Only 1% of the world’s basketball players go pro. For the 99% left behind, the sport is so much more than just a game. Speaking with French photographer Kevin Couliau, we explore the power that basketball has to inspire and transform people’s lives.
‘NYC opened my mind on what basketball culture could be,’ says French photographer Kevin Couliau. With over 700 courts, New York City is widely recognised as the world’s basketball mecca. From Michael Jordan to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving, many of the world’s most recognised NBA players were born and made in this city. While only 1% of players make it to the pro leagues, the 99% left behind still hit the asphalt with an attitude rawer and more determined than anything seen on the squeaky clean courts of Madison Square Gardens. A ‘win by any means necessary’ mentality creates an environment of fierce competition. Those who don’t want to be relegated to the sidelines need to fight for their spot on their court, and once they make it, they have to fight to stay there.
‘People that are driven to basketball use the courts as a sacred place, it’s a way to escape daily life.’
Drawn by the magic of legacy and allure of the game, the New York City courts act as a meeting point for a kaleidoscope of characters, each possessing their own characters, stories and motivations. ‘You find yourself with an incredible mix of people that you would never meet outside of your daily life’ explains Couliau, ‘from the old grumpy guys to the young kid who’s trying to talk trash to you or the girl competing with men and trying to make a name for herself.’
Couliau’s award-winning 2012 documentary Doin’ It In The Park brought this vibrant city scene to life. Travelling across city’s five boroughs, his intimate exploration of the underground world of the streetball scene drew out its true essence. For so many of those found on the asphalt, the courts are more than just a place to bounce a ball, Couliau explains, ‘people that are driven to basketball use the courts as a sacred place, it’s a way to escape daily life.’ Acting as a place of sanctuary, communion and reflection, pick-up basketball provides a means of salvation. ‘When you feel sick or you feel sad, when you’ve lost somebody in your family or your girlfriend has broken up with you, you go onto the basketball court to get back on your feet,’ says Couliau ‘you use the hoop as the priest and, in a way, you talk to it.’
‘For the players around the world, playing basketball is like going to school. The court educates you, it gives you a certain standard of values and teaches you how to interact with people and how to behave socially.’
For some, the court is a path to redemption. During a series of games with Rikers Island inmates, Couliau came to recognise how the sport played a role in giving them a sense of purpose and guiding them towards a more righteous future. ‘They’re in prison for a reason’ Couliau goes on, ‘and they’re trying to make amends for what they did. Basketball can be a tool to show your skills, be more sociable, earn respect and fuel the hope that people will maybe forget what you did.’
‘It transcends culture, it transcends languages, it transcends skin colour and it transcends religion. That’s the beauty of the game.’
As he continues to build on his existing body of work, the photographer aims to explore the cultural commonalities and disparities of the game across the globe. His independently published magazine Asphalt Chronicles provides a medium to share the images and stories he collects along the way. Documenting the basketball scenes that span the likes of Hong Kong, Rwanda and Senegal, Couliau has found that the ability of the ballgame to bring people together bears no boundaries. ‘Even when you travel to places where you don’t speak the language, if you go onto the court you’re acknowledged as a basketball player and people will play with you’, he says. ‘We interviewed deaf players and found that even for them basketball was a way to interact and communicate. Even though they couldn’t really hear the bouncing, they could communicate through the eyes, without being able to talk or listen. I think that’s the power of sport. You don’t need to speak or listen, just using your eyes and your hands or your feet makes the language.’
‘That’s what fascinates me the most. How people can use basketball to make something of their life.’
Globally, pick-up basketball is a way for individuals to transcend the hardships of their condition. Be they emotional, physical or monetary, the sport provides a path to a higher way of life. ‘When I go to Africa,’ Couliau explains ‘quite often I meet kids who started from nothing, who through one opportunity of playing in a basketball game, managed to go out of the country and study in Europe or in the States. That’s what fascinates me the most. How people can use basketball to make something of their life.’
Even for those who are less likely to find professional careers from their passion in the game, the devotion and worship of the court still remains strong. Couliau recalls how, when shooting in Manila one day, he went to a small caged court where he saw ‘six guys playing barefoot, on broken glass on the floor. These guys just love the game so much that they don’t care,’ he explains, ‘the NBA is not going to the Philippines to find players they’re going to Africa or places they know there’s huge potential. So, these kids in the Philippines know that the chance for one of them to play professionally is slim but, they still play with a passion.’
Growing up in the West Coast of France, photographer Kevin Couliau started his life-long voyage into the world of pick-up basketball at the tender age of 6. Gifted with a vintage camera by his older brother in 2004, Couliau began capturing the game, first seeking to frame the graceful dunks of his friends, before branching out to cities across Europe and then New York City where he created award-winning documentary Doin’ It In The Park. Today, Kevin shares his coverage of the global basketball scene through independently published magazine Asphalt Chronicles while creating visual content for the likes of Nike, Red Bull and the NBA.
Follow his story @asphaltchronicles