Washington Park, Albany, New York. Here, men with the nicknames of “G,” “Pookie,” and “Boozer” rule the court. They are not professionals, but they are far from amateurs. When they play, they play hard. Their game is pick-up basketball; their court is the Graveyard.

Ballin’ at the Graveyard is a heartfelt look at men of the Graveyard. We learn anecdotally that the nickname comes from the history of Washington Park, which may have been built on top of an ancient graveyard, but I think the name is much more fitting after you watch these men play. Anyone who thinks they are hot shit or that they can game these old-timers is in for a trip to the graveyard.

Stylistically, Ballin’ is a documentary about the park and the fathers and sons who call it home. I hesitate to use the word “documentary” because this is more an oral history of the men who play the Graveyard, the lessons they learned there, and their desire to pass that information on. The co-director, Basil Anastassiou (who also functions as co-producer and co-editor with his partner, Paul Kentoffio), is one of the Graveyard’s faithful, and you can feel a sense of obligation to tell this story. I imagine that Anastassiou heard these stories and learned these lessons week in and week out until he finally succumbed and picked up a camera.

There are many who come to the Graveyard, but Anastassiou and Kentoffio focus on the core players: Gerald Malcolm, James Tucker, Jamil Hood, Jarming White, Kelvin Danzy, Mark Bobb-Semple, and Mark Edmonds Sr. They play pick-up basketball while a dozen or so regulars gather to watch, play cards, and give a running commentary on who has “winners.” It is a tight-knit community, and it is a privilege to watch.

The first half of Ballin’ covers the location, the players, and the game, while the second half focuses on the fathers and mentors who pass on the lessons learned at the Graveyard. Watching Ballin’ reminded me of the summer I spent mornings with my Grandfather at the Senior Center shooting snooker. For three, sometimes four hours every morning, I would learn various different trick shots, tactics, and strategies (“If you can’t shoot straight, shoot hard.” and “You gotta hook ‘em on the leave.”). I also learned how men talked to one another, how they communicated, and the ways they empathized. I was only 14, and it was just a game of snooker, but deep down, it meant much more.

Ballin’ at the Graveyard is a movie about that intangible significance. Judging by the production value, I assume it was made from the heart and for very little money. Some of the intertitles are hokey, and certain music cues telegraph the emotions too obviously, but these are rookie mistakes. If Anastassiou and Kentoffio desire to make more movies, I have hope that they will quickly outgrow these crutches and discover new ways of storytelling.

What shines through are the subjects and the game, and man, are these guys good! They are not hacks that piss and moan about not getting calls, about who flopped in the paint, or any of that nonsense. No, these are tough players that take the game seriously. They could probably teach Melo and LeBron a thing or two. I would love to see that. It would make for one hell of a sequel.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Ballin’ at the Graveyard (2012)
Produced & Directed by: Basil Anastassiou & Paul Kentoffio
Starring: Gerald Malcolm, James Tucker, Jamil Hood, Jarming White, Kelvin Danzy, Mark Bobb-Semple, Mark Edmonds Sr.
Virgil Films, Not rated, Running time 83 minutes, Released October 14, 2014