The action takes place on a court known as the Graveyard.
For decades, men have come here to play pick-up basketball — an aggressive, trash-talking brand of hoops that blends bravado, savvy and skill. As soon as they step onto the court, they leave their worries and responsibilities behind, and simply play.
“There’s great honesty in the interactions on the court,” said Basil Anastassiou, who has been playing basketball at the Graveyard for about 20 years. “You can be from any station in life. If you can’t play, you won’t play. If you’re an obnoxious character and you don’t have any skills and that’s revealed on the court, you’re going to be persona non grata. I often say that I wish life was more like what happens on a pick-up basketball court.”
Anastassiou is co-director of a new documentary about the Graveyard, which is in Albany’s Washington Park and draws a crowd of regulars on Saturdays and Sundays. Titled “Ballin’ at the Graveyard,” the film documents the interactions of the players on the court, as well as off, and also tells the stories of some of the men who play regularly. Viewers who have grown accustomed to watching the men shoot, defend and verbally harass each other might be surprised to see them off the court, in their 9-to-5 roles as school administrators, writers and mentors to youth.
“Ballin’ at the Graveyard” will make its local premiere on Thursday at Spectrum 8 Theatres in an advance screening that is already sold out. Tickets are available for the two-week run that begins Friday.
Keith Pickard owns the Spectrum, the independent movie theater on Delaware Avenue, and is one of the film’s producers. He played basketball at the Graveyard until about seven years ago, when he determined that his body couldn’t take it any more.
One of the players featured in the film explains that the court is called the Graveyard because “if you don’t bring your best game, you’re going to get buried.”
The court’s nickname also points to a little-known chapter of Albany’s history.
Unbeknownst to many of the players, a municipal cemetery was once located in what is now Washington Park. The cemetery opened in 1801 but fell into disrepair after Albany Rural Cemetery opened in 1845, and the existing graves
were relocated to the newer cemetery in Menands. The city cemetery officially closed in 1868 and a few years later was transformed into a public park, according to the Colonial Albany Social History Project at the New York State Museum.
“Ballin’ at the Graveyard” is about more than basketball, the filmmakers said.
“It’s about community, first and foremost,” said co-director Paul Kentoffio. “It’s about fathers and sons. Overcoming obstacles is a huge theme. So is knocking down stereotypes.”
“[The Graveyard] is a world unto itself,” Anastassiou said. “We felt that if more people were exposed to it, it would be an enriching thing.”
Pickard agreed. “The film shows us that people are complex.”
The men who play at the Graveyard bring a mix of basketball and life experience to the court. Some, like Anastassiou, never played in school but have been honing their pick-up games since they were kids. Others, such as Jarming “Boozer” White, were once pro-caliber players. White played at Christian Brothers Academy and Siena College, and was preparing to play professional basketball in Australia when he blew out a knee, which effectively ended his career.
In the film, White talks about growing up in Albany and his mother’s interest in making sure he didn’t end up on the streets. He said he’s been playing at the Graveyard “since I could dribble,” and that he’s excited about the film. “It’s a good story,” he said. “I think a lot of people walk past it and don’t know what’s going on.”
Today White, 38, works as a behavioral specialist at Parsons Child and Family Center in Albany and coaches an AAU basketball team. When he’s not working, he brings his 12-year-old son to the Graveyard.
“I couldn’t imagine life without basketball,” said White, who just moved from Albany to Schenectady.
Anastassiou, 49, is one of the few white players to frequent the park, a subject he discusses in the film. He said that when he started playing at the Graveyard it would take time for him to get into a game, as it might for any newcomer. “The thing about pick-up basketball is that you know your status has gotten better when you’re able to hang onto the court,” he said. When he started, “I would wait and wait and wait and think I had the next game, and I would not,” he said. “Now I know that when my game comes up, I’m going to get it.”
This process is described in one of “Ballin’ in the Graveyard’s” funnier segments, where players talk about the somewhat arcane process of determining “who’s got next.”
About three-quarters of “Ballin’” focuses on the action on the court, with occasional interviews with the players, who discuss their philosophies on trash talking, allowing new people to play and other aspects of pick-up basketball. The final third tells the stories of a handful of players, showing them off the court and allowing them to explain the role basketball plays in their lives.
One of the men profiled in the film, Jamil Hood, works at Green Tech High Charter School in Albany, where he coaches varsity basketball and serves as support staff for the freshman class. He said that there’s a lot of trash talking at the Graveyard “but at the end of the day, it’s all about love.” Now 41, he said he’s becoming “a dinosaur” on the court, and that his role is changing as a result: Now he’s more of a mentor to younger players, breaking up arguments and offering advice. He said that when he was younger, older men provided him with similar guidance.
“At Washington Park, it’s like an evolving circle,” he said.
Kentoffio said the interviews with the men in the film are candid and revealing.
“I see a lot of these documentaries about causes, and so many times you feel like the people are reading from a script to support their cause,” Kentoffio said. “That the guys opened up in the way they did was a surprise to us. That they would be so giving was a surprise.”
Anastassiou and Kentoffio both live in Albany and have been friends for years. The two share an interest in screen writing, and have long critiqued each other’s work and collaborated on scripts. They were planning on making a short fictional film together when Anastassiou suggested Kentoffio accompany him to the Graveyard, to see whether he would be interested in making a documentary instead.
Telling the story
“I said, ‘I think that’s a story we could tell,’ ” Anastassiou recalled. “It didn’t take [Paul] very long to agree.”
“I don’t play basketball,” Kentoffio said. “I knew basketball was a big part of Basil’s life, but it wasn’t of interest to me. But then I went down there on a Saturday morning, and I was struck immediately by what I was seeing. I was struck by the energy of the place, by the sense of community. They were working out a lot of stuff on the court. I said, ‘This is fascinating stuff,’ and I came down the next day with my camera.
“Basil had a sense of the court that I didn’t have,” Kentoffio said. “He had relationships with the guys who play there. I had an outsider’s view, which was helpful.”
“Ballin’ at the Graveyard” was about five years in the making and marks the filmmaking debut of both men.
Filming took place over the course of two summers. Kentoffio served as cameraman and Anastassiou helped him determine which shots to take and who to focus on. “We have full-time jobs, so we worked on the film on nights and weekends,” Anastassiou said. Both men work in the state Comptroller’s Office — Anastassiou as a speech writer and Kentoffio, 50, as communications director of the agency’s retirement division.
Kentoffio shot about 100 hours of footage, which was eventually whittled down to an 83-minute film. He estimates he and Anastassiou put almost 5,000 hours of work into “Ballin’ at the Graveyard.”
Pickard got involved with the film a couple years ago, after Anastassiou asked him whether, as someone who had once played basketball at the Graveyard, he would be willing to be interviewed for the film.
“I’m a camera-shy type of person, and I said no,” Pickard, 60, said. “But Basil and Paul kept me up to date on the film, and I got very involved. It became a passion of mine.” He described the Graveyard as “a special spot for me.”
The filmmakers plan to explore different avenues for film distribution, including video on demand, cable and online channels.
“We have great hopes for the film,” Anastassiou said. “We’re focusing on this moment, because we think it’s the key moment. We think the film tells a universal story that will find an audience.”
“Ballin’ at the Graveyard” will play at the Spectrum for a minimum of two weeks. If the film proves popular, that run will be extended.
“This one deserves a wider audience,” Pickard said. “Not many films come out of the Capital District, and this is a good one.”