“I’m a decent player, nothing special. But when I was there I was Michael Jordan. I felt so good.” Leo Walsh on Peach Baskets, The Faroe Islands, and Biking Across America

Any child who has ever picked up a basketball has imagined themself shooting a game winning shot in the NBA or WNBA. Around the world, athletes are often the first people besides their parents that children consider heroes. The lessons, narratives, and inspiration that a feel good sports story brings are timeless pop culture treats that can be found everywhere from biopic films, massive media coverage, to simple lunchroom chatter. Whether you were a varsity athlete, a 3 on 3 after school warrior, or the kid who shot an imaginary ball any time they discarded garbage, any true basketball fan can describe how the game has impacted and changed their lives. One such person whose love for basketball transcends the game itself is the writer, photographer, and basketball enthusiast Leo Walsh.The man behind the Peach Baskets photography project, Walsh is looking to follow a simple mission statement “aimed at finding beauty in the simple, telling stories that have yet to be told, and inspiring others to go do.”

Leo Walsh

Peach Baskets is a labor of love and exploration. Armed with a camera and a passion for basketball, in Spring 2019 Walsh began to take and collect photographs of basketball hoops as he drove across North America. Originally called peach baskets due to the original basketball hoops being repurposed farm equipt, the simple concept has amazing benefits. As Walsh travels and observes basketball hoops in neighborhoods across the continent, the influence and power of basketball is apparent. Whether in rural areas, city centers, suburban cul de sacs, or beachside parks, Walsh’s photographs show the ingenuity of the American spirit against a backdrop of varied infrastructural landscape. Whether the hoop is on a run-down shed in Kentucky, an alleyway in Scranton, or a dirt road in Arizona, the same sentiment remains: there’s a hooper around. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Walsh completed a second trip across North America, this time biking across the United States. The physically demanding endeavor was not the first time Walsh has taken on a challenge that seemed impossible. At Fordham University, he was able to walk onto the basketball team based on the strength of a childhood passion that followed him to the Bronx. By putting in hours on the practice courts, Walsh was noticed and given an opportunity most amatuer basketball players will never come close to. Walsh has taken that dedication to his pursuits to another level, developing his camera skills and eye for nostalgia-inducing shots of basketball hoops most likely put up to entertain children. 

Leo Walsh

I have not played organized basketball in well over a decade. After not making my junior varsity high school basketball team, my relationship with the sport would never be the same. Despite knowing I didn’t have the makings of a varsity athlete early on, basketball remained something I obsessed over. Like every other dreamer, my love for the game went beyond mere fantasy of a professional career. Peach Baskets brings me back to the joy of getting lost in the game, shooting for hours, imagining a crowd and teammates depending on you to hit the winning shot. Through Peach Baskets, Walsh has reminded me of the common connections we all share growing up and still share, if we can take the time to remember.  

When he meets me on Zoom on a quiet sunny Saturday from Scranton, Pennsylvania, memories of our time together at Fordham wash over me. Walsh is one of the most optimistic and kind people I have ever encountered. I can recall him sharing thoughtful feedback and commentary during a writing class we took together in undergrad taught by legendary Paul Levinson. It was an honor to continue in collaboration from those Fordham days for the readers of GSC. 

Leo Walsh

Check out our interview below which covered AAU basketball, coaching, and how basketball has changed his life. 

GSC: Who are you and how do you identify?

Leo: I am Leo Walsh and I am a male (he/him) and I’m just outside of Scranton, Pennsylvania.

GSC: What inspired the Peach Baskets visual project?

Leo: It actually started at Fordham in a journalism class. Our one assignment was to write a first-person story and I wrote it about our hoop in our driveway and just the story behind it. I think when I was four my dad brought it home and put it up. It was just the coolest thing ever to have my own hoop in my driveway. I was pretty proud of it and it was like on the internet on the blog we made for the class and people shared it. I was just happy with how it came out and since then, that was like 2013 when I was a junior. I had just made the basketball team so basketball was a huge part of my life at that time. I was like this sport has been really special and good to me. Since then I’ve had a basketball hoop artistic project in my head but I would never consider myself much of a creative. But as I kind of grew and fell into a camera, I knew it was kind of photography related, and I fell into a used camera and started playing around with it. I decided to live out of my car for a bit and that’s kind of what kicked off the project, literally travelling around and tried to tell a unique story through hoops across the country. And that was spring of 2019.

GSC: How’d you get so good at taking pictures?

Leo: Thank you, I’ve never taken a class or anything. I’ve always been interested in it but I never took it seriously because for me growing up art was never really…it was always sports for me. I’ve always been drawn to art as an appreciator of art, but not as a creator. For me it was my cousin who’s my age, I grew up with her, she’s like one of the best artists I know. Her art is very visual, she can sketch like anything, and I would watch her and be like “Oh I can do like stick figures.” I’m not creative, I don’t play music. So yeah just through pictures, I just kind of picked it up and started playing with it. I’ve found my own kind of angle or eye I guess.

GSC: What other sports were you into besides basketball?

Leo: Just like everything growing up in the neighborhood, but like actually organized I played a little bit of baseball growing up and in high school I did cross country and track. I never played organized football or anything but you know we’d play in the neighborhood. Never got into soccer, I wish I were good at soccer but I’m just not. It was mostly basketball and running. 

GSC: Why do you love basketball so much?

Leo: I don’t know. It’s one of those things you’re just drawn to as a kid. I think it was age four, I watched Michael Jordan play and something about the freedom of it, and it’s truly an artform watching people. If you take the ball out of it and you’re just watching people, I was thinking about this, it’s almost like, it is ballet. If you put the players on a stage and there’s no ball, you take the ball out, it’s a true artistic artform where these people are waltzing across a 94 foot stage. It’s just beautiful. I didn’t internalize that until later in life, but something about it drew me to it.

GSC: Is age four your first memory of basketball?

Leo: I think so, yeah. Age four that was ‘96, so that was prime Jordan time. So I’d be watching him and I liked Reggie Miller. As I got older it was Kevin Garnet, I love Kevin Garnet. 

GSC: KG! You recently completed your second trip across America. First you drove, then you biked. What was the difference between those two journeys?

Leo: The difference was when I was driving, well when I was driving is when I was like “I can do this by bike.” The bike thing was something I had in mind for a while, something that I wanted to do. But the drive was first, I knew I wanted to live out of my car and see if I could live on my own for a while out on the road. But the bike is awesome, it’s different because it’s such a physical, emotional, mental roller coaster at all times. It was 75 days of some of the best and worst days of my life. So to have that as something that I looked forward to and to have been planning for three years or so, and then to see it actualized, and now to have it as a memory is pretty cool. I’m pretty proud of being able to complete it without dying.

GSC: Would you do a third trip by foot?

Leo:  [Laughs] Pull a Dan Finnegan. I don’t know, I don’t think I would. But hey who knows.

GSC: What have your trips across the country taught you about basketball?

Leo: I think I’ve always known it was universal, but the trips have really kind of stamped that. Especially with the project itself and the biking. I had a basketball on my bike while biking across the country and it’s an inherent conversation starter. People are naturally drawn to it, like what the hell is this guy doing in the middle of a national park with a basketball on his bike. I’ve loved, with the project, people who don’t necessarily like basketball or have never played, are drawn to it because they can appreciate the storytelling of just a simple hoop. I think that’s what a lot of art does, it makes you think differently or realize something that you didn’t necessarily think before. I don’t know what I’ve learned about the sport itself but I think I’ve learned that basketball and a bunch of other things, any sport or activity or hobby, if taken the right way or expressed the right way it can grab hold of people’s imagination and attention.

GSC: What did the trips across the country teach you about yourself?

Leo: It taught me that I’m really ok alone. I’d almost prefer to be alone most of the time. Specifically the bike trip. I mean I think it’s just like any rigorous activity or difficult thing that you’ve been through, it teaches you that you can do it and you can pull back to those memories of that horrible day that you had, it’s like “Oh I did that? I can do this little tough day that I’m having. Remember that tough day out in the middle of the Colorado Mountains when I was dead and there was no food or water in sight? But I somehow made it through. I can make it through this rough Tuesday.” It’s just like anything, you sort of learn through the struggles and you’re better off for it. 

GSC: Do you have ambitions to be a basketball coach one day?

Leo:  I tried it, I’ve been an assistant and I was a head coach for an all girls team in New York back in 2015 or 2016. I didn’t love it. I think now that I’m older I would be a better coach and I would appreciate it more. I would be able to enjoy it more. I just love working with kids so I think I would like to coach in the future. I just don’t know when or where. 

GSC: Some AAU ball?

Leo: I’ve never been into AAU, even like playing. I played like one year of AAU and hated it.

GSC: I too played one year of AAU and hated it. It stole the joy out of the game. It was so intense and wasn’t fun. You’re competing against your own teammates, it’s so weird.

Leo: Yeah, it’s true. You’re like a commodity in this industry of basketball and it’s just people trying to see if you have what it takes to be the next great player in the area. But it’s like no I just want to play hoops. Let me just play.

GSC: It’s like is this person going to the League? Can we make money off him? Is he worth investing in? If he’s not, we don’t even want him on the team.

Leo: And I wasn’t so I didn’t enjoy it. But if you are, if you’re the next best thing hopefully it propels you onto bigger and better things, but if you’re not you’re like “man this sucks.”

GSC: It sucks. My dad went from being a cool dad to being so intense about everything because I had to be better than everyone. Like these are my teammates, we’re supposed to be playing to win.

Leo: Did you play at Lombardi [the rec center at Fordham University] a lot?

GSC: I played at Gauchos for one year. I think I was in sixth grade.

Leo: That’s like true intense New York City hoops.

GSC: It was so intense I literally hated it. I remember it was the first time I didn’t want to do something and I wrote a letter before basketball practice one morning. I was like “I don’t wanna do this.” My dad was like you can’t quit now and I was like I guess, but I want to. 

Leo: I don’t know if you felt this, but I would have a love/hate relationship with basketball sometimes just because it would get too intense. When I was younger I was like man I don’t know if I really love this enough. I think I had bad coaches, but I would feel guilty about it. Did you ever feel that when you were hating it?

GSC: Yeah. Why do I hate playing this game that is supposed to be fun and I love? And it’s all outside things, it’s not like it had anything to do with me or the kids around me. It’s like the adults that are setting everything up, they’re the ones putting the pressure on us.

Leo: Yeah, so that kind of does make me wanna be a coach and be a good coach that doesn’t push down other kids. I think that’s definitely lacking, there’s a lack of good coaches who are out there for the sake of the kids themselves and not for their own selves and their own hunger for power and wanting to have complete control over these like twelve year olds. 

GSC: For real. What inspired the trip to the Faroe Islands? 

Leo: Thank you for buying the zine, I appreciate it.

GSC: I didn’t even know that was a place until I bought that.

Leo: Well when I first graduated I started working, and I ended up working for five years, for this fish market in New York City, Fulton Fish Market. It used to be down by Brooklyn Bridge, but now since 2013 or something like that it was up in the Bronx. We were creating an ecommerce city for the Fulton Fish Market and a lot of the salmon that came into the market was from this place called the Faroe Islands. I had never heard of this place so I looked it up and the Google Image search was some of the most magnificent pictures I’ve ever seen. I was like I’m gonna go there eventually one day. It’s Iceland but no one goes. I finally got the opportunity to go just as a vacation solo, again by myself. It was truly inspired by Google Images [laughs]. 

GSC: How much is it there? Is it expensive?

Leo: Yeah so everything is imported. Living wise everything is expensive. Even the flight there was like $700 or something. It’s an amazing place with some amazing people. I was lucky enough to be connected, really just through basketball and through my project, I reached out to some local people and was like, “Hey do you know of any basketball hoops in the area?” and they put me in touch with the local team. It blew my mind once I got there that it had recently come over to the country. Like the sport of basketball had just come to the country in the ‘90s. I was playing in a 3-on-3 tournament and I was asking them if they had played in 3-on-3’s because the tournament that I was in wasn’t all that well run and it was taking the entire day. I’ve been in a bunch of 3-on-3 tournaments that were really well organized so I was like “Are you guys used to this? Why is this taking all day?” and they were like “Oh, this is like the first 3-on-3 tournament ever.” I was like “What do you mean?” and they were like “This is the first one in the entire country that we’ve ever done.” Like what? It just blew my mind. For us it’s a normal thing when you grow up in the States, you play 3-on-3 when you’re seven years old. But here I was making history in this random country through this sport that I thought history was already written for the entire sport. It was pretty surreal and an awesome experience overall.

GSC: How’d you guys do? Did you come in first place?

Leo: We won yeah, they said I could take home the trophy. I don’t know where it is, it’s somewhere here. I felt like a king. I’m a decent player, nothing special. But when I was there I was Michael Jordan. I felt so good.

GSC: Wow! Who were the guys on your team?

Leo: The guys on my team were pretty good compared to everyone else because I connected with them. They’re like probably the best in the country. But for a day I was the best basketball player in a country, which is pretty crazy.

GSC: That is dope. Where is your next foreign Peach Baskets trip gonna be?

Leo: I don’t know, I wanna go to Ireland which is where my heritage lies. A Peach Baskets of Ireland trip. 

GSC: How has basketball changed your life?

Leo: I can’t even quantify it. It’s been the mainstay since age four. It’s been the one thing I’ve always been drawn to. Like we talked about, it’s kind of a love/hate growing up. I was like “Do I really love this thing?” but as you get older you learn to appreciate it. Even like high school, I didn’t have a great high school career, it was some stupid politics of coaching and all that stuff, so I was disappointed because I always wanted to play college hoops. When I got to Fordham I was playing at Lombardi and I fell in love with the sport again. I was playing pick up with no care, no one’s gonna scream at me for making the turn over, and I absolutely loved it again. I remember thinking back when I was a freshman and sophomore, I would do anything to go out on the court again for the National Anthem and everyone’s here just to watch you and your team to play. There was something special about that. So once I got on the Fordham team, I had thought I was done and organized basketball was over for me, but I was lucky enough to walk onto the team. I remember standing on the court with the National Anthem playing at Fordham, and I was like I’m doing it again. I’m living a dream of playing college basketball and I’m standing for the National Anthem and I have a jersey on. I’m not gonna play I know that, but it was so cool to be able to do that with a greater appreciation for the sport.

GSC: What are your ambitions for Peach Baskets? It started as a photojournalism project, are you gonna get into photojournalism professionally?

Leo: I don’t know, I kind of left for the bike trip thinking I’d have this project figured out by the end of the trip. I’ll know exactly what I’m gonna do and what it’s gonna be, but I still don’t know what kind of life it’s gonna have going forward. I’m still trying to figure that out. I’m trying to reach out to publishers and see if there’s another book about the bike trip. I had a journal throughout the ride so it would be more writing and picture book. But it’s kind of up in the air.

GSC: How have you been taking care of your mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Leo: It’s weird to think that it’s almost been a full year since it all started. I’m so lucky to be at home. I quit that fish market job like a year ago this week actually, so I’ve been out of a full time job for a year. I’ve had some temp jobs, that are, well, temp jobs. But I‘m so lucky to have a family and no one close to me has been affected with the illness or anything. Luckily my mental health has been pretty good and I was able to do this bike trip with no issues in the middle of a pandemic. Who knows how I’d be able to answer this if I had a close friend or relative pass away or if something happened on the bike trip. I just feel super lucky to be safe, under a roof, with loved ones.

GSC: Did you notice the pandemic in America when you were biking?

Leo: It really depended on the place and the area. Like some small towns in the South didn’t care at all in terms of mask usage or stuff like that. In particular, I walked into a diner with my mask on in, I think it was Kentucky or something, and it seemed like the entire restaurant turned and stared at me for wearing a mask. I felt so out of place. But luckily there were no real issues of getting exposed. I got tested when I got to LA and I was clean so I don’t know. I just feel lucky throughout the entire process. 

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