Reginald Thomas II is a writer and photographer whose work has been featured in the New York Times and ESPN and who also shoots for the Boston Red Sox. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of The City That Hoops a photography project started on his Instagram and now turned into a print publication.
As the NBA playoffs approaches, basketball talk becomes the topic of almost every discussion. Even the people who probably only seen one basketball game in their entire life time and probably never physically touched a rock, are talking about it. Baltimore City without basketball is a bank robber without a get away driver.
For many years basketball in the Black community has been an antidote to the issues that people wrestle with while living in poverty. In Baltimore city there are almost as many basketball courts as there are vacant homes – there are tons of basketball courts in neighborhoods walking distance from one another. It’s more than just sports.
We are the city that hoops.
With people like Reginald Thomas, we can continue to highlight the beauty within our struggle by showcasing the genius level talent in Baltimore city; basketball being just one.
How did you start photographing basketball at this level?
I started documenting basketball as a way to heal from the suffering I was growing accustomed to documenting since the uprising [the events of 2015 that followed the death of Freddie Gray whilst in police custody]. Being from Baltimore, you know there’s more than what the narrative is.
You said that documenting basketball helped you heal. Do you think playing the sport helps the people of Baltimore heal?
I know that basketball is familial in Baltimore. I know that people escape from their troubles for a few hours. In that sense basketball is spiritual for a lot of people here. Not everyone gets to play organized ball, not everyone will make it to the NBA, but I wanted to juxtapose pros like Will Barton to kids I see playing basketball after school or on weekends at their local court.
This city has a narrative that revolves around murder, drugs, and mayhem. However, it’s much more than that. How does ‘The City That Hoops’ correlate to social innovation?
As far as social innovation is concerned, a magazine isn’t something that’s new. I haven’t seen a physical publication; like a SLAM Magazine or something solely dedicated to Baltimore basketball. Growing up my father would always give me books about basketball, and would always tell me about the stars of Dunbar in the ‘70s, Allen Harper “Skip” Wise, Jr., and Dominique Wilkins. I wanted to try and document the ball players of this generation so that someone can have an artifact to show their children when they want to learn about Baltimore basketball history.
What are the obvious and less obvious ways basketball and basketball culture help address some of the social problems people face here?
In a way, access to basketball courts and the conditions of courts throughout the city reflect the neighborhoods the city prioritizes, the main courts like Cloverdale stay in good condition because it’s a hub for outdoor basketball. Other small courts nestled in back streets and alleys throughout the city aren’t as pristine, and often times backboards are taken down, bright police lights are set up near some courts, the one on Greenmount comes to mind, because people feel like it gives rise to criminal activity. You won’t see the same thing at the court off of north and Calvert, or the outdoor court at the bottom of Federal Hill or near the Under Armour headquarters. No helicopters flying over people while they hoop, no patrol cars coming past. It’s definitely some differences to keep in mind.
What did you want people to understand about basketball and basketball culture in Baltimore through The City That Hoops?
I want people to understand, through the city that hoops, that Baltimore is a basketball city and should be mentioned in the same sentence as The Wire, Johns Hopkins [University], crab cakes, and Natty Boh beer. People in Baltimore play basketball all year round, basketball is a social institution, games whether they’re organized or not, are sort of like interfaith church services. Basketball in Baltimore has had just as much of an impact on my development as anything else I’ve been a part of. It has helped developed my sensibilities and my character both on and off the court.