8 men dribble and shoot around with 2 basketballs on the near end of a health club basketball court. Every few seconds, one of the men looks nervously toward the lobby, then bounces the ball and shoots. Most of the warm up shots go in. One of the men jogs back and forth and stretches like he did in high school gym class.
There is an easy camaraderie about these men. There is some small talk happening, mostly about the games this week or professional sports. They play here every day at noon. Some of the men are college age, working or going to school locally. You can tell that they’ve balled before in high school or on the playgrounds. They are quick, cocky and selfish with the ball. They are flashy and coordinated.
Other men who take the court are enjoying their white collar lunch hours with some old age and treachery on the court – a little jersey grab here, a mid range jumper off the glass there. They are looking nervously around…for 2 more guys to make 10.
The middle aged contingent would be fine with playing sideways 3 on 3 or 4 on 4 any day, but the younger guys are here to run. They would rather leave than play a half-court game. In fact, if 20 guys show up one day, they’ll continue to run 5 on 5 the long way and have 10 guys sit instead of running 2 sideways games. They want that powerful feel of fast breaks and full sprints they remember from high school a few years ago; a feeling of youth and power.
A tall white collar player shows up. His meeting had run long, but he’s half jogging to the locker room to get his shorts on. One of the shoot around guys combs the weight room and returns with a beefy guy that can’t say ‘no’ to some hoop.
The game begins with a lot of running. It’s fast paced- the young because that’s all they know and the older feeling blessed to get a great workout doing something so much fun. There’s a shooter or two on both teams who instantly fire up 3 pointers when they are open. His teammates cheer when the shot falls in or shake their heads when he misses. There are several workmen-like players who are running the point, trying to get something that looks fundamentally sound to happen on offense. These same guys are crouching on defense and slapping the floor – a proud determination that no one is going to get an easy shot on them. The workout guy is big and throws his weight around inside. There’s no one on the court who can stop him when he posts up, but his arms are awkward from the workout, so he misses several shots.
Inevitably an argument breaks out about a perceived foul. Shouting and manipulation ensue. Usually the least mature in the argument gets their way and the game proceeds with a check ball. In some cases, the game turns into a string of arguments and very little basketball gets played.
Pick-up basketball is a MAN game. I liken the sport to a non-verbal language, because a guy can go to a club or gym in any city or town, lace up some shoes, and step out on the court. He’s going to see a similar scene to what I’ve described. There will be skill and lack, athletes and ‘wannabees,’ mouthy and quiet, shooters and passers. He’ll get disrespected until he proves himself, but he’ll get a chance to prove himself. An argument will ensue, but it will sound a lot worse than it is. It will be resolved with a check ball and the players playing on. Occasionally, an argument will spill over into a shoving match or a flagrant foul later in the game, but usually it gets worked out.
Once you’ve played a while, you can watch the guys shoot around and stereo-type them into how they are going to play and which role they fit on the court. You can see the speedy dribbler that will drive into 3 guys and flip up an off-balance lay-up. He’ll make some fantastic shots and still cause his team to lose by being selfish. You’ll see the shooter who will make or break his team by whether he is on or off that day, because he is going to shoot regardless. You’ll see someone with a head for the game, filling lanes, boxing out, setting screens and rolling to the basket. His team will probably win, but he won’t score all the points, so many will not know why.
You’ll see leaders, followers, misfits and outsiders all working together to win a child’s game with more intensity and passion than they bring to any other facet of their lives. When the game is done, they’ll pat each other; shake hands, smile and walk away happier and fresher than they came in. Pick up basketball is therapy.
Black, White, Asian, and Hispanic, whatever – everyone is equal in this world. If you can ball, you can play here. If you can’t, just hang around and keep shooting. The day will come when that tenth guy doesn’t show and they’ll come to you. The game must go on. They’ve got to play. They’ve got to relive the magic of when they were great, or become the great that they never were.
Pick-up basketball is a world where a man can forget the weight of life for an hour or two. When you are on the court, your marriage, your bills, your enemies and the pressures at your job all disappear. The slate is wiped clean, and you get 60 minutes to prove yourself to these guys. More importantly, you get to prove yourself to yourself. It is a world where a man can get respect for what he does or doesn’t do, then walk away and come back tomorrow to earn respect all over again. He can be a hero or a goat, and it will be cool either way. Also, he can get in shape doing something he wants to do.
Image credit: Bob Smith
Russ Zacek is married with 4 children. He is a freelance writer from Angier, NC, a stay at home dad, home school teacher, and children’s director at his church.