Empty Basketball Courts: A Brief Essay


Across the street from my apartment is a park with a four-hoop basketball court. The view from my living room isn’t optimal: I live at the park’s north side while the court is at its southern border; I’m also on the first floor, so my angle of the goings-on isn’t panoramic. Yet, I’m close enough to hear the battle cries of pickup, to hear after-dark echoes of basketballs dribbled on concrete. And even from my cheap seats, I witness push shots, set shots, and predictably, righties who can’t go left and lefties who can’t go right. Each Saturday, every summer, starting at 10 a.m., is a full-court, 5-on-5 game. I remember, years ago, a southpaw in over-ear headphones. He had an awkward-looking, one-handed jumper and would come to the empty court weekday mornings to shoot by himself. Another favorite is a bald, shirtless man (in all black when he’s fully clothed) who runs solo fast breaks up and down the vacant court while flinging shots at the goal (when the pandemic started and rims were removed, he tossed balls off the backboards). There’s a dad I once saw, jogger sweatpants and male-pattern baldness, putting up shots with his kid in a baby carriage nearby. Of course, too, are children who squat and catapult regulation-size basketballs toward the rims and people with a hooper’s swag—the jerseys, the shorts, the sneakers, the walk—but who, not-so-proverbially speaking, couldn’t score from a ladder’s top step. But they return, those for whom basketball is an irremovable part of life and those for whom it is not, regardless how well they shoot, pass, and dribble.

For much of my life, I regularly played basketball, too. Access to the holy grail of hooping—indoor gyms with hardwood floors, tempered glass backboards, and never-touched breakaway rims—is limited everywhere in the US, so I also, like innumerable others, waited for the initial breaths of summer. My earliest memory is the kiddie hoop in the room I shared with my sister. It had a fan-shaped backboard with orange or reddish-orange trim. I was younger than ten years old and mimicked, going in the opposite direction because our room was at the end of an unhelpful hallway, The Shot with celebratory leap and leg kick, fist pumps. I also practiced with a regulation basketball indoors, driving and “making” layups against the heating-and-AC vent above our bedroom door. I once practiced dribbling with my left hand in the kitchen, bouncing the ball as I stepped backwards and falling over the open oven door (decades gone, I’ll never know why its mouth was agape—shocked at my progress, perhaps!—and because memory is individual, any witnesses are long departed). We, my dad and I, eventually moved that kiddie goal outside, where I played with boys in the neighborhood, and then he removed the backboard and rim from its support pole, and attached it to the guardrail on the second-floor balcony above our apartment. Now, the blacktop across the street from our apartment, next to the management office, clears its throat in the once-soundless, isolated library of my recollections. We played there also, but not often.

A little older and living in a complex of townhouses, I got my first full-size basketball hoop. The image is of me being sick, lying on the carpeted living room floor, so we were unable to construct it as soon as I had hoped. The scene whispers, “Sunday, 1995, missed buzzer beater against the Cavs,” and yes, the highlights are on YouTube: Bulls v Cavs, April 9, 1995, number 45 missing a three-point shot that would have won the game. That hoop was moveable, the backboard of which must have been a type of plastic, a base that needed to be filled with water, and we set it up in the townhouse’s smallish, picket-fenced, concrete patio in the center of which was a shallow hole encircled by bricks from where a tree had been removed well before my family’s arrival (the kiddie hoop had survived, too: I sometimes attached it to the fence and played with a small orange ball that must’ve come with it). I wonder where they are, the two kids with unremembered names and faces, with whom I formed the triad “Sonic D.” The Seattle Supersonics must have played defense brilliantly in the mid-90s. But that was certainly before I failed the tryouts for the junior high team. Did I fall during the full-court back pedal drill? And miss a layup? I remember so. Blame the nerves. In those chubbier days, neither did I look the part.

In 1997, we moved to a house, the last place I would live in Memphis, and that officially ten-foot goal accompanied us. I played in the driveway, but most often it was set up in our large, forty yards long by twenty or so yards wide, backyard—at first, we stationed it directly behind the house and then, long-lastingly, behind a storage shed toward the property’s back fence, dribbling sections of grass into dirt courts both occasions. Here, I also played with classmates and kids in the neighborhood, and naturally, alone (basketball might be the perfect sport for solo fantasizing), and as I entered adolescence, more prominently in its emotional vigor than any other time of my life, with and against my dad. During these games, I was enlivened and frustrated, angry and elated, victorious and defeated, insecure and confident. One evening, we hung an automotive work lamp from a tree, running the fantastically long wire into a socket in the shed, in order to play. This might, or might not, have been prior to the backboard somehow breaking and falling off, after which every shot had to be swished (metaphorically so, because after the final set of nets frayed, we didn’t replace them).

The patch of unoccupied space in my early twenties must also correspond to my rarely, if ever, playing, because my first pickup game in graduate school in Chicago was surely years after I’d last stepped on a court. This was also the only time playing indoors was easy, free (student loans were concerns for another day), and the norm. The person who’d become my best friend blocked my shot, and I remember thinking, feeling, knowing I did not have my legs. That was more than a decade ago, and those frequent, I believe weekly, games were fundamental to how and why we bonded as profoundly as we did. This ritual continued post-graduate school, mostly going into abeyance during winter and fall, bridging my brief “retirement” sometime in my early thirties (too old to continue, I thought), and gaining another dear friend via once-weekly games, who I’ve known more than a decade now.


Two conversations. One idea.

A friend of mine who’s an artist and I were discussing the use (and misuse) of biographical details in art. I recounted my photography, a subject of which for years had been my then-girlfriend. After our final parting, I’d hidden the photos of her from my primary social media account (though I never deleted), but much later, I republished them, believing they’d been part of my emotional and artistic development, and therefore, were aspects of a story I needed to tell. Then, stumbling onto more than I expected, I told my friend that perhaps my photographic subject now is absence.

A couple of months after that conversation, I started taking a Spanish course. Naturally, when one begins a course like this, you tell the class and teacher your interests: Me gusta escribir. Me gusta la fotografía. That fact about me known, months later, the subject returned, and the teacher asked what I like to photograph: empty basketball courts, I answered. Las canchas de baloncesto sin gente.


The weekly games my friends and I played became far less frequent, ultimately becoming nonexistent during the past four to five years. As with many occurrences in life, I noticed little at the time and what little I noticed I thought little about: we were aging, and obviously, features of one’s more youthful adulthood alter or wither away (I’m uncertain when this happened, but the memory rushes at from one of those years immediately preceding the pandemic: 2018, 2019. While watching a replay of game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, it occurred that I was older than Michael Jordan was in 1998). Yet, I had personally retained, or perhaps temporarily rediscovered, my love of playing. A year after I moved into this apartment, the pandemic caused me to work from home and going to the park became easier. I went on Thursday afternoons. Less affected by the romance of youth, I nevertheless envisioned legends past and present, bounced a ball between my legs, remembered to bend my knees, follow through, and keep my guide hand steady (that hand annoyingly tends to flare out on jump shots). I would set a timer and shoot for about an hour: fadeaways, pullups, hooks, trick shots. Being at the park and playing basketball was familiar. I was energized. For those moments, I felt better.

            I don’t remember being on a basketball court during the summer of 2022, however—except to take pictures—and I don’t know if I’ll play this year. One eye looks at doing so romantically while another glances at basketball courts with the unwelcome realization there are things you can no longer do and things you can no longer do as they had been done. To rendezvous with aging can be more difficult than considering the inevitability of death. The latter, at least, offers certainty and a final, irretrievable departure from what has passed. Whether I play or not, though, in one respect, is immaterial. The aesthetic, emotional focus is that which cannot be recaptured.

COVID-19, returning to an earlier point, was a phenomenon to which I also gave too little consideration. More precisely, I gave it little personal consideration. Its social, political, and historical effects, I frequently thought about: how, and if, society would look different when the pandemic ended. But I, perhaps superficially so, felt remarkably un-dislocated by its emergence. Masking and social distancing, notwithstanding, I moved into the pandemic without much alteration (avoiding a commute to a cubicle produced no angst). But nothing educates the ignorant like hindsight, and it now seems that, as it did across societies, the pandemic intensified the centrifugal forces in my life, and it was during the era of mass infection that I (again, unbeknownst to myself) became drawn to photographing empty basketball courts. Like the social demolition of COVID, those courts appear as they had, ostensibly untouched by the pandemic years. Yet, through my lens, I see the falling away, at first unnoticed and then forever, of relationships that had been cultivated by the communion of competition, the shared experience of guiding a round object through a circular band. On every empty basketball court, what had been so real and permanent moves soundlessly across their surfaces.

More photos from this series can be found at Flickr or Instagram