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Ballin’ at the Graveyard

by Shawn Stone on July 12, 2012

“I’m pretty addicted to that place and those people.”

Filmmaker Basil Anastassiou is talking about the public basketball courts in Albany’s Washington Park, aka “the graveyard.” These courts—which are on the Madison Avenue side of the park, just west of New Scotland Avenue—are the place he goes every weekend possible, all through the spring and summer, to play pickup basketball games with other “ballers.”

“If I don’t get it every week,” Anastassiou says, “I’m not right.”

This court and these players are the subject of the documentary Ballin’ at the Graveyard, which he co-directed with Paul Kentoffio and which opens this weekend at the Spectrum 8 Theatres in Albany.

Anastassiou has been playing basketball since he was kid, and has played “on hundreds of courts, from New York to Florida to California,” but he loves Albany’s court the best: “It just grabbed me.”

Oddly enough, the project began as a fiction film.

“We were [originally] planning to do a narrative piece, but I said, ‘No narrative would be as strong as the reality.’ ”

After a visit to the court, Kentoffio readily agreed—and immediately picked up his camera and began taping. Thus began the five-year journey of filming, fundraising and editing that culminates in tonight’s sold-out premiere at the Spectrum.

Anastassiou and Kentoffio set out, he says, to capture “the nuances of the game and the relationships of the people,” to give viewers “a window into a world.”

It’s a fascinating portrait. The film begins on the court, right in the thick of things. We watch the games, meet the players, and learn the rules and customs. There’s drama and comedy in equal measure, with an underlying psychological tension that’s fascinating. There’s also the matter of race, a subject that’s right up front: Anastassiou is a white player in an overwhelmingly African-American scene.

After the film takes you deep into the game, it pulls back. The filmmakers broaden their scope, and begin to delve into the personal lives and histories of some of the players.

“This is kind of like the sequel to Hoop Dreams,” Anastassiou says. While we meet plenty of players who never get any further than “the graveyard,” we also meet one who had the talent and drive to play professional basketball—and his is a revealing story of what happens when that dream ends.

In that experience, Anastassiou says, “there’s inspiration in that, honor and strength.”

You do not, Anastassiou stresses, have to love basketball to enjoy Ballin’ at the Graveyard.

“We’re feeling like this could touch different audiences on a few levels.”

The film has been screened for members of the community and journalists, but the most important preview was for the players themselves.

“I wanted to pass the test with that audience,” Anastassiou says.

How did it go?

“It was a little nerve-wracking, but the reaction was so good,” Anastassiou says. “I haven’t been hugged by that many people in my life.”

“There was a lot of trash-talking at the screen,” Anastassiou says, during the scenes on the court, but when the documentary shifted to the players’ off-court lives, “you could hear a pin drop.”

Longtime local activist Alice Green caught an early screening, and praised the film for showcasing “the players’ authentic and unfiltered voices,” and for allowing audiences to “share in their aspirations and accomplishments that are so often overlooked by the world around them.”

Tonight’s (Thursday, July 12) screening of Ballin’ at the Graveyard at the Spectrum 8 Theatres (290 Delaware Ave., Albany) is sold out, but the film opens tomorrow (Friday, July 13) at the Spectrum with four screenings per day (at 1, 4, 6:45 and 9:30 PM) through July 19. Tickets are $9.25 evenings ($7.50 seniors) and $7.50 matinees. For more info, visit spectrum8.com or call the box office at 449-8995.