Hoop Story #025: Jon Lopez
Feature No. 25 | November 17th, 2020
How did you fall in love with the game?
I fell in love with basketball on the playgrounds of the Lower East Side of NYC, where I grew up. Summer evening runs would extend into early mornings. I watched local legends like Magic, Spida, Turbo, and Gizmo to name a few inspire the neighborhood with their poetry in motion on the court.
Baruch projects had a court we used to call half moon because the rim was so high, we imagined it to be halfway to the moon. In reality, it was between 11’ and 12’ high. At a generous 6’1, legend has it that Magic dunked on half moon.
From stories like that to my own battles on the playgrounds, I was hooked. Basketball and me. Forever.
Talk about your experience working for Bounce early in your career and the legendary photo from up above at Dyckman.
Manny Maldonado started a private run at the Boys’ Club on 10th Street and Avenue A, the For da Love run on Thursday nights. I was working there at the time and was invited to the runs with some of NYC’s elite movers and shakers, on and off the court. I would write recaps, recalling some highlights and memorable plays from the night before, and send them to the email chain on Friday mornings. From that, the legendary Bobbito Garcia, a frequent For Da Love run attendee, invited me to write for Bounce Magazine–now defunct, sadly.
For Bounce, I would find myself on hallowed grounds throughout NYC to document games at the likes of Rucker Park, West 4th, Dyckman, Watson, Hoops in the Sun, Pro City, Kingdome, the Tri-State Classic, Together We Chill, and pretty much anywhere the best hoopers battled it out on the court. Oftentimes I would find myself at these parks and there were no photographers, so I didn’t have images for my stories. That’s when I decided to bring my camera with me to all of the games. Bounce Magazine was the first to publish my photography.
I would update my blog after each night on the playgrounds. Back in 2009 I was spending a lot of time at Dyckman, documenting what was rapidly becoming the top tournament in the Mecca of basketball. This was before the stadium style bleachers. Standing room only was a regular occurrence. One night, Sean Couch–cofounder of Bounce Magazine–tossed me a lob that would lead to one of my most powerful images. He suggested that I try to get up on the roof of a nearby building for a unique vantage point.
I had quietly gone up a few times that summer and noticed the incredible view. During the championship game in August that year, I knew it was the right time. Bounce published the image as its centerfold in the subsequent issue. Since then my photo of Dyckman and, in many ways, of basketball culture was published in magazines worldwide.
You developed a strong relationship with FIBA. How has that developed over time?
Kevin Couliau (@asphaltchronicles) has been documenting playground basketball for a long time and he also shot for Bounce Magazine, so we overlapped and became good friends. Years later one of his clients, FIBA, was looking for an NYC-based basketball photographer to help them document the nascent 3x3 event as they were beginning to build their case to make 3 on 3 an Olympic sport. So, Kevin dimed me with a lovely assist and connected me to FIBA.
I had noticed that the 3x3 championships would be in Miami that year, so I asked if they needed a photographer and offered to hold the date for them. The truth is my schedule was wide open and I was really hoping they’d invite me. Fortunately, they did and I have since shot many 3x3 events for them.
While in Miami for the 3x3 championship I met FIBA’s director of communications and learned that he was a hooper. So naturally, we arranged a game with some of the other hoopers on the crew. At the end we split the games and I suggested we play the tie-breaker at the next event in the next city. This led to another great friendship through a shared passion and love for the game. It also led to me traveling the world for FIBA, creating my shots from the sidelines of FIBA events in Venezuela, Canada, Argentina, the Bahamas as well as the Basketball World Cups in Spain and China. I was overcome with emotion when FIBA invited me to help them document the 2016 Olympics in Rio. It was a dream come true and the friendships I’ve formed along the way will endure forever.
You’ve documented an incredible amount of youth basketball with EYBL and PeachJam. Trae Young, Buddy Hield, RJ Barret, Jason Tatum (just to name a few) What is most rewarding about shooting these guys at that level?
Youth development has always been a passion of mine. Having a front row seat to witness the growth of these young people is a reward in and of itself. It’s even more fulfilling because I know that many of them come from communities like the one I grew up in in New York City. Playing a small part in documenting that part of their journey and, in some cases, the game in general is an honor.
Talk about documenting the Knicks for a season, what was most fulfilling about that experience?
For as long as I can remember I dreamt of playing for the New York Knicks and helping to raise another banner at the world’s most famous arena. When I started out documenting basketball on the playgrounds of my community, I knew right away that I wanted to reach the highest levels and bring that experience back home.
Joining the team that I grew up watching was another surreal experience in my career. It was a good example of how my jumpshot didn’t get me to the league, so my snapshot did. Documenting the team’s season on and off the court, at home and away, was remarkable. The most fulfilling part was living out a childhood dream and contributing to the fabric of Knicks history in my own small way.
What excites you most about basketball in the future, when things get back to normal?
Everything. I’m excited to share the sidelines with old friends and industry colleagues again. I’m especially looking forward to the return of summer hoops in NYC and creating my shots from the sidelines of the playgrounds. This was my first spring without the EYBL in a long time and I think I’m going through withdrawal, so I’m definitely excited for that to return in 2021 if it’s safe to do so then. I’m excited to witness the evolution of women’s basketball from the grassroots to the pros and I hope I get the opportunity to help document that progression.