The Ballards

Rasheed’s game was made and crafted on the dirt at Whitestocking Road. It’s a quiet twisty track leading to a cluster of houses set above the banks of the Black River, North Carolina. Two kids are tricycling across a dirt basketball court while Rasheed practises his 3-pointers. Large oaks and willowing cypress trees hang overhead, and spring shoots add fresh colour to this secret swamp paradise.

‘Sheed’ has just finished his senior year, and was Wilmington Star News Area Player of the year. He averaged 25 points per game, 8 rebounds and 4 assists and finished Heide Trask High as the all time leading scorer. He is clearly the player to watch, and everyone has high hopes for his future.

I’m invited to Whitestocking Road for a Sunday cookout with the Ballards. Its Easter and the whole extended family are back in town to eat and play ball. Gradually the players emerge from the surrounding houses – brothers, uncles, nephews to join Sheed on the court – and I realise there’s a proper game on.

Style, skill and a fair amount of showing off are all in healthy supply, but there’s something else at play too here: respect between the generations, and respect for the game.

Playing on a dirt court set deep in the swamp comes with its own set of considerations; tree stumps rise up in sections of the court, while holes that could swallow an ignorant ankle are strategically dotted about. It pays to be local.

This court has history. Generations have played here, passed on skills, moves and knowledge. Marcus Ballard is a sports and movement coach in the nearest town. He works hard in the local community to get kids healthy and involved in sport.

“All of the guys in our family play basketball,” he tells me. “It’s something that keeps us close. There are a lot of life lessons taught in basketball and its something that we put emphasis on when we teach the game to the ones after us. The same way we were taught.”

The game yo-yos between high temper drama and in-jokes and comedy plays. Later on, I won’t remember who wins but I’ll remember watching a game of full passion, competition and respect.

Words and Photography: William Cooper-Mitchell