Venice Basketball League founder, a real-life Billy Hoyle, rebuilds a court from ‘White Men Can’t Jump’

By Matt Rodriguez

Nick Ansom (upper left) and his Build Courts Not Walls initiative celebrate Saturday’s grand opening of The Watts Oasis
Photos by Lindsay Meggers Amaral

On the outskirts of Paris, 13-year-old Nick Ansom — already 6’1” — bounces the ball through his legs at the three-point line. He takes three dribbles toward the basket, leaps off both feet, and ferociously slams the ball through the hoop. He smiles and runs back to do it again, and again, and again.

“People in France thought I was weird for playing basketball. You don’t really fit in. It was a really niche [culture],” Ansom, founder of the competitive Venice Basketball League, recalls more than two decades later of the passion that brought him to Los Angeles.

Whether the only kid on his block who lived and breathed the sport or the only French streetball player making a name for himself on Venice Beach, Ansom has always stood out — but he’s never let the opinions of others keep him off the court. Now he’s on a mission to share his love of the game with others around the world.

Through his initiative Build Courts Not Walls, Ansom has traveled around the world rebuilding basketball courts for communities in need — taking him to Belize, Mexico, the Philippines, and most recently South Los Angeles.

Across the street from the iconic Watts Towers, behind St. John’s United Methodist Church, is a basketball court where Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes’ characters pull off an early hustle in the 1992 Spike Lee film “White Men Can’t Jump.”

Ansom, who’s played more than a few games in Billy Hoyle’s sneakers, discovered it in a state of near-ruin. Even a mural in the film — a depiction of rolling hills, hot air balloons and children playing — had been painted over to make a drab beige wall.

“When I became pastor it was a just a backboard — there was no goal on it,” recalls St. John’s Pastor Larry Dozier. “People would come by and throw things, and we would have to clean up pretty regularly.”

Ansom had a vision to restore the court as both a community resource and a work of art — “revitalizing history in front of one of the greatest monuments ever built,” as he puts it.

On Saturday, volunteers with Build Courts Not Walls invited local youth to play at The Watts Oasis — an almost entirely brand-new court with multicolored playing surfaces and freshly painted art on the walls, where boundary markers and even the backboards are decorated with mosaic tiles in many shades of red, white, yellow, blue and green.

To bring this vision to life, Ansom recruited local artists such as Watts native Robert Matthew Miller, who has painted murals throughout the neighborhood, now including here at The Watts Oasis.

“Whenever you take dull and depressing and you lighten and brighten it up, it always makes for a better environment, no matter where you’re at,” says Miller. “I really hope this brings a lot of playing opportunity, interaction with the kids … and [opportunities to be] more social, rather than worry about the games.

Dozier expects the court to be treated like “a neutral zone” in a neighborhood where the activities and pressures of street gangs remain strong.

“I would like everything left behind while they are in that church area playing basketball,” he says. “I would love for all the rival gangs to have dialogue — to talk, to play, and to have fun together.”

Watts resident John Jones Jr. had sent his son Jaheim to help volunteers restore the court, not only to get him out of the house and away from his video game console, but also so his son could take pride in knowing he helped to build it.

If kids help build the court, “they will take ownership of it,” he says. “They will take pride in it and they will help to take care of it.”

When Ansom was growing up, “basketball was everything,” he recalls. “It gave me opportunity, freedom. It gave me a dream, more than anything. … It’s like dreaming awake … having a reason to look forward to waking up, because your dream is slowly coming true.”