For years, photographer Bill Bamberger traveled all over the U.S. and to a dozen other countries in search of one thing: basketball hoops.
On a trip to Nags Head in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, photographer Bill Bamberger was driving around when he spotted a charming house with yellow shutters, right by the dunes. But it was what he saw next to the house that would prove fateful: “this wonderful basketball hoop,” he recalls, “made out of wood, painted the same exact yellow” as the house’s shutters.
He stopped to photograph it, and on the drive home, took pictures of two or three other basketball hoops that he noticed. He was hooked.
Fifteen years and 22,000 images later, the result of his obsession is “HOOPS,” a new exhibition on view at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., through January 5, 2020. The show includes 75 of his photographs of basketball goals and courts, taken around the United States and across the world, from Rwanda to Mexico. Bamberger, who lives in Durham, North Carolina, talked with CityLab about the project and the surprising geography of basketball. (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
What can you learn about a place just by looking at its basketball hoops?
First off, in some of these photographs, the court is the central focus, and you’re looking straight on. You’re standing maybe at the foul line. [But] sometimes you’re looking equally at the world that surrounds it. [This was] a vehicle for photographing in any community, anywhere. It gives you a sense of the range and diversity of the American, and now global, landscape, and is kind of an excuse to go into neighborhoods everywhere and look at them.
The materials used I think are really interesting. The colors are reflective of the place. A favorite is one in Rwanda—the free-throw line is made of bricks embedded in the earth. The posts look like they are taken from local trees, unfinished, unrefined.
The other thing that’s interesting is [at] the outdoor courts in cities, the walls are palettes for murals. Some of my favorite ones are in Madrid, and in Harlem—with the hands stretching toward the ball. You go to the courts but you also go to see the murals, the art.
That shows you how varied they are, how nuanced they are, how based on the community and place they inhabit they are. And you see [basketball hoops] are really everywhere. We’ve exported this original American sport to every corner of the globe.
One I find really wonderful is by an abandoned bus in rural Tennessee. I was driving—I was actually on a trip looking for hoops; I’ve gotten to the point where I can see a backboard a quarter-mile into the woods—I pulled over, walked into the woods, and there was this amazing scene. You have a backboard made out of an old piece of plywood, a hoop fashioned out of a hubcap from the bus itself, and when you look at the court, the weeds have grown up; it looks like it’s been abandoned for two or three months.
I went into the bus, and there were some children’s toys and cooking materials. It was clear that a family had lived in that bus for a while, and that was its own story. A lot of [the photos] have these kinds of stories, inferred by the photographer.
You prefer to photograph them without people—why?
In well over half [of the locations], I met no one. Sometimes there would be someone, and I would talk to them, show them photos. I could show people even if I couldn’t speak their language.
But it’s a different thing when they’re playing. It’s about the game, the sport; you don’t look at the surroundings as much. It’s the same as with a party: When the space is empty, you focus on what remains. The architecture of the place. All but two [images] in the exhibition are absent of people.
I always thought of soccer as a very democratic sport, because all you really need is a ball, but your photos make me think of basketball that way, too. All you need is a ball and a makeshift hoop.
The most popular sport in the world is soccer. But basketball is number two. You could argue that with basketball, you need a hoop and a ball, and usually a backboard. But one person can shoot [alone], or you can play two-on-two, or three-on-three. With soccer, to have a game, you need a team. It’s not much fun to play soccer with less than a certain number of people.
A lot of [courts] were hard to photograph because there were not only 10 people playing, but 30 standing around. I wouldn’t try to clear them, but would come back.
What was the most unlikely place you found a hoop?
There’s a backboard on a grain silo in Portland. I was driving around Portland, and I saw the silos and thought, “They’re beautiful; I wonder if there’s a court down there somewhere.” I got permission from a watchman to let me in. And it was right at the base of this silo—how unlikely is that?
Are you a basketball fan? Who’s your team?
I’m a big fan of college basketball. I went to UNC Chapel Hill. But I teach at Duke University. I’ve had some wonderful students who are basketball players. [Laughs] So all this is to say: I’m not going to give a direct answer.