I believe in pick-up basketball. Pick-up hoops is the ultimate meritocracy. Your name, age, job, social standing, skin color, even gender, none of that matters. Size can matter, but not as much as you would think. What matters is the game.
I believe in the integrity and equity of the pick-up game. Everyone plays. First ten to arrive are the teams. Self-appointed captains shoot free throws or three-pointers to see who picks first. First picks matter: Get the right player and you can keep the court forever. Players are picked for their skill, their ability to play team ball, and their will to keep the court.
I believe in the game’s simplicity: one ball, a hoop, two or more players, and the game is on. At the schoolyard, the park, the rec center, the Y, the rules are essentially the same: shirts and skins, no refs, call your own fouls. Half court: make and take. First team to ten buckets wins. Gotta win by two buckets. Full court: first team to 25 or 30 wins. Gotta win by 2. Winners keep playing; losers get back in line.
I believe in teamwork: the satisfaction of a perfectly timed bounce pass to a back door cutter, executing the pick and roll, helping defense, blocking out, switching on D, making the extra pass, taking a charge (even if it’s never called in pickup games), fundamentals, assists. I believe in the magic that happens on the court in the improbable meshing of self-less play enabling a group of lesser athletes to sweep away groups of selfish stars.
I believe in the power of play. Grown men with gym bags full of socks, shorts, shirts, tape, and braces for knees, ankles, elbows, backs — aging bodies patched together for one more time — prolonging the never-to-be-realized dream of playing in the big time. One time at the Y, a late 50s guy named Chuck played in our regular lunchtime game, went home, took a nap, and died in his sleep. There wasn’t a person in the gym the next day who didn’t think: “That wouldn’t be a bad way to go.”
I believe in learning more about a person in an afternoon of pick-up games than you can learn in a year of sitting next to him in church. I believe in the bonding power of on-court banter, jive, jawing, needling, joking, ridiculing — nothing personal — all part of the game. Testing moods, testing mettle, applying pressure, playing under pressure, being a part of a social dynamic.
I believe in the hope of the improbable comeback, knowing it could happen this game because you’ve seen it happen before.
Winning or losing, it is about the game, and the game is about sharing. It is about the team, being a part of something larger than self. Pick-up ball is community. It is life.
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