Early last year, the basketball court at the base of the Cooper Housing Projects in Williamsburg, like most around the five boroughs, had no nets. It’s a busy court, and neighborhood residents had attached their own temporary nets to the rims; the remnant zip ties and duct tape were left dangling, mere frames. The court’s standard game lines, which indicate the game’s dimensions and placements, were twenty years old, nearly invisible. That summer, in an homage to Taurean Spears, the Brooklyn-based basketball player who’d passed away the previous spring, the artist Jeremy John Kaplan and a group of Spears’s friends and family gathered at the court—Spears’s most frequented spot—to install a new dyed-gold net, attached tight enough to avoid breakage. Together they painted fresh game lines, kickstarting Everything for Taurean (E4T), an annual tournament in Spears’s honor—a father of two young children and a spirited player, Spears was the best shooter at Cooper.
When Kaplan, a lifelong basketball player, founded the Gold Nets Project in 2005, his goal was to replace 100 deteriorating and missing nets with gold-spray-painted ones, enlivening New York City courts and, he hoped, eventually sponsoring events like E4T, where the depth of meaning in the city’s game is manifest. Gold, Kaplan says, “to honor the game, its value, the public space being such a meditative space.”
In the mid-aughts, Kaplan was in his early twenties, a member of Winged Lion Pride—a group of “artists, graffiti writers, photographers and DJs who wanted to mobilize”—alongside his friend Michael M Koehler, and the two met their goal before putting the initiative on hiatus. Basketball—and, to a larger extent, a spirit of service to the game and its purveyors—remained the core of Kaplan’s studio practice. “Something about the intersections in the Gold Nets Project,” he says, “sports and activism and basketball as a lens to look at these things—I couldn’t look away from it.”
While working as an art handler, Kaplan began installing nets again toward the end of 2018, taking breaks during Art Basel to attach gold nets to hoops around Miami. The following May, during an open studio, he installed another in Brooklyn, spending the evening with players and locals till past sunset; the project was revived in earnest that day with, Kaplan says, “loftier goals.” Today, he has installed over 400 nets around the globe, dyeing—spray paint, he found, discolors and flakes—then securing each with assorted hardware, primarily zip ties. It’s not necessary that the hoop prefer a net in the first place; on New York City’s courts, there are many rims without attachment points for a basket, and zip ties do the heavy lifting.
Netless basketball is a speedier game; the negative space of the hoop has its own smooth gravitational pull. The ball never slows down, and players rush to catch it with molecular focus, sometimes unable to determine if its arc was just an airball. This is the magic of pick-up basketball, the way it goes. A rim without attachment points is often a deliberate convenience. Nets are weather-vulnerable, easily snapped and frayed. They require care.
Still, they have their obvious and pragmatic implications: the basket in basketball, the pause, the signifier. Gripped by the net, the ball slows. “You don’t have to chase it if you’re practicing by yourself, or if the sun is setting and there’s no net and a deep jump-shot can look like it either went in or was an airball,” says Kaplan. And there’s the sound—the swoosh, unbranded and iconic. Bombastic and beautiful, the game and the net are readily poeticized—in a performative flourish, Kaplan wears white overalls when he installs a net, because “the culture of basketball is a lot like a dance or other performative art”—but it’s the gold nets’ civil servility that shines. The overalls, it turns out, also “show I’m there as a service person of the game.” He heads, typically, to busy courts, ensuring that players approve; maintaining the intent of functionality, he replaces only what needs replacing, unless requested otherwise. He documents the new nets on his site and social media accounts, then shares with players his contact information, requesting they keep an eye on them and reach out should they need servicing or replacement. When we speak, Kaplan notes the unequal distribution of community resources across neighborhoods, and the varying degrees to which Park Department officials tend to each playground—but the project “is a way of saying, ‘Public space is ours, too.’ That’s the goal and the dream—that in the future, there will be an infrastructure of people stewarding over them.”
Last August, Kaplan installed forty nets on both sides of the border wall at Ambos Nogales, the shared name for the border towns of Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. He’d been invited by Sonora mayor Jesus Pujol Irastorza, a former soccer coach who’d rehabbed local courts and who, says Kaplan, “is interested in the ways that you can counteract the things that extend from negative forces in a community by taking a proactive approach. It’s important that this community doesn’t live in fear of this fence and this imposing force.” The hoops were eventually removed by border patrol, who insisted they’d be utilized to climb over the fence; for one month, kids and adults played both along and with the border wall, the stark, reddish-brown banality of its implied authority alchemized into a backboard. Pared to its simplest parts, stripped of the celebrity that governs the NBA, basketball exists outside the mechanizations of capital, even the state. In Doin’ it in the Park, Bobbito Garcia and Kevin Couliau’s 2012 documentary on pick-up basketball in New York, George Ganley, a regular at St. James Park, insists: “[The court] is our meeting ground—don’t have to call no one, don’t have to send text messages. Everyone is welcome.” It’s atemporal, too; basketball’s contours and exigencies remain much the same as they were decades ago.
The year Kaplan was born, in Philadelphia, “the Sixers won the championship, so basketball was the center of my community’s universe for a long time. Basketball has been the most consistent force of my life. The people that I love the most have never been as consistent as the game of basketball will be. You don’t need many resources to shoot by yourself in the park for a bit of respite.” Of course the nets are the color of treasure. There’s also, I suspect, something of graffiti ideology guiding the Gold Nets Project: the pleasure of getting up, being all-city, seeing a net in every court, purposeful and cared for. It’s a pleasure today to drive by the neighborhood court and find the Miami nets in use, sunshine-yellow in the light, a little storm-weathered and still going. I write often about artists, but it’s athletes, graffiti writers and dancers with whom I become obsessed: their larger-than-life capaciousness, the physicality of their drive, the grace of it too. I’ve long felt athletes are better communicators than the rest of us. When kids ask Kaplan, “Who do you work for?” he tells them, simply, “I work for you.”