There is a two-hoop basketball court just south of NYCHA’s Baruch Houses on the river side of the FDR Drive in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge. The court shares concrete with abandoned volleyball poles, is surrounded by overgrown grass, and has tufts of weeds growing on the edge. Of course, the hoops have no nets.
That is, until Wednesday morning, when Jeremy John Kaplan stopped by on his way to work at a Manhattan art gallery. He unfolded his portable step ladder and hung a golden net.
Since late spring, he has done this more than 130 times for neglected hoops in New York City.
People are sometimes confused when Kaplan, 36, is hanging his nets. Is he with the Department of Parks and Recreation? No, though the white painter’s overalls he wears make him look like a maintenance worker. Is he putting up a net for his own use? Not really, though he’ll sometimes shoot around with kids, and he’s a 6-foot-4 guy in Reebok Pumps who still plays in adult leagues.
There was the time when he was hanging a net at Jacob Riis when some cops asked whether he was with the FDNY. Apparently, there was a fire-related basketball tournament coming up.
But Kaplan is an artist from Williamsburg doing this as part of his “Gold Nets Project.” And the whole point is that it shouldn’t take a tournament or luck or a corporate public relations court rehab for a city hoop to get a net.
There are approximately 1,800 NYC Parks basketball courts alone in the five boroughs and it’s no secret that the nets are often missing.
“We do not regularly replace basketball nets, which are often vandalized, removed, or quickly worn out,” says parks spokeswoman Megan Moriarty. “Nets are not a critical piece of equipment, and we haven’t observed that their absence has diminished the popularity of any of our courts.”
But there’s a deeper importance to a net for basketball players.
“It’s the measure of success,” says Kaplan. The sound, the way it slows the ball down when you score: “it’s the reward for making the shot.”
Filling that void has become a sort of social art project for Kaplan, who has funded the $7.50 nets through sale of his more traditional works. (“John Kaplan’s art project was not permitted by NYC Parks, and we were not aware of the project,” says Moriarty.)
Kaplan says he may try to formalize it down the road — buy a hat, pay for a net.
For now, he pops up at various courts and hangs a net or two when he has daylight time.
He first pioneered the idea back around 2005 in his native Philadelphia, where he grew up playing. The philosophy of the project was apparent in an early interaction.
While hanging a net, a young kid asked him whether he worked there.
“I work for you,” Kaplan said. “Want me to stop?”
“No,” the kid said, “I want you to fix that one over there.”
Kaplan says this tends to be the reaction he gets in NYC, where courtgoers are grateful that someone is filling in where the budget-constrained Parks Department can’t, or won’t. He tries not to interrupt games in progress but he says sometimes people will tell him to go ahead, they’ll wait.
No one, he claims, has ever told him not to put a net up.
This isn’t exactly surprising. The style of the city game marks the absence of nets — hardcharging, emphasis on driving to the basket where the net is less strategically necessary, as opposed to shooting. But the hoops themselves bear markings of how desperately people have tried to briefly hang their own nets before they get stolen or torn away: shoelaces, keychain rings, zipties, duct tape. “The resilience of the human spirit,” says Kaplan.
A bit of old net was still stuck on the FDR Drive hoop on Wednesday, and Kaplan used a boxcutter to clip it away. Then he carefully tied the 12 knots on the new golden net, 200 grams, heavy duty. Reaching up to test the heft, Kaplan’s basketball-themed “Trust the process” tattoo become visible on his arm.
Basketball aside, Kaplan has had an interesting run in the art world — he wrote graffiti in Philly and says he used to work for Shepard Fairey’s gallery. His own work sometimes deals with athletic and political themes. But there’s something satisfying about the net hanging, and he hopes that people will tell him what other courts need them.
“It’s a good use of my time,” he said, packing up his stepladder for the day. Swish.