Basketball has always held the hearts of people from all over the world. Need proof? Just turn on your TV until you find an NBA game. Hell, you can look at just this past year’s all-star roster featuring players from Germany, Greece, Australia, Cameroon, Serbia and Switzerland all sharing the same court.
Since the 1992 Summer Olympics and the formation of the Dream Team, basketball reached a fever pitch internationally. And though it’s unlikely that most kids who pick up the ball and head to a court will make it to the professional level, the game is nonetheless celebrated and played everywhere.
“It shows how we’re all connected around this common game,” photographer Bill Bamberger says. “It’s played worldwide. You can come upon [courts] in Italy and South Africa, and you can step up and play. It’s open to anyone willing to step on the court.”
Bamberger grew up hooping when he was a child, and in 2004, the established photographer began shooting courts near his home in North Carolina. Over the next 15 years, he traveled the country – and the world – collecting a diverse set of images depicting places people shoot, dribble and ultimately connect through this game. From now until next January, 75 large-format photographs from his massive collection are on display in his exhibition HOOPS at the National Building Museum.
“It was completely unintended,” he says. “I often start my projects close to home, and you expect to find courts everywhere. I love to explore the middle of nowhere, and I’d see these courts in cotton fields and in barns. I like some of the early ones that speak toward different times; not all of them are active and some are relics.”
Though the photographs are creatively captured through a series of environmental portraits, a majority of the 22,000 pictures feature basketball courts that aren’t what you’d expect to see at your local park. Some feature murals on bordering walls and a vibrant blacktop with a plexiglass backboard, while others are made up of a dirt surface with beat-up pieces of metal acting as rims.
“You take that basic design and it becomes interpreted in different ways,” Bamberger says. “The permutations are virtually endless, and each court reflects the design and influence of the host community.”
The courts are tremendously varied and display a certain amount of ingenuity on the part of the people who put them in place, while the backdrops for the photographs shed light on the communities they serve. From Italy and South Africa to New Hampshire and Philadelphia, each portrait displays a unique sense of place.
“I drove through Colorado and Utah and South Dakota just looking for hoops, and they were everywhere,” he says. “One of my favorites is a campsite in Utah. There was a hoop in the middle of these grassy fields and I photographed them in the distance, making the point that even in really remote places like this, you’ll find a court for young people.”
Bamberger didn’t just focus on public places; he often found extremely intimate settings worth immortalizing. There are a number of selections featuring courts in abandoned areas and others in family backyards.
“[For] some of the private places, I would stop and knock on the door. In every instance, I would ask. The same is true internationally. I remember I was on a court in Naples, Italy and there was a lot of ballers playing on the court. There was one who spoke some English, and I just asked them to clear the court.”
If nothing else, Bamberger set out to show how connected we are as a society through this one universal game. Whether your court is regulation-size in the middle of a city or involves a tree, a hubcap and a block of crooked wood, you can still pick up the ball and hoop.
“It’s been one of the truly fun projects to work on,” the photographer says, reflecting on the past decade. “I work on long-term projects, and as an artist, it’s been a joy to have something I can take worldwide. It represents the full range of the work. It’s probably time to let go, but it’s going to be hard. This exhibition represents a stopping point and opportunity to reflect on the project.”
HOOPS will be at the National Building Museum through January 5. Admission to the museum is $10. For more of Bamberger’s work, visit www.billbamberger.com.
National Building Museum: 401 F St. NW, DC; 202-272-2448; www.nbm.org