I Got Next!

“I mostly just want to spend some time hanging out in the neighbourhood” is what I told people as I was planning my third visit to New York. The thing is, Kylie and I aren’t really the types to spend hours sitting in cafes or bars, so I wasn’t sure what I meant by this beyond “I don’t want to spend time and money doing the usual tourist things again.” I figured we’d do some people watching, and explore some new neighbourhoods. One thing I didn’t expect to find was a community.

While having the ‘hanging out’ conversation with a workmate, I lamented the high cost of opening-night NBA tickets, and Sarah told me about the West 4th Courts. Also known as ‘The Cage’ due to being surrounded by a 20-foot high chain-link fence, the West 4th court is a legendary New York street basketball location, home to a summer tournament that has been run by Kenny Graham since 1977, and where former NBA players including Dr J, Rod Strickland and Jayson Williams have played. Enough articles have been written about The Cage that I’m not going to regurgitate them here, but here’s one from Red Bull, and another on the Washington Post. The court is on 6th Avenue. Our apartment was on 6th Avenue, about 300 meters away. It was the wrong time of year for the tournament, but I figured I’d check it out anyway.

We arrived in the city on Sunday evening and after a couple of hours sleep I woke to an alarm telling me it was time to head out to the Comedy Cellar’s Village Underground for a midnight show. I passed The Cage on the way and, noticing a rat scurrying across the court, thought to myself “Welcome back to New York.”

Monday seems to be a quiet day on the court, and the first time I stopped by, there was just a single game of one-on-one happening. But it was enough to give me the first taste of the culture of The Cage, when the 20-something-year-old player was beaten by his 13-year-old opponent. He was mildly mocked and heckled, and spent the next while carrying on about how he could be pro if he just put his mind to it. He was still going when I passed by again an hour later.

The court is right next to the West 4th subway station, so it gets a lot of passing foot traffic, with passersby stopping for a few minutes to watch from outside the fence as they come and go from the station. This is what I did the first few days, staying a little longer each time, enjoying observing and taking in the culture and dynamic of the court – regulars who don’t know each other’s real names greeting each other with nicknames, players and spectators trash talking, some older guys sitting courtside offering encouragement and the occasional heckle, and a diverse, transient community, self-organising and self-refereeing, and playing some of the toughest basketball I’ve watched.

A few days in, we encountered Auntie for the first time, and she was there every day after that. Auntie could best be described as The Cage’s matriarch. She keeps the peace when things get heated, makes sure everyone gets a turn when they nominate themselves for a game with a call of “I got next”, engages spectators with her cries of “we don’t ball, we battle, baby!”, and invites people to come in and test their skills on the compact, fast-paced court. One afternoon she set up a hotdog stall. Free for kids, $1 for adults.

After a couple more days observing from the outside, I decided to step through the gate. Not to play – I’m a basketballer from way back, but I’m much too old and, well, basketball shaped for that now – but to take some photos. Nobody much seems to go inside the cage unless they’re a regular, are playing, or are with someone who is, so I was a bit nervous. Was I, a middle aged white guy with a camera, encroaching on their space? Would I be in the way? Am I that annoying tourist who doesn’t know their place?

Turns out I had nothing to worry about. That first afternoon, my presence courtside was mostly ignored. So I went back in the next day, and every day after that. On the second day, I spotted another person with a camera over the other side of the court. We gave each other what the Kiwis call the East Coast Wave, and he came over and introduced himself with a fist bump. Isaac’s a young guy who regularly plays at the court, but also brings his camera with him some days to document the community. We chatted for a while about photography, camera gear, Australia, sports and travel, before going back to our own thing, occasionally punctuated by some more conversation. I wish I had asked for his instagram or TikTok, or whatever the cool New York kids are using these days.

Dave spent most of his time sitting at the end of the one-on-one court, wearing a Knicks jersey over his sweater, a face mask and a cap. He mostly kept to himself, but at one point called out “sir! what’s your name?”, and shook my hand and introduced himself. He told me I should come back for the summer tournament, and took my phone number so he could send me the details. Back at the apartment, my phone pinged for the next couple of hours as Dave sent me around 25 messages, including dates for the tournament and the group photos of each team from this year. When I arrived the next day, he greeted me by name with a fist bump. Auntie gave me a high five. And although I didn’t catch their names, a few others chatted to me and made me feel a welcome part of their community. One guy was taking some video on his phone and asked whether I was shooting video or stills. I showed him a few edited black and white shots that I had saved to my phone and he loved them. Later, I drew on my high school basketball coaching days when another regular engaged me in a critique of the game of one player who dribbled the ball too much and got caught in the corner by a double-team. Every. Damn. Time. And then there was the regular player who turned up one day dressed in a Spider-Man suit for no real reason, and climbed the cage and posed for me.

By the time we were due to leave New York, what started out as “oh cool, I’ll check that out”, had developed into a daily ritual, and one of the greatest times of my travelling life. I haven’t done a lot of photography in the last few years, but before that hiatus, my camera had given me some wonderful experiences – shooting winter landscapes in Hokkaido and wildlife in Namibia with Martin Bailey, photographing some of the biggest names in music, and witnessing the emotion of people finishing their first or their hundredth marathon, just to name a few. I’ll be adding “spending time hanging out in the neighbourhood” to that list. And I hope I can go back again one day and shoot Kenny Graham’s summer tournament. I wonder if Dave has a spare bed.