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Ballin' at the Graveyard

If you love basketball—particularly pick-up playground basketball as it is played in urban parks across the country—then you are guaranteed to love Ballin’ in the Graveyard. You should go see the documentary during its weeklong run (October 4-10) at the Amherst Theater. You need not read any more of this review, brief as it will be.

The film takes a look at the weekend regulars at Albany’s Washington Park courts, nicknamed the Graveyard, and the community they’ve created around their love of the game. The portrait starts light and entertaining: In off-court interviews, the players discuss the virtues and strategies of trash-talking; they expound on the vagaries and ultra-local politics of determining who’s got next game; every single player admits, individually, that he’ll lie, cheat, and make bad calls if his team is down a couple baskets and needs a leg up to get back in the game. (One lesson, should you ever be so brave as to find yourself on that court: When in doubt, call a walk on Lewis Bond. Everyone in the park will back you up.) These conversations are funny and well edited, and have the effect of creating rough sketches of individual characters on the court, to which the filmmakers expertly add depth and refinement in the later parts of the film, as the men—and there are only men in this movie—tell their personal stories and discuss the importance of the Graveyard community in their lives.

Our ambassador to this community of mostly African-American men is the filmmaker Basil Anastassiou, whose behind-the-camera co-director is Paul Kentoffio. Anastassiou has been playing in the summer weekend games at the Graveyard since 1993. The other players tease him for being white: “Yo, he dunked on you for segregation!” a player shouts good-naturedly from the sideline, after the height-challenged Anastassiou has been beaten to the hoop. He never responds in kind; he acknowledges that he’s the minority at the Graveyard. But his love of the game and his skill, as well as his initial persistence, has won him a place in the extended family that the film portrays. It’s a multi-generational family, extending from the older guys who play cards on the picnic table courtside, through the regular cadre of players, many middle-aged or pushing it, the young guys who make their way into the game, and the kids who shoot baskets on a free court, watching their fathers perform the weekly rituals on the main stage.

This is not modern sports iconography: no slow-motion, no camera lingering on a player hanging from the rim. There is plenty of basketball action, to be sure, but the focus is squarely on the characters of and the interactions between the players. It’s a moving film.

Watch the trailer for Ballin' at the Graveyard

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