Clara Mokri is a surfer and photographer from Los Angeles, California. She currently works as the photo coordinator at TIME Magazine and was previously the assistant photo editor at Vice. She graduated from Yale University in 2018 with a BA in Political Science, where she played Division 1 basketball for two years, and was president of the Yale Photography Society.
Growing up, there were the jocks, the nerds, and the ‘artsy’ kids. Typically, there was rarely any crossover between those labels. From an early age, I subconsciously self-segregated myself into the jock category, and once I found basketball, I solidified my position as such.
When I was five, I went to San Francisco to visit my uncle. One day, I tagged along as he and his son went to the backyard to play basketball. Instantly, I was hooked.
My uncle and my cousin were basketball fanatics, collecting limited edition Mitchell and Ness jerseys, hunting for the latest retro pair of Air Jordans, and debating endlessly on whether Kobe or Jordan was the real G.O.A.T (spoiler alert: it’s LeBron.) I looked up to my uncle, and wanted to do everything that he did. So naturally, I started playing basketball and became obsessed with the culture.
I enjoyed playing because I was good at it. From the moment my mom signed me up for my first parks and recreation team at Cheviot Hills Park in Los Angeles, I spent every possible moment in the gym practicing. My goal was tunnel-visioned; my professional career seemed to be a lifetime away, and I never concerned myself with a dream job. The only thing I knew with certainty was that I wanted to play basketball in college, and that I wouldn’t accept anything less than that reality.
I stood in the gym at the Boys and Girls Club in New Haven about a month ago, feeling uneasy in a new place. It had been two years since I played an organized game of basketball.
“You ball?” a kid no older than 11 suddenly asked.
As a former Division 1 college basketball player, I did, in fact, ball.
“Yeah,” I replied. “Do you want me to rebound for you?” He nodded, and I got up and walked onto the court.
A familiar feeling. Immediately, I exhaled. Towering over pre-pubescent boys in a run-down gym is the least likely place that I would have expected to find such comfort, yet there is something about being a basketball player that immediately connects you to anyone else who plays the sport.
Whether you’re from the Midwest, the South, California, or another country, whether you played in the ‘80s, early 2000’s, or 2018, youth basketball culture is pretty much the same wherever you go. Regardless of your age, your hometown, your socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, or your racial background, so long as you can ball, you’re immediately welcomed into this universal culture.
I returned to the Boys and Girls Club the next day with my camera, and started photographing the kids and the gym. I kept coming back the following weeks because of the nostalgia that quickly became associated with watching these young boys play a sport that was so formative in my own upbringing.
It didn’t matter that the kids were boys and I was a girl; our experiences were nonetheless so similar. The competitive, yet brotherly way that the boys interacted with each other, the level of swagger with which they attempted to carry themselves on the court, or the way they moped when someone scored on them or they missed an easy shot. The way their coach yelled at them for not paying attention or not hustling back on defense, or the way everyone looked forward to scrimmaging at the end of practice instead of learning plays and doing drills. It was all the same.
As I got older and would return to play basketball with my uncle and cousin, they would always make me feel like one of the boys—just because I was a girl, didn’t mean anything came easier. Being treated as such in the context of sports was, in my eyes, the biggest compliment to my abilities as an athlete.
I remember always being frustrated with teammates and coaches treating me differently because I was a girl. There was always a sense of pride being seen as one of the boys on the court, and I aspired to better than all of them.
It is for that reason that I don’t intend for this Hoop Dreams photo series to evoke feelings of boyhood and masculinity, despite the fact that all my subjects were boys and young men.
Interspersed among the photographs that I made at the Boys and Girls Club are images that commemorate of my own experience with the sport: the countless hours spent in the athletic training room rehabilitating my body—a 21-year-old body that has experienced such physical strain that it often feels like a 40-year-old’s. Trading cards of my favorite basketball players, such as 5’3” Guard Muggsy Bogues, whom I revered as a kid, juxtaposed with my own Parks and Rec headshot in 2006. Cheap plastic trophies that, upon receiving at the time, felt like winning an NBA championship.
I realize now that the “jock” label I chose to give myself as a child did not have to define me. Prior to Hoop Dreams, I believed that in order to pursue my professional aspiration as a photographer, I’d have to completely give up playing basketball. The culmination of this project showed me that not only can I do both, but I can use photography to illustrate the the universality of the sport, and address a shared experience that other athletes cope with eventually. There comes a time in all of our lives where we find new passions, but that doesn’t mean we have to completely let go of old ones.
On one of my last days in New Haven, I visited the Boys and Girls Club again. I met an 8-year-old boy named Jacier who told me that he had just started playing basketball a couple months ago. He recognized the retro Steve Nash jersey that I had with me, and after asking to trying it on, I offered it to him. The jersey hung down past his knees, yet he wore it the rest of the day as he proceeded to show it off to all his friends. My memory flashed back to the day my cousin finally deemed me worthy enough to appreciate his retro Michael Jordan jerseys, and gifted all three of them to me.
It didn’t matter that Steve Nash stopped playing professional basketball while Jacier was still in diapers; nor did it matter I wasn’t even alive when Michael Jordan was at the pinnacle of his career. Basketball is universal, and legends are timeless.
To view more of Clara Mokri’s work please visit her website.