The title isn’t a fraction as good as the film. But, in its raw, clumsy way, the title of “Ballin’ at the Graveyard” tells you exactly what kind of film it is – a raw, pickup documentary from a couple of guys in thrall to the basketball culture of Washington Park in Albany.
The locals call that section of the park “The Graveyard.” It’s where a whole lot of would-be basketball legends have brought their game and their ambitions. And buried them.
“You ain’t bringing your best game, you get killed in the graveyard,” said one guy. “You come hard or you go home” is the credo.
“It may not be the NBA,” they know, “but it’s even more than that.” That, too, is the credo.
Men gather and play four-man half court. You get into the game when you call “next.” Or “winners.” But just because you do, doesn’t mean squat. You have to be heard. And heeded for that.
That’s one of the first lessons of “The Graveyard.” Before its veterans are finished, it’s only one of many lessons. It’s a crucible of roundball manhood against the odds that operates every Saturday and Sunday morning throughout the summer. “It’s like food. You need it to live,” one vet said. An obsession, admits another.
“Ballin’ at the Graveyard” is not professional documentary filmmaking, not even on the level of its clear model “Hoop Dreams.” It’s not even semipro. But like the pickup basketball it celebrates irresistibly, it comes at you hard and wins you over.
One of its directors – Basil Anastassiou – obviously fell under the spell of the weekend game’s folkways and realized that a delightful film could be made of it. As a player, he may not have been the stuff of legend, but as an appraiser of subcultures audiences can fall in love with, he’s got “game.”
This is a hugely appealing world – funny (some of the trash talk is hilarious) and every bit as tender as it is tough. If you want to see a subculture of males raising and teaching each other against serious odds, this is it. It’s courtside Sociology 101.
I wish the directors were better with narrative, quite frankly. Watching this movie much of the time is like being one of the guys outside the fence of “The Graveyard” watching the rough and tumble action on Sunday morning. You’re learning the lore, legendry and folkways of the place while watching some tough, hard-banging roundball (“Naismith” one guy wittily calls it) and hearing some great stories.
My favorite comes from a judge who, in his younger days, used to be a graveyard regular with everyone else. He knew a tough Washington Park regular named Al – 5-foot-9, solid – who saw a scrappy, ambitious new white guy and bounced him mercilessly all over the court all morning for his cheekiness. So much for his “game.” When informed that the tough and scrappy new arrival he’d been bouncing brutally around the court was Gov. Mario Cuomo, he didn’t change his tune for a second. He was still just a “sorry ass white guy” to him.
The movie couldn’t have less finesse if it tried. But it’s got game. Take a place at the fence and watch some guys come hard on Saturday and Sunday mornings at the Graveyard.
Ballin at the graveyard
Starring: Basil Anastassiou, Gerald Malcolm, Mark Edmonds, Jarning White, Jamil Hood
Director: Anastassiou and Paul Kentoffio
Running time: 83 minutes
Rating: No rating but PG-13 equivalent for language.
The Lowdown: Scruffy documentary on the pickup basketball culture of Albany’s Washington Park, aka “The Graveyard.”