Words: Ross Scarano

Photos: Bill Bamberger

Imagine a basketball hoop. Perhaps it’s surrounded by a tree, churned earth or a blue sky. There are excited voices and moving feet. The best part is, this hoop could be located almost anywhere on the planet; by affixing a metal circle to a tall surface, you transform the space. You’ve created a functional basketball court.

Photographer Bill Bamberger has documented nearly 22,000 courts of all kinds over the last 15 years. His global “HOOPS” series captures obvious and surprising places, from a red-clay schoolyard in Rwanda to a towering grain silo in the American northwest. Looking at Bill’s photos, you can’t help but recall the first hoop or driveway you practiced on, or the playground where everyone during your childhood worked on their jump shot.

Primary school in Outjo, Namibia (2009)

Bill grew up playing and watching basketball and eagerly attended NBA games as a teenager. “We had a backboard mounted to our garage in Stonybrook, Long Island,” he remembers, of his childhood home. “It was a fun and repetitive way to unwind; go out at the end of the day, into the twilight, and shoot. Sometimes, I was with my brother, and sometimes I was with friends. We’d also sneak into gyms late at night and lower the backboards so we could play.”

As an undergraduate at UNC, he got hooked on college basketball and became a Tarheel fan. Today, Bill teaches at Duke, another college basketball mecca, though “HOOPS” marks the first time his photography practice has overlapped with his athletic interests. Previously, he had focused on other community-driven photojournalism, like the closing of the oldest furniture factory in the American South or teenage boys coming of age in Flint, Michigan. Regardless, Bill sees “HOOPS” as “using the basketball court as a starting point for looking at the world around it,” he says. “You can start the process of learning about a community by the construction, design and materials of the court.”

Abandoned bus in rural eastern Tennessee, U.S.A. (2008)

Since 2004, Bill has seen up close how basketball unites people around the world, and this past year, 75 “HOOPS” images were shown at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. “Hoops are everywhere,” he says. “Whether it’s an old barn or a remote court in the middle of the Great Plains, I can imagine walking onto these courts and wanting to shoot a basket. I can imagine the people who played on those courts, who built these communities, who came before me.”

Here, Bill tells the stories behind five of his “HOOPS” images.

Church playground in Kinihira, Rwanda (2013)

“When I came upon this court, it wasn’t empty. There were children playing on it. My host, a secondary school teacher, explained that, in exchange for clearing the court, I would photograph the assemblage of students — maybe 100 children. The posts are made of hand-hewn tree trunks set directly into the earth, and the backboard is built with common lumber sourced from the community. The lane and free throw line — made of the same brick used to build the church — are meticulously embedded into the red clay court. I love how the bricks so beautifully define the lines of the court. It makes you think about craftsmanship and attention to detail, but also the frugality and resourcefulness of this community.”

Barn Cherryfield in Maine, U.S.A. (2006)

“This photograph was taken in Cherryfield, Maine, and it’s really a statement of color. In New England, you see a lot of hoops mounted on barn doors that serve as backboards. You have the sense that this backboard was painted recently, but the shingles in the background are faded. All of this makes you think about history, the passage of time and the importance of basketball to this family.”

Charter school playground in Harlem, New York, U.S.A. (2007)

“This is a charter school in Harlem that’s imbued with the color, life and art of the community’s schoolchildren. I see this court as a metaphor for the diversity in America. There are six hands, all painted in different hues, reaching upwards. When you see it at first, it’s like their hands are reaching to the sky, with a sense of hope, but it’s actually a basketball scene with the hands reaching towards an ivy-covered ball. The photograph is about the liveliness of sport, but also how tenuous it can be, as the ivy descends towards the court.”

Grain silo in Portland, Oregon, U.S.A. (2007)

“This is a grain silo in Portland. I drove down this winding road by the river and came to a locked gate. There was an after-hours security person there. From a distance, I saw the backboard and explained what I was doing. After a while of chatting about photography, he let me in. I love that it’s so abstract and beautiful. I have some shots where you can see the top of the silo, but I like this one best, where you don’t really know what you’re looking at.”

Community center in Shartlesville, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. (2007)

“I was on a long road trip from North Carolina, going through Pennsylvania Dutch country, and saw this town hall structure. Behind this very ordinary structure, there was this beautiful landscape with a single tree and a hoop set in the earth. It’s kind of industrial, a formal metal post and backboard with a metal rim, sitting in the middle of a rural part of the country. For me, it was about this romantic, ephemeral light. I took a bit of time to make many of the images in this series. But I took this photograph within 30 seconds of arriving on the scene.”