Inside the World of Venice Beach’s Legendary Basketball Courts

Pro ballers come from all over the world come to shoot hoops on the courts. But it’s the locals who are superstars

There are no teams. No refs. No set times to play or meet. Just show up whenever—Wednesday morning, Sunday afternoon. Nobody is turned away from one-on-ones, two-on-twos—not tourists, not chicks, not little boys just starting out.

The basketball courts at Venice Beach—four funky pieces of asphalt with a drain hole at the intersection of 18th Avenue and the Pacific Ocean—are one of the last vestiges of true democracy in L.A. Tech bros, ex-cons, teenage stoners, in-and-out-of-work actors, homeless people, NBA stars—pretty much everyone and anyone is welcome and has been since pickup games started shortly after the courts were built in the early 1980s. 

That’s one of the things about this Venice street-ball scene that’s most appealing to 46-year-old Romanian photographer Ursula Vari, whose been doing her own sort of shooting around these hoops since 2019, when, intent on learning to shoot bodies in motion, remembered the courts from her college days when she studied on the beach. “We all play on the court,” she says. “I play with my camera; they play with the ball.”

Maybe you wouldn’t notice it at first—especially now, after the pandemic, when the crowds have thinned out—but there’s a community of old-timers who come often from all over L.A. There’s Eugene Wright, who played professional basketball internationally for 17 years and has been coming since 1998. And Dru Turner, who started taping games on his iPhone and is now a videographer. There’s four-foot-five Mani Love, who plays for the Harlem Globetrotters and is known as the “mini Michael Jordan,” and Chris Staples who won two Guinness World Records for dunking. 

Street ball is different from the game played at summer tournaments organized by the Venice Basketball League—or Veniceball—since 2006; it’s more freewheeling, wilder, less polite, where ballers can show off their moves, be funny, and open up to anything anyone brings to the court.

“Venice creates this ramshackle parade,” Vari says, “all of us together. We’re all here. We’re all one.”

Ryan Carter at the Veniceball League World Games in 2019. Many of the players in the Venice Basketball League, which holds tournaments during the summer, come from the early Sunday games at Court One, the first built along the boardwalk. The other three courts were added in the early 1980s.

Photographed by Ursula Vari

Malik Preatto, 23, who grew up in Venice, started coming to the courts when he was 11. Some of the older street ballers act as mentors to young athletes like him.

Photographed by Ursula Vari

International player Julien Ducree (left) and a friend, mid-game. During the lockdown, the city cordoned off the courts with tape, but players removed it. Then the hoops were locked with bars through April 2021. 

Photographed by Ursula Vari

Robin Danar (left, below), a music producer, with K. D. Perignon, a longtime baller from South L.A. Ursula Vari calls Danar the “Jack Nicholson of the courts” because he sits courtside at most of the tournament games.

Photographed by Ursula Vari

Emeka Uzomba, 21, from Buffalo, New York, blew the minds of the local street ballers when he “walked on air.” Uzomba’s basketball videos have made him a TikTok star with more than 500,000 followers.

Photographed by Ursula Vari

Chris Staples, 34, from Saginaw, Michigan, holds two Guinness World Records for dunking. Also a former member of the Harlem Globetrotters, he’s been playing on the courts since 2012.

Photographed by Ursula Vari

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