketball is all you really need is a ball and something to aim for. You don’t need to have a neighborhood full of kids. You don’t need to have a dad who can throw the ball to you in the backyard. I think that’s a huge part of it. It’s a game you can play against yourself. That really speaks to the physical space of the city and the energy of New Yorkers.”

The museum undertook the project in the Spring of 2018 and assembled a team of collaborators — Bobbito Garcia, Bill Rhoden, Marc Aronson, and Onaje Woodbine — and a 15-person advisory committee to gather knowledge and ideas. The input coalesced and drove the exhibition’s narrative through time — touching on everything from tenement origins and racial integration, to the history of the women’s game, to fabled streetballers and sneaker culture, to storylines of the city’s three professional teams.

"Basketball is the city game. Its battlegrounds are strips of asphalt between tattered wire fences or crumbling buildings; its rhythyms grow from the uneven thump of a ball against hard surfaces. It demands no open spaces or lush backyards or elaborate equipment. It doesn’t even require specified numbers of players; a one-on-one confrontation in a playground can be as memorable as a full-scale organized game. Basketball is the game for young athletes without cars or allowances – the game whose drama and action are intensified by its confined spaces and chaotic surroundings.-Pete Axthelm, The City Game, 1970"

That blurb from Axthelm’s book greets you before entering the exhibit. It perfectly encapsulates the display in its entirety. Once inside, you step through a chronological layout of the game in the Big Apple, with scattered imagery and distorted court lines to symbolize the freeness of the sport. The design, as well as the deliberately inverted layout, was purposeful.

“Whether you’re walking through the park and looking through the gates at people playing or go to a game at Barclays or MSG, we were really attracted to the idea of flipping spectator and performer,” said exhibit designer Jonathan Jackson. “The performance is actually on the bleachers and the spectator is in the center. It’s flipped and we were really interested in the idea of changing the dichotomy of the two.”

The exhibit’s grand opening brought city legends and all-time greats into the fold, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who received the museum’s inaugural Gotham Icon award.

“I’ve been fortunate that basketball has taken me many places around the world, introduced me to many people, and given me many opportunities and experiences,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “But that journey started for me in this city, just north of here. And the values I learned while playing and growing up in the city are what truly propelled my life and career both on and off the court. When people think of basketball, they often focus on the competitive part of the game, the highlight plays, the championship rings and historical performances. What can’t be understood are the stories and personal journeys that come from this game.”

Abdul-Jabbar riffed about feeling empathetic towards Knicks fans and explained how the game gets passed from one generation to another. Despite miring in the muck for most of the past two decades, the Knicks are a big part of that and possess a deep, rich history. New York wouldn’t constantly be looking for its basketball savior if there wasn’t something amazing to save.

“For a kid from Brooklyn, putting on that Knicks uniform and stepping on the floor in front of family, friends and all the fans, there was nothing like it in the world,” said Bernard King. “It’s special. I represent a legacy and transitive history of the franchise. That’s what I felt and I honored that every single night I played.”

If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. The city’s expansive and diverse population birthed the idea of cream rising to the top, stemming the residents’ superiority complex. For players, you only need to seize one moment to become a legend. 2012’s Linsanity fever pitch seared highlight clips and Mike Breen soundbites into the memory banks of basketball fans around the globe. Showcasing flair under Broadway’s bright lights elevates players to stardom like nowhere else can.

“My father played for the Knicks. He went to a small college in upstate New York and nobody knew who he was but he got selected to play in the East-West All-Star — which was a BIG deal,” said Kiki Vandeweghe. “It was at Madison Square Garden in the late 1940’s, the center of basketball. He ended up the MVP of the game. He was suddenly a national figure in the basketball world off of that one night.”

Basketball in New York radiates a distinct energy. Eventually, that energy transfers to the players and their style mimics their surroundings. The cultural weight doesn’t get lost and the mystique remains omnipresent.

“It’s a special feeling playing against guys from here who knew how to play. They’re just savvier than anybody else,” said Sam Perkins. “With all the famous parks and all the special places to play, you’re on stage all the time. From Harlem Rucker to Brooklyn to West 4th. You can’t put it into words or define it.”

Streetball culture became synonymous with theatrics because somebody’s always watching, whether it be other players, pedestrians or onlookers from apartment windows. Every court doubles as a proving ground and performances get graded. Naturally, reputation and bragging rights are at stake.

“You already know if you’re from the Bronx and you’re playing somebody in Brooklyn, it’s a different swag so you have to play for the hood,” said Felipe Lopez. “That makes the competition a lot better. At the end of the day you’re playing for respect of the game. That’s what most people enjoy about playing in New York City. That’s how you get Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant to come down and play at Rucker 155th.”

Basketball resonates differently with everyone. It’s not only about what level you play at or how far it takes you. Scholarships and endorsement deals aren’t coming to the vast majority of us. Connections to the game could just be about disconnecting.

“For me, it was an escape from everything,” said Rich Kleiman. “It’s where I forgot about life. It’s where I forgot what was going on at my house. It’s where I was the happiest. The shit-talking on the sideline, being part of a group of people who could have that much fun in the name of basketball was something I couldn’t get enough of.”

Being a part of the action, whether you’re playing or spectating, comes with verve. The game engrains flair, culture and grit into the DNA of the city and all those who call it home. Regardless of how much New York reinvents itself, remaining the epicenter of the basketball world will always stay.