Basketball Is Nothing Without Net

One of the most gratifying sounds in sports is the whoosh of a basketball snapping the netting on a perfect swish.

Take away the net and all that’s left is the unsatisfying silence of a ball pushing air molecules around as it sails through the rim. Did it even go through? Sometimes it is hard to tell.

That’s why Anibal Amador, a 55-year-old former real estate agent from Manhattan, regularly dips into his own pocket to buy brand-new nets for playground rims. The city does not provide nets for the most part, but anyone who has played even one game of Hustle knows that the muted hush of a ball drifting through a netless rim turns even the most perfectly executed shot into an airball.

“Without the nets, it is just not good,” Amador said, gesturing toward one of the rims he entwined at St. Vartan Park, a medium-sized playground by the entrance to the Queens-Midtown Tunnel on 36th Street. “No one prefers to play that way.”

So, with the help of a step ladder that he brings from his apartment, Amador fastens the nets to the rims at a few select playgrounds _ mostly the ones where he likes to play — near where he lives in Murray Hill. He has adorned rims on 36th Street, at a playground on East 26th Street and another near Bellevue Hospital. He says he has been doing this for about three years.

Amador’s small civic gesture is one of many little acts of altruism that tend to go unnoticed yet help sustain a small measure of quality of life in a crowded city where the mythology of playground basketball is a matter of city lore.

Recently, a group of players at St. Vartan’s Park waited patiently as Amador, carefully balanced atop his ladder, finished fastening the nets to the clips under the rims before wiping down the backboard with a rag.

When he was done, they cheered.

“It is much better for everyone with the nets,” Amador said, beaming a huge smile.

The New York City Parks Department maintains 1,800 basketball courts around the five boroughs, where some of the best games in history have been staged without a single fan watching. That does not even count the schoolyards, which are maintained by the department of education and the individual schools, or the courts that are overseen by the New York City Housing Authority.

At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the city took down more than 2,100 rims around the city to discourage people from gathering in groups. A Parks Department spokesman said all the rims, which were down from April until July 2020, have been returned. But it is not feasible to keep nets on all the rims in all the parks, so the city does not even try. Wear-and-tear, removal and vandalism are simply too much to keep up with.

“I understand it,” Amador said, “because there are just so many parks everywhere that they would have to be putting up nets all the time. That’s where I come in.”

Originally from Rio Piedras in Puerto Rico, Amador moved to New York 27 years ago, working in real estate until recently. He is looking to branch into something else, but in the meantime, he plays basketball two or three times a week, and replaces the nets on his favorite courts as needed, roughly every nine weeks.

“The amount of play that these parks get is surprising,” he said. “It’s a lot and the nets really don’t last.”

Across the city, some rims jut out into space unadorned with twine. Some do have nets, whether bought and attached by civic-minded individuals like Amador, or provided by a school, a generous physical education teacher, or another anonymous donor.

An unscientific survey of a handful of city playgrounds revealed an arbitrary pattern to the nets: Some courts have them, and some don’t.

At the Northern Playground in Jackson Heights, Queens, there were no nets. But around the corner at the Louis Armstrong Middle School, pristine white nets hung from bright orange rims jutting out from clear backboards.

At the legendary Holcombe Rucker Park at 155th Street and Frederick Douglas Boulevard in Manhattan, one rim had a sturdy white net, but at the other end of the court a straggly, decrepit remnant of a net hung sadly below, waiting for a replacement in time for the world-famous summer league there.

In the Bronx, at the corner of 167th Street and Southern Boulevard, Clarence Williams, 50, showcased his sweet jump shot at the Field Of Dreams Park, where the court surface is smooth and well-painted, but the rims are bare.

“It doesn’t bother me,” Williams said. “There is a park a few more blocks away with nets. If I really need them, I can go there. But come on, you can tell if the ball goes in.”

A little farther south at St. Mary’s Park in Mott Haven, several gleaming courts with crisp lines and sturdy backboards had netting. Others didn’t.

But at St. Vartan’s Park, Amador made sure that every good shot is a splashdown through the feathery nets he buys on the internet for about $10 apiece. Last month, when he put up those nets, one of the regular players gave Amador $20 to help defray costs.

The player, who asked to be identified only as Nathan because he sometimes plays during business hours, was astounded that someone would be so generous with his money and time.

“I thought he worked for the city,” Nathan said. “He was very meticulous. And then he brings out a long brush and wipes down the backboards. I’ve never seen that before.”

Amador says he enjoys providing the service simply because he loves basketball so much, and beamed when asked if he has a nickname.

“I was thinking maybe, The Net Changer,” he said.