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Breaking Barriers

by Steven John Irby


 

In honor of Black History Month, the Knicks partnered and collaborated with African-American street photographer, Steven John Irby.

The New York City native brought his craft to Madison Square Garden to serve as an official photographer for the team, covering multiple home games and practice throughout the month, forging together the diverse cultures & vibrancy of the city with the game of basketball.

Below is a firsthand account of the experience, shaped by his personal journey as a New Yorker, lifelong Knicks fan, and photographer.

This is Breaking Barriers, in his own words.

 

There are times when your dreams seem out of reach. But a few weeks ago, I stood on the New York Knicks court at Madison Square Garden, covering Black History Month as official photographer. In that moment, I realized that my lifelong dream had finally come true. 

My love of basketball began when I was young. I have vague memories of being huddled around a small TV, watching the Knicks with my folks, completely in awe of the grace and power of athletes like Mark Jackson and Patrick Ewing. When my parents moved us to Rosedale in Queens from East Flatbush, Brooklyn, I was suddenly isolated from the friends and cousins in my old neighborhood. I went from playing freeze tag and NBA Jam with my cousins for hours at my grandparents’ house, to hanging in backyard that looked like a swamp. I found refuge in the Knicks and I think I inherited that unwavering passion and faith in the team from my Mom, which make those memories all the more significant to me.

I’d watch the Knicks religiously, and turned my focus to learning to hoop. I was determined to nail that perfect jump shot, just like Allan Houston. He had the best looking jump shot I’d ever seen. I made friends with Dijon and Demmaurey, the grandsons of my Dad’s coworker, who happened to live in my new neighborhood. They showed me how to make a layup and taught me the value of teamwork. They opened me up to the benefits of collaboration – instead of running under the basket solo and getting my jump shots blocked over the fences, I learned to shoot jumpers in my opponents’ faces.

The Knicks were woven into the fabric of everyday life. At school, or at the barbershop, everybody would be talking about the game the night before, and you didn’t want to be the guy that’d missed it. I wanted to capture every moment, and the next day, we’d try and reenact the moves we’d seen on court. I used to post up my friends like Patrick Ewing all over Thomas Edison HS.

As my obsession with the Knicks grew, so did another – an obsession with photography. I was surrounded with family photos as a kid and became fascinated with the craft of capturing moments. Pursuing the dream of becoming a photographer didn’t come without a cost. I gave up my room in my apartment and slept on the couch for 18 months to fund my passion. I’d hustle every day, always using the grit of my team as inspiration.

My life ran parallel to that of the team I loved. That New York intensity and grind was always there, but I always seemed to be the benchwarmer and never a starter. I worked every job imaginable, but always felt disconnected from the companies I worked for. I was yearning for teammates who would share the same hustle and grit that ran through my veins – a cohesive unit working toward a common goal.

In the end, my life came full circle, and my background fueled my future. My childhood friend, AJ, introduced me to my business partner, Eric Veloso. We met at a function AJ was holding at his barbershop – the epicenter of our community, and a place that always felt like home to me. Even though Eric is a Vancouver native, we instantly connected over our shared passion for the Knicks. From there, Street Dreams Magazine was born: our creative agency dedicated to sharing stories from artists around the world.

 

The people who have influenced my life are like my starting five: each person has their own role to play, but together, we make an incredible team. Instead of shooting jump shots, I ended up shooting visuals. Instead of a team of athletes, I’ve created a team of artists and creators. And it’s that team that brought me to the court at Madison Square Garden, covering the Knicks for Black History Month.

As an African-American, born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens, words can’t express the pride I have in my culture. Basketball has broken barriers and continues to connect people regardless of race or background. In that moment on the court, I looked around and realized that I was surrounded by fellow bench-warmers. Everyone at the Garden shared the same passion and energy – from fans to security guards, ushers, and photographers. I felt that connection with everyone there, and it left a lasting impression on me.

To say it was an honor to cover the Knicks for Black History Month would be an understatement. Standing on that court was an experience that I hope everyone gets to have, at least once in their lives – especially if you’ve always been there, rooting from a distance, like me.

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