Shooting the breeze with London’s young basketballers

Shooting the breeze with London’s young basketballers
Holding court — During the summer, London’s basketball courts were some of the first free public spaces to reopen post-lockdown. Scattered across the capital, each one is a unique, self-contained island – home to an impressive cast of regulars, for whom community is everything.

A version of this story appears in Huck 74: The Action Issue. Get your copy now, or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

London’s basketball courts are worlds unto themselves. They are islands, an archipelago of concrete rectangles, spread out across the capital. Each one has its own energy and diverse cast, which usually reflects the economic, racial and social dynamics of the area it resides in.

At the beginning of summer, as the city’s lockdown restrictions began to lift, the courts were some of the first free spaces to reopen. Following a period of prolonged isolation, they allowed young people to come together; to move and breathe again. Each court, while totally unique, is home to a similar kind of community: one that paints a broad picture of diversity and coexistence, reflecting the true face of the capital today.

In the UK, under-25s have carried the brunt of the psychological fallout from Covid-19. Research has found that young people here are some of the most unhappy and anxious in Europe, with mental health worst among children growing up in poverty – and in their annual report for 2020, the Social Metrics Commission found that children of colour are twice as likely to grow up in poverty than their white counterparts. In that context, basketball courts are vital spaces for physical and mental health. But while the sport is the second most popular team one in the country, and approximately 75 per cent of participants in London belong to communities of colour, it receives much less funding than its counterparts.

“This summer was a crazy time for knives, guns and violence,” says Tony Lazare, who grew up in London and founded the London Basketball Association (LBA) in 2012, which works to develop the sport as a tool for social change. “It’s scary to be a young person in London these days. Whether you’re looking for trouble or not, there are some contexts, like school, where it’s pretty much unavoidable. People can migrate to the bad so quickly.

“But basketball can be a route out of that,” Tony continues. “If I didn’t have it, I know I would be down a dirty road, doing things that society deems unacceptable. The reason I work so hard with basketball is because of the profound impact it had on my own life.”

The LBA are one of the groups trying to increase the participation of women in basketball, and have counted around 1,000 active female players in the capital. The Superleague is the biggest women’s league in the city, with a total of seven teams that play regular season games and play-offs. Despite this, however, street courts remain male-dominated spaces.

Whether these young men are using basketball as a way to connect, or playing for their own satisfaction and self- development, London’s ballers are a force to be reckoned with – and each has their own story to tell. Because, at a time when it’s harder than ever to reach others, the courts allow people to do just that. They offer a kaleidoscopic view into the many layers of life for young people in the capital, during what remains a surreal moment in its history. To find out more, we spoke to four regulars – each of whom shares a deep and unique bond with their local playing space.

Cyrus Cato (19)
Brockwell Park court, Brixton

“I started going to Brockwell Park court after I moved to London aged 10, and I’ve been going ever since. Back then, it was a really awful grey court, just concrete and two metal rims. It was terrible in the rain and in the heat, but I was still there in all types of weather.

“Now it has been revamped, it’s a colourful and enjoyable space to be at. You see people walking past, watching and taking photos. The scenery is really nice with the hills. The way the sun comes into the park, the light is amazing.

“People know that when they come to play basketball, it’s a sport and it’s all love. You’re gonna sweat with your teammates, knock with people and it might get heated – but when you come off at the end, it’s respect.

“In south London, some of the courts are all-black. But at Brockwell, it really doesn’t matter what race you are. It’s multicultural, there are no barriers when you step inside. If you want to play, you’ll play. That’s something I stand with: it’s all happy and positive – no negative energy.

“Basketball can be a really big getaway from the day- to-day things that you have in your life. Everyone has problems. Everyone goes through their own things. But I feel like when they come and play basketball, they forget about it and genuinely have a smile on their face. I know I do. And I have seen a lot of my friends – who I know have problems and stuff going on – having fun and escaping from the realness happening around them.”

Jeron Vincent ‘JV’ Worrel (22)
Argyle Square court, King’s Cross

“In basketball, you’re watching giants play. The physical dominance you see and the capabilities are just totally different to a normal sports team. But it’s like a game of chess: in basketball, you’re using a lot of strategies and mental capacity to perform the best you can with whatever physical ability you have.

“I was quite short when I was younger – I never thought I would get as tall as I am – but my friend got me into basketball when I was around 14 and took me here to Argyle. From then on, I started playing street ball with everyone here. I’ve made some good friends, people I’ve known for a lot of years now.

“Back in the day, there were troubles with postcode wars and certain areas you couldn’t enter. It’s hard to concentrate when you’re young, it was a bit hectic growing up in that kind of environment – because a lot of people try to influence you to join them.

“But when you start to surround yourself with people that are more positive and have other aspirations in life, it motivates you. Basketball was a pivotal point in my life and for a lot of other people I know. It brought us together, too.

“For me, basketball gave me the opportunity to learn from other people – from older people. They would talk to me, give me advice. It showed me how to become better.”

Ray Akpofure (28)
Argyle Square court, King’s Cross

“I was raised in Peckham to first-generation immigrant parents, so I’ve seen a lot of things I don’t wish any young person to see growing up.

“I used to get bullied in school, so basketball was a way out for me. I’m playing at professional level thanks to my coach, who I met at 11 but has now sadly passed away.

“My parents didn’t really understand what I was telling them about school. But it was like a father-son relationship with my coach. He helped me at school and was a life mentor. Every issue I had, I went to him. Every decision I needed to make, I spoke to him about it. He helped me grow up into the person I am today. Now I play pro for Oaklands Wolves in the National Basketball League, I work as a hospital research assistant, and I’m an advocate for mental health.

“Argyle Square court has a legendary status – you see high-level play and there’s a real family here. There was this homeless guy who used to beg around King’s Cross, he used to play on this court and he taught me how to shoot. We would shoot together for two hours straight until my form, rhythm and balance was better.

“I got into the team I was trying out for back then and broke their three-point record in the first game. It was because of him. When I told him, he was like, ‘I want to turn my life around.’ A few years ago, I lost touch with him and got worried. Finally, I saw him again here. He’s got a place now, he’s learning a trade, he’s making his own money. It was just love.”

Braulio Chimbembe (17)
Spa Fields court, Islington

“Basketball just allows me to be what I want to be. I feel a lot of pressure from family members and other people in my area, so there are a lot of expectations that I need to live up to. I have no room for mistakes. Basketball allows me to get that off my mind and allows me to be free as a person; as a creative.

“Basketball has always been important for me. At school, it was a way to get to know people in older years and the basis to create those social connections. But I really started taking it seriously when I decided I wanted to pursue modelling.

“I would always model for my sister and her photography class. She used to work with me and develop her ideas. I was her muse, I guess. I started to really enjoy it. From 15, I began reaching out to other photographers to develop my portfolio, make connections in the modelling industry and grow my Instagram  which now has over 5,000 followers.

“For me, there is a strong connection between basketball and modelling because when I’m stressed out by modelling – or other things, like schoolwork or training to be an actor – basketball helps me relieve all that pressure and stress. Basketball is my escape. It’s like a freedom.”

Pisco Jeng (15)
Aske Gardens court, Hackney

“My number one wish is to get scouted by the NBA. I’m not under any illusions about how hard that will be. The fact that I’m still going all-out for this is just showing me that I have such a love, such a passion for the game. Even if my parents or anyone else try to say, ‘No you can’t play,’ I’m still going for it.

“There was a time when I was the only one on the basketball court. I’m an active guy, I couldn’t sit still any longer. When people started to come back slowly after lockdown, I was there already, helping them get back into shape.

“My brother and sister both trained with my coach and they introduced me. He’s caring, he’s kind, I think of him as like my second father, or even my second mother, because we’re that close about basketball, education and everything else.

“The reason I like basketball so much is that – as my coach told me – it’s all about finding your own song, finding your own rhythm, finding your own way to play. I’m so focussed because I still haven’t found that rhythm yet – where everything feels right and you can score whenever you want to. Sometimes, I might feel a little something.

“So I keep playing the game, waiting for that moment to come. Because once it does, I know that will keep on powering through. It will really take me somewhere.”

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