I hear the game before I see it.
The thump of the leather ball on asphalt, at first fast and urgent — a martial drum beat — then slow and rhythmic. Ten pairs of rubber shoes scraping on blacktop, a low, constant scuffling as men sprint and shuffle and rearrange themselves endlessly on the court. And, above all, the voices.
“On your left! On your left!”
“Swing it! Swing it!”
“You got him. You got him!”
Once I start playing, there is more: the schwick of the net as frayed nylon flips in the air. The sideline chatter, courtesy of amateur Marv Alberts who narrate every spin dribble. And, of course, the payoff — when a give-and-go works to perfection, when a deep three-pointer drops in, when someone swats a lay-up into the nearby parking lot like an Olympic volleyball player. At those times, all you hear is a primal roar. “Yeahhhh, baby!”
On this afternoon, I’m at a playground in San Anselmo, Calif. The late afternoon sun singes my neck, a breeze drifts down from the hills, and on the sideline men sit in foldout chairs, cradling Gatorade. A pair of 9-year-old boys sit and watch. My team wins its first two games, loses the third, and then, after 15 minutes on the sideline waiting, regroups to win the fourth.
It is a good “run,” as pickup games are called, scrappy but infused with a sense of community. The players include two local firefighters, a basketball coach, a surf bum, a real-estate agent, and a father-son pair. Throughout the afternoon, I exchange at least a dozen high-fives, and as many fist bumps. Winning is important, but not as important as being a good teammate. Afterward, the regulars sit around and laugh and joke, exhuming beers from red coolers. Basketball is what brought them together; these games are the glue that binds them.
For me, this is home. At 40, I’ve spent the better part of my life playing pickup basketball, and I’ll keep doing so until my body gives out, and maybe even after that. My dad is 74, has had two knee replacements, and his right shoulder is so torn up that he now shoots left-handed. Even so, he still plays at a regular outdoor game every three weeks or so. His adopted maxim is “You don’t stop playing hoops because you get old. You get old because you stop playing hoops.”
It goes without saying that basketball is a great workout. It engages fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscles, requires endurance and frequent sprinting, and, best of all, it’s the kind of engaged sport where you forget you are exercising. No one ever stops and checks his watch during hoops, unless he has to leave.
Then there’s the social aspect. No other sport eliminates boundaries like hoops. Five strangers meet on a court and are forced to work together to succeed. No one cares about your age or background or anything but whether you can play. You can make lifelong friends playing ball. I know; I have.
I began playing pickup ball when I was in grade school and continued throughout high school and college. When I got a car, I kept a basketball and hightops in the trunk so I’d always be prepared if I happened upon a game. After college, I indulged my passion by traveling around the country with my brother and two college teammates, searching out the best pickup games. We drove 31,000 miles in seven months, visiting all 48 contiguous states and stopping whenever we found a good run. In all, we visited more than 700 courts, from playgrounds to rec centers to tony health clubs. It was a blast.
The result was a book: Hoops Nation. It was part guide to where to play, part travelogue, part anthropology. To me it seemed like an obvious idea, but my boss at the time believed I’d written an entire book about picking up women at basketball courts.
If you didn’t grow up in the game, the culture of pickup ball can seem foreign. It’s a heady mix of race, class, ritual, geography, and skill. Entering a game at a gym in Los Angeles can be totally different than at a blacktop in New York City. The rules change from court to court. Still, abide by certain unwritten rules and you can play anywhere. Consider this an unofficial primer.
Showing up: First you need to find a game. The best bets are health clubs, rec centers, and playgrounds. Many clubs host noon runs for the work crowd. Outdoor courts are busier in the afternoons and evenings and on weekends. YMCAs and your neighborhood gyms are always a good bet. (See the InfiniteHoops app.)
Getting in: Show up early. This ensures you get in the first game. Otherwise, you may have to wait up to half an hour or more. Ask a regular what system is in use for picking teams. Do they use a sign-up sheet or, the most democratic method, an unofficial tally of the next five guys? If so, just make sure you’re noted.
Another popular method is captains, where one player has “next” and is allowed to pick up any other four players he or she likes. In this case, ask those waiting, “Who’s got next?” Locate that player and see if he needs another teammate. If not, find out who has “next” after him. Continue down the line until you can join a team or, if no one has space, then declare that you have “next” after the final team.
Pickup hoops is governed by a winner-stays-on formula, so it can be Darwinian. If you are tall, or look athletic, or show off a few nice jump shots while warming up, your chances of getting picked up by a captain go up. It’s not fair, but, hey — everybody wants to stay on the court. Once you’ve played somewhere a couple of times, you’ll earn a reputation, and that will ease the process.
Court etiquette: Different courts abide by different rules. Some play to 11 points, with every basket worth one, win by two. Others play to 21 points, using two and three pointers. I’ve played places where teams that win twice in a row have to leave the court and go to the back of the line. Make sure you know before you start.
Because there are no refs in pickup, players call their own fouls. This can lead to disputes. Your best bet is to call only obvious fouls and refrain from being a hack on defense. If you get a reputation for calling a foul every time you’re breathed on, no one will want to play with you. Everyone’s here to have fun.
The single best rule to follow is to treat other players the way you want to be treated. It sounds corny but it works. Also: If you’re the new player, the quickest route to respect is to pass the ball, play hard defense, and hustle. Everybody loves players who pass, defend, and hustle. No one wants to pick up someone who shoots the first time he or she touches the ball.
Female players: Sadly, you don’t see as many women playing pickup. I’ve always wondered what happens to all those avid high school and college players. Many years ago, I dated a woman who played college ball, and we had a great time finding local games around Philadelphia. Like most women who played organized ball, she was fundamentally sound, played the right way, and could knock down open jumpers. Male opponents often didn’t know how to respond, playing soft defense in a misguided attempt to be chivalrous. For this reason, most smart male pickup players love having a woman on their team when they can. Watch the wins pile up.
Team play: Unless you bring your own quintet — which is not a bad idea, and can be fun — you’re going to be playing with four strangers. You’ll have to decide who guards whom, and which position you’re going to play. This is a good time to assert yourself, if you’re confident in your game. If you’re short but play big, let your teammates know. If you love playing defense, don’t shy away from asking to cover a better player. This should endear you to your teammates while helping you win.
Once play starts, never get down on your team. When this happens, you often see pickup teams implode, and then lose, and then argue. Frame advice in a positive fashion, if you must give it. Fill the holes in your teammates’ games. Find your spot within the offense. Take open shots when you have them and know you can hit them. When in doubt, hustle.
If it all goes well, this is where the magic of the game occurs. Spontaneous chemistry. Instant camaraderie. A shared sense of battle. A brief but glorious respite from the rest of life.
This article originally appeared as “Pickup Artist” in the April 2014 issue of Experience Life.
Chris Ballard is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of Hoops Nation.