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Poetic stories of heroic deeds

From April to October, three vs three challenges go on for hours, even until late night, on the courts, everywhere in each neighbourhood.
On the cement students and fifty-year-old people partake on the playground: and integration here has already happened.
by Jacopo Cirillo, images by Niccolò Rastrelli, LUZ

1. The epicness of the playground

The meaning of an epic is a poetic narrative of heroic deeds, often legendary, handed down orally: a collection of stories collectively elaborated by tradition. These days, our contemporary epics are perfectly embodied in sports stories, the largest collective construction of legends to tell around fire or, more prosaically, around a couple of beers in the bar.
Players become our legends, as well as their deeds and the theatres of their challenges: a football field, basketball, volleyball, an Olympic swimming pool, a red earth track or a green rectangle in the exact centre of Wimbledon.
And then there are the playgrounds. Brands of urbanity cut out for basketball, legitimate or illegitimate occupations of urban spaces transformed into arenas, theatres of legendary challenges that transcend basketball and enter by right into our contemporary Olympus.
The storytelling of basketball in America is studded with these epics, wrapped in the charm of the overseas. In Italy, we also have our own, especially in Milan. Among the thousands of stories of cement and sweat, elbows and trash talking, there is one that, rightly, has become a legend, the legend of Piazz, aka Gabriele Piazzolla, who some argue is the strongest of all.

Milan has 120 city courts, the so-called playgrounds, Manhattan can boast one less.
The same number is in Paris and London.

The legend of the Piazz

As in all respectable stories, Gabriele was a very strong player and knew perfectly that he was. His dominance reached far and wide, between Via Dezza and the Sempione park, with the security that often overflows in arrogance, and manifests in legitimate superiority.

As in all respectable stories, Gabriele had never experienced true basketball, that of the professionals, that of the A series. Unfortunately, he left us, very soon, at the age of twenty-five, in 2006.

The Piazz was a nickname given to him because without one, you were a nobody on the pitch. He was also a street artist: he was eating his opponents, confusing them with very fast balls, tunnels and against tunnels, impossible stunts and stepping back from ten meters from the basket to shoot.

He would always hit the basket.

From April to October, three vs three challenges go on for hours, even until late night, on the courts, everywhere in each neighbourhood.
On the cement students and fifty-year-olds peole partake the playground: integration here has already happened.

One day, when he was thirteen years old, he was participating in a three-to-three tournament in a small sports field from the sides of San Siro.

The testimonial of the tournament was Bob Morse, a 203 cm wing that had won ten trophies with the Varese Basketball team, one of the greatest shooters of the Italian championship.

Well, Morse is on the pitch alone to train and the Piazz, together with a friend, starts to comment on his technique: "That tall person with no hair doesn't pull well, so I go to explain how it is done". Let's imagine a little boy approaching a champion, he says to him: "Hey Bob, do you know that you're not bad at all, despite your age? Let’s do two shots", and starts ringing an impressive sequence of baskets from seven meters away, while explaining to him that his shooting style is not so great. Then Morse, a bit annoyed, takes a shot from afar that extinguishes on the iron; the Piazz however, from the same position, gently lets it hit the basket, then approaches his friend and says to him: "For me, Bob Morse doesn't understand shooting technique", and everyone at home.
There are two things that separate the real champions from the ordinary: the maniacal workouts and the match finals.
Piazzolla was obsessed with his game and his physique, he trained continuously, always pushing himself to the limit.
Did they tell him he was too slow? As a result, the following week he became even faster.
Did they tell him that he wasn't breathing enough? The following week he was still running through the camp while the others were destroyed on the dugout. In addition, in the hundreds of one against one, three against three and five against five at the pitch, as in his short career from Series D to B1, the Piazz always gave his best in the match finals, when the pressure, at any level, takes away energy and security from the "normal" players. “Damn, I don't play to play, I want to win" he always said, and in this anti-decoubertinian paradox nested his greatness. Piazzolla was a distillate of competitiveness like Jordan, he did everything to win and was unpredictable, as if he were driven by basketball, sure that he would never betray it. And he was never tired.

The Filipinos on the one hand and the Chinese on the other one bombard the hoop from every position with their phosphorescent t-shirts, in Parco Sempione Africans are masters with their slam: in short, every language is good to call the ball, quarrel or exult.

Many people remember when in Parco Sempione, at the "campetto" (court), that was full of players from Serie A -  after seven hours of three to three hours under the scorching sun, while all the others were struggling towards the fountains to cool down, the Piazz remained on the field alone and, from his 183 cm, he tried to slam more and more spectacularly. He had what only the big ones had: the awareness that the most difficult opponent, the only one to overcome, was himself. If you beat yourself, you can beat anyone, even the whole world.
Like all the champions who disappeared prematurely, he had demons inside that made him swing, they made him move quickly to anger and frustration, as when he threw out the ball with a kick from the fence of the PalaLidocourt because a companion never passed him. And basketball helped him keep them in, those demons, at least until he could.
After his death, many protagonists of the playgrounds of Milan continued to carry on his memory, such as the "Galta", the historical name of the Lombard minors, who had written "Piazz" on his shoes. Gabriele Piazzolla is no longer there, but the epic of Piazz continues to exist in the memories of his companions, in the sporting hatred eroded by time and the admiration of his opponents. His legend hovers in the playgrounds. At the court of Via Dezza there is a plaque fixed on the concrete with the same inscription that Piazz had tattooed on the calf: IT NEVER ENDS.

And it's true: the legends of the fields never end.

From Dezza to Sempione

Even the courts never end, or so it seems. In Milan there are 153, compared to 119 in Manhattan, 110 in London and 61 in Paris. From April to October there are courts, which are animated by players of all kinds, of all ages and races, from morning to night.

Because: “tutt el mond a l'è paes, a semm d'accòrd, ma Milan, l'è ön gran Milan.” (which means: “The whole world is a country, we agree. But Milan is the great Milan”).

Because integration in the courts is not even a problem anymore, if anyone has ever done so. There are the South Americans in via Tabacchi and Affori, the Filipinos and the Chinese behind the Central Station and in Piazzale Accursio, the African crushers in Parco Sempione, and there is only language that everyone speaks and does not need many words.
There is the court of via Dezza, the only one in the city with the regular measurement markings of the NBA and the plaque for the Piazz, then the playground covered with park La Spezia, former Coca-Cola pavilion for Expo, that of Trenno park, behind San Siro, dominated by the "Trenno boys", who also have a group on Facebook. There is an abandoned one at Parco Galli and one popular one in Piazza Aspromonte; near the campetto of Via Rubattino, where it is impossible to park, while in Martesana there are also the doors from football to five.

And then there is the Parco Sempione, the park of the big ones, Bargnani and Gallinari, Portaluppi and Pittis before them. Explaining the campetto of Parco Sempione to those who have never played it is very difficult. It is undoubtedly the top playground in Milan, often compared to that of the Giardini Margherita in Bologna. And it is precisely by comparing the two asphalt temples that the peculiarities of the city are discovered.

In Milan, three against three and five against five and four against four in Bologna. In Milan he defends himself in the area, in Bologna in man.

In Milan there is competitiveness and competition, in Bologna fair play.

It could go on endlessly, as never-endingly these alleged differences could be refuted. The fact, however, is that every court has its own rules and history, every arena its legends. At Parco Sempione, we said, we reach the top on the Saturday of mid-June, when the championships are over and groups of players are formed ready to take to the pitch, because basketball never stops.
But the selection is far from easy: the "old ones" command and start playing first, the other teams wait for their turn on the field, sometimes even for four or five hours, unless the star of the day arrives; in that case, he can enter the arena first and start to build his legend.

A basket hoop can house the evolutions of Central America and South America.

The courts seem all the same, but there is not one that resembles the other. And there is something romantic in a place that welcomes stories and people so different from each other, a kind of genius loci city, as if even the playgrounds themselves become characters of a great collective epic, and the moral of the fairy tale is very clear: playing basketball is good for body and spirit and makes it fun, and it is the mixture of physical and mental exercise that arrives as a result of the fun.

2. Courts stories

The camp will be your mate throughout your life. Start when you are a child, then school, university, work, children, maybe play in some team, maybe even high level, but you’ll always come back to the field. And this is a sure thing: passion never dies.

Lorenzo Carone is 22 years old, he played four years in Serie C, in Arona, he arrived until the national selections under 19. He graduated, found a job in a communication agency, now he plays in Serie D and, with difficulty, manages to keep all the commitments together. But he doesn't leave the playground, not even if the coach tells him.

"During the year, it's not too well seen going to the field, it's easier to get hurt, fall to the ground and burn on the asphalt, take an elbow from an opponent too roughly, and the C series anyway is a job, they pay us the price. But we go there the same way, maybe only to make two shots. I've always seen it also as a time when I can work on my game, improve the fundamentals. It's since I was five years old that I've been walking around on courts."

Everyone is at the court, from the former forty year old player to your friend who has never played but comes to make two shots with you, to keep you company. There are talent scouts, who watch the boys and select the best. "In our areas there is also a team of Dominicans who only exist in the summer, and they run playgrounds challenging everyone".

Until a few years ago I also brought my father with me, and there was really something to enjoy". What about the future? "I want to play for up to two hundred years".

The playground is, by definition and accessibility, open to all. Anyone can find his or her space to play, his or her shooting at the end of the season, the decisive stubble. Go wrong, you can always say that you've tried it. At the court we celebrate the victories and fight for the fouls under the basket, we meet to decide what to do tonight and then stay, in the end, to make two shirts and jeans shirt. There are the friends on the court, those who only frequent on asphalt, and the only things you know about them are the basketball skills and the ability, or inability, to mark with simple a single shot. At the camp there is fatigue, real fatigue, but no one has ever complained. At the camp you eat, drink and sometimes fall asleep for a moment on the ground.

The playground is different from indoor training, people go with another mentality, without too many schemes and defensive reasoning. The playground is another dimension, where the normal rules do not apply, but only those that are formed within it.  To quote Carone,"every time it is a different theatre. There's a guy from our areas who has never played basketball, but practically lives on the pitch, and always arrives all the way up with the band warmer, the complete uniform of the Lakers, things that you don't do at the campetto. In short, this doesn't even know how to play and you carry your elbows and braces, and makes you laugh a bit because they're of no use at all".
The campetto (court) is the bar, the bowl, the pool in the centre, the school, the summer evenings and the twelve degrees of the Sunday afternoon of November, when you would like to play with gloves but you can't, and then lose the sensitivity to fingertips after three actions.
The children play the game, struggling to get to the basket with two-handed shots from above the head or from the bottom upwards, like Rick Barry, and the fathers play there, rehearsing the movements of twenty years before and making the accounts again with age. Someone also plays football, bounding the doors with backpacks, if you can find the goalkeeper.

The "campetto" is everybody's and, to think about it, this is their greatest epic.

The portraits of "We Play" were taken in the Milanese basketball pitches scattered all over the city, embedded between the palaces, along the ring roads or in the parks; the playgrounds host a variegated humanity, which in this continuous giving and receiving the ball accomplishes an experience of reciprocity and trust towards a possible multicultural cohabitation.

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