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New York's Basketball World

Getty Images for Nike

Yankees fans - or at least their t-shirts - often ask: "Why do they call it the World Series if it's always played in the Bronx?"

This week is the World Basketball Festival. And it's nearly as inaccurate as its baseball counterpart: the whole thing takes place between 34th and 155th Streets, on one tiny little island.

If you ride the subway, or walk places, you've probably seen the billboards or posters, featuring cartoony caricatures of Kevin Durant, Yi Jianlian, or Carlos Arroyo. The World Basketball Festival, despite the grand name, isn't a storied event with decades of history. It's basically something Nike cooked up as a scheme to sell some shoes. (In case you can't tell by the omnipresent swooshes - and the fact that only Nike-sponsored players are featured in all the ads, and that the events are all correspondent with the release of new shoes - the event is entirely sponsored/created by Nike.) But over the past few days, I've become somewhat obsessed with this little marketing ploy.

Last night was the official kickoff of the event: it was at Radio City Music Hall, and it featured the US Basketball team scrimmaging on a specially built court there, followed by a short Jay-Z concert. It had originally been scheduled for Times Square, but they moved it to Radio City, and Nike decided to make the tickets exclusive.

Wednesday afternoon, I saw there were USA National team players giving out said tickets at Nike's installation store at 21 Mercer St. When I got there, there were no USA players - although there was a tall French guy fitted head-to-toe in Nike gear, inspecting Air Force 1's with a posse of unassuming Frenchmen speaking way faster than they taught me in middle school - but I was blown away by the space. Basically, Nike took their SoHo storefront, and completely remodeled it for this four-day event. I knew I was going to like it when I walked in and they were playing Freeway over the stereo, and the walls were emblazoned with things like "SHAOLIN STATEN ISLAND" and "BROOKLYN AGAINST THE WORLD". Wall-to-wall shoes, t-shirts, and fitted caps commemorating the five national teams in the festival, and of course, the five boroughs of New York. A less broke person would've bought up half the store. I picked up a copy of Bounce Magazine - if you're not familiar, it's a magazine founded by Bobbito Garcia essentially devoted to New York's playground basketball scene - and headed out. 

(Note: I'm not getting paid by Nike for this.)

Later that afternoon, whoever the genius who runs the @nikebasketball twitter feed revealed that they were turning the Radio City event into a scavenger hunt. I decided to make it my half-hearted mission to find this guy. (Jay-Z doesn't perform for me every day. Neither does Kevin Durant.) First, he was at the Cage, the West 4th St. Courts. My mind started rushing: what's the next basketball locale this guy will show up at? Rucker Park? The shoe museum on Frederick Douglass Boulevard that Nike set up for the next few weeks? Some random ballcourt somewhere? I half-considered going and just chilling on the steps of Madison Square Garden, because I knew he'd end up there eventually, in the shadow of a giant ad of Carmelo Anthony. (I was wise not to do that - he didn't show up for two hours after I thought about camping out.)

As cliche as it is, I began to think about the whole "New York is basketball" trope we've all heard a million times. About how, you know, there's a basket on every corner, everywhere you go you can see people playing, all that stuff. Obviously, that's a little bit of an oversimplification. But to a certain extent, it's true.


We all know that as conceited New Yorkers and basketball fans, we think New York's basketball scene is the coolest, most important thing on the planet Earth. We say this with no evidence, or reason. We assume star athletes will want to play here because of it. We cite how great our players are, even though you couldn't field a starting five of NYC born-and-bred NBA players currently in the league. (And even if you tried, you'd have two point guards, a shooting guard, and a small forward.) Our home team hasn't won a title since the Nixon Administration, yet we call its home arena "the Mecca of Basketball".


You see, New York, we have our own basketball world. A world where all that evidence against us being important doesn't matter. A world where you can make a magazine about playground basketball, or build a store selling kicks just for a few weeks and it'll be packed. And one where it makes as much sense to make shoes representing five enormous nations as it does to make shoes representing five measly boroughs. 


I ended the day with no tickets. But never mind that. I ended the day with a fuller realization why you can have an event in New York called "the World Basketball Festival." We have our own basketball world, and the fact that it's as easy to acknowledge that as roaming the streets with smartphone and twitter feed is pretty amazing.