Interview with Bobbito Garcia

Jonathan Zeller

New York City native and DJ Bobbito Garcia knows playground basketball. Garcia was a regular on the City’s courts growing up, and he co-directed the 2013 documentary Doin' It in the Park: Pick-Up Basketball, New York City. His tournament, Full Court 21, is a newer addition to a New York City outdoor basketball scene that already includes famous courts like the ones at West 4th Street and Rucker Park. The event adds the twists of a 1-on-5 format (“If you think about the great scorers, like Kobe Bryant—double-teamed, triple-teamed, they’ll still score. In my tournament, that happens every possession,” says Garcia) and a final round that brings together winners from sub-tournaments all around the world, including Tokyo, Osaka, Toronto, Montreal and Los Angeles. On opening day of the 2017 competition in New York City, Bobbito took a few moments to talk about Full Court 21, playground basketball and the connection between his home court and hip-hop history.

Bobbito Garcia’s Full Court 21 tournament runs through August 22 at the Goat Park (officially known as Happy Warrior Playground).

West 4th Street Courts. Photo: Imani Vidal

Other than the 1-on-5 aspect, what would you say this tournament has that you can’t get at West 4th Street or Rucker?
Bobbito Garcia: It’s really exciting to watch, and it’s even more exciting to play. The joy of it is—you can’t come to New York and just play [in the tournaments] at West 4th or Rucker. Those are the hallowed grounds where every player around the world wants to play. [Editor’s note: when there’s not an official tournament game going on, though, you can definitely play on those courts. Just be ready for some stiff competition.] People yearn for that authentic New York experience. And in my tournament, you don’t have to try out. You don’t need to have a coach. You don’t have to be part of a team. As long as you register and get to the court early, you can play. I can’t get everyone on the court, but I get as many on the court as time allows.

Bobbito Garcia. Photo: Jon Lopez

Growing up, what was your relationship to playground basketball?
BG: I am married to the playgrounds. Particularly the Goat, because it’s named after Earl Manigault, playground legend, who actually mentored me as a kid. He was once heralded by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, as the best player out of New York that he played against. So Earl was a beacon of inspiration. Unfortunately, he never realized all his dreams—he became a drug addict and ended up getting incarcerated. It’s a very sad story, but he turned it around when he came out [of prison] and started the Walk Away from Drugs Tournament at the Goat Park, and I played in it. So me doing my tournament at the Goat is a quiet way of paying homage to Earl. His son, Darrin, still runs the Goat Tournament at that park—so there’s a lot of activity at the Goat on Tuesdays.

The Goat is hallowed ground just the same for the basketball community as it is for hip-hop.

What should a visitor know about New York City as the world capital of hip-hop?
BG: I will say this for hip-hop fans who are visiting New York. The Goat is a unique playground in that it is one of less than a handful that’s hallowed ground just the same for the basketball community as it is for hip-hop. It’s also known as Rock Steady Park. The Rock Steady Crew—the foremost organization to really push B-Boying and B-Girling worldwide—that was their headquarters, and they had at one point 500 members all across the five boroughs. All these breakers would come to 99th and Amsterdam to practice, to battle.

So, growing up, I’m hanging out with Earl Manigault to play 5-on-5 and looking outside the fence, and Ken Swift and Doze and Frosty Freeze and all these legendary hip-hop [artists] are, if you will, dancing on the linoleum. Actually, the whole concept of dancing on linoleum came from Rock Steady Park. They used to break on concrete, and there was a furniture store that would put out garbage. So one day, the crew said, “Yo, let’s take a cardboard box. It’s huge.” And they realized they could spin on their backs a little faster, quicker and longer, and that whole phenomenon of cardboard led to linoleum breaking—that happened right there at that park.

When you walk in that entrance, there’s actually a plaque that the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation put up that commemorates the Rock Steady Crew as well as Earl Manigault. During our tournament, you’ll see a ton of tourists out there with their cameras taking photos and stuff. It’s really beautiful.