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Ari Marcopoulos. Conrad McRae Youth League Tournament
Ari Marcopoulos from ‘Conrad McRae Youth League Tournament’ (2014-2019)Courtesy of the artist and Roma Publications

Ari Marcopoulos captures the camaraderie of Brooklyn’s young basketballers

The photographer has spent years photographing the camaraderie and competition of this Brooklyn basketball court

Ari Marcopoulos was working at his desk in his Brooklyn apartment when his attention was caught by the sight of a lone figure below, practising basketball in the Dean Street Playground in the rain. He hurried down to the court and, with the young man’s permission, made a short film of him shooting hoops. 

In the summer of 2014, Marcopoulos was again lured back to the court when he heard loud music and saw teams playing before an assembled crowd. He learned it was Conrad McRae Youth League Tournament and, as he became a more regular visitor, he began to take portraits of the players and to learn more about the significance of the event and its place within the community, eventually becoming closely involved with the games and being present with his camera “right there in the huddle for timeouts”.

Named in honour of the late Conrad McRae, the pro-basketball player who grew up playing on the Dean Sreet courts, it’s now entering its 20th year and has become New York City’s premier youth league. Kids from as young as six-years-old to some of the best high school basketball players in the city participate. But the importance of this tournament transcends the arena of sport. It’s a metaphor for struggle and perseverance; it embodies hope and the possibility of realised dreams.

“Basketball has captured the Black imagination in a way no other sport can quite replicate,” writes Damani McNeil in Marcopoulos’ just-published photo book, which captures six summers of the tournament and is aptly titled Conrad McRae Youth League Tournament. “Sports are one of the few realms in life where Black boys are taught to embrace their creativity and envision a future they cannot yet see.”

“These portraits immediately call to mind the toughness and pride they display, but also the camaraderie they share in the pursuit of a shared goal” – Damani McNeil

Marcopoulos began by taking the players’ portraits (which he printed out and hung on the chain-link fence inside the park, encouraging kids to take their portrait with them) before moving on to also capturing the tumult and energy of the games themselves.

“These portraits immediately call to mind the toughness and pride they display, but also the camaraderie they share in the pursuit of a shared goal,” adds McNeil. “The collection illustrates the lived experiences of hundreds of young men as they chase an honest dream, adding to a legacy as old as basketball itself... You can feel the combination of the fervour of all these legacies –  of youthful imagination, of the hard-nosed culture of streetball, of the history of hooping on hot, New York asphalt – throughout the photos in this book.“

Conrad McRae Youth League Tournament features text contributions by McNeil, Andrea Lissoni, and Ari Marcopoulos himself, and assembles together this vast archive of photographs taken from 2014 – 2019, forming a genuinely touching and inspiring collection of images. As an endeavour that seems so positive from every angle, Marcopoulos’ pictures of the Conrad McRae Youth League Summer Tournament is an uplifting counterpoint to the troubling vision of humanity we’re too often confronted with.

Below, we talk with Ari Marcopoulos about community, his memories from the basketball courts, and what he took away from his experience of the tournament.

Can you tell us a bit more about why that lone figure on the basketball court first drew you with your camera back in 2014? 

Ari Marcopoulos: When it’s pouring rain, you pretty much never see anyone on a basketball court. So here I saw a person practicing his shot despite the rain. So that says something about the conviction this person has for improving his game. So outside of it being unique, it’s also something I relate too in more than one way. I love basketball but also I always try to work on my ways I express myself in my work.

For us Brits, can you describe the cultural importance and significance of basketball in the American consciousness?

Ari Marcopoulos: The American consciousness is a very singular description for an idea that represents many people. It assumes that that consciousness is the same for everyone, just as all Brits do not have the same experience of what it means to be a Brit. In Europe, I don’t know if we can still call the UK, Europe, but in Europe football is the main sport that people follow. Football players like Lionel Messi and Virgil van Dijk are huge stars that inspire young kids to want to play football. In the US, basketball is a huge sport. And kids dream of being an NBA or WNBA player like Natasha Howard, Lebron James or Giannis Antetokoumpo.

It’s interesting to note that 80 per cent of the NBA players are Black and that the majority of white players were born in Europe.

What do you think the kids who participate in Conrad McRae Youth League Tournament are learning, beyond the realm of the sport itself?

Ari Marcopoulos: It would be presumptuous for me to think that I know. I think that they are there to play ball in a competitive way. As any sport it comes with triumphs and disappointments. You win games and you lose games. You play well sometimes, other times nothing you do seems to work. So I figure you learn that not always things go your way but despite that you keep going.

What were you hoping to capture when you took these pictures? 

Ari Marcopoulos: Just the energy of the game and the community that comes together for this tournament. The level of the play is incredible and it is almost more fun to go to these games than an NBA game. There are no commercial breaks and all kinds of antics trying to sell you something during time-out.

What was behind your decision to turn these photographs into a book?

Ari Marcopoulos: My practice is centred around making books. In this case, the sheer amount of images I had, it felt like a book was the only way to share the images. Although in 2015 I did install about 300 prints onto the chainlink fence at the court on the last day the summer tournament when all the finals are played. Everyone was free to take their photo off the fence. What was interesting was that most kids would pull out their phone and take a picture of their actual photo on the fence. They had to be encouraged to actually just pull it of the fence and take it to be theirs. 

You became incredibly involved in this community during the course of taking these pictures. Could you tell us more about that journey from the sidelines to being in amongst the huddles, and how did it inform the photographs?

Ari Marcopoulos: I work in a very intuitive way, proximity is an important part of that – not just physical proximity but also getting to know the players, volunteers, coaches, parents, spectators. 

Throughout your time at the Conrad McRae Youth League Tournament, and all the thousands of kids you've met and photographed, are there any moments or experiences that stand out particularly in your memory, and can you tell us more about them? 

Ari Marcopoulos: The games are very intense – the level of play is incredibly high.The game is one thing and then after the game, players chill, hang out, and watch other games that are going on. It's generally a good vibe. And everyone knows each other to different degrees. I have no particular story or experience that stands out. I think most of it you can see in the photographs in the book. What does stand out is that some days it was so hot and I didn’t seem to be able to drink enough water to stay hydrated. Then watching the players play so hard, it increased my respect for them.  

In what ways do you think you’ve personally been enriched by the process of documenting this tournament? 

Ari Marcopoulos: I just learned a lot. I photographed the tournament for six summers. I got to meet a lot of incredible young people and their families. I really felt part of something and that was a good feeling.

Will you continue to document the Tournament?

Ari Marcopoulos: I am not sure. I will certainly still go and check it out. But I don’t know if I will take as many photos. Most likely not. This summer the tournament has been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Conrad McRae Youth League Tournament by Ari Marcopoulos is published by Roma Publications and is available here