The welcoming world of pick-up basketball
“Hey, man, your peripheral better be fucked up!”
In a pickup basketball game on a New York City playground, a player ignores his teammates. He hoists a bad shot. On the next possession, he turns the ball over.
“Mother fucking Michael Jordan. Yeah, go ahead and shoot, Jordan-ass wannabe.”
Laughter erupts from the spectators. The player tries ball-hogging again. The spectators boo. To teach him a lesson, his teammates stop passing him the ball.
Pick-up basketball is often derided as “street” and “schoolyard” and as encouraging selfish play. It is maligned as an immature version of the textbook games organized by civic associations, high schools, and universities.
But on that New York City playground, both the players and the spectators tried to teach an ill-mannered player how to be a good sport.
Francisco Vieyra, writing for Qualitative Sociology, spent over a year in the Big Apple playing and talking with players and spectators on several dozen basketball courts.
He found that, far from being a hot-headed haven of selfishness and immaturity, pickup basketball is a welcoming and well-organized place. It provides informal mentoring on how to improve your game, how to get a job, and how you can deal with life’s everyday troubles.
Shoot bricks all you like: pick-up bball is a foundation of urban communities.
Anyone can be a spectator and everyone – no matter who they are or what clothes they wear – can play.
“I often found white-collar workers wearing the athletic shoes they tucked away in their briefcases, blue-collar workers still in their overalls and boots, and underemployed or unemployed men and children in their shorts and sneakers on the same court,” Vieyra writes.
There are social rules for every aspect of the basketball experience: for fair choice in who will play next and for pre-game practice shoot-arounds. Everyone is expected to help clear the court of ice or other seasonal debris.
Players organize “contests,” which can be 3-on-3 or 5-on-5 matches that, to get as many different folks onto the court as possible in a reasonable amount of time, are between fifteen minutes and a half an hour. While some of the rules differed from game to game – such as how fouls will be called and the point allotment for baskets – the players negotiate and agree on these rules before tipoff.
Talk about It
Some guys were hanging around the court, waiting for their turn to play. One of these guys started talking about how he recently lost his job. One guy pointed to a short fellow who worked at an employment agency and suggested that he talk to him. Another guy chimed in that, just a few months ago, he got a construction job that way. They first guy took the suggestion for help and, later on, got a job as a janitor.
In the pickup basketball world, one can find friends, news, gossip, advice.
They also share stories about racism in America.
“In one memorable conversation,” Vieyra writes, “a player told us how earlier in the day he overheard his white boss make racist remarks about Blacks to several white co-workers. Rustling a few papers to establish his presence in the room resulted in his boss quickly turning around, awkwardly stammering that it was ‘just a joke,’ and leaving the room without waiting for a response.”
The others listened and some told their similar stories of racism at work. A discussion ensued “over the merits of filing a grievance, quitting on principle, or begrudgingly tolerating such abuses because of the difficulty of finding a new job as a Black man.”
If You Build It
Communities are sustained by special events. In good weather, the community turns the basketball courts into tournaments and summer leagues that, over time, can develop a long standing and well-known local history, like the Entertainers’ Basketball Classic at the Holcombe Rucker Basketball Court, and that can draw over a thousand spectators. Out-of-town tourists come there for “a big part of Black history.”
Most of these special contests are smaller affairs of the local community. They exhibit the kind of “flashy” play that is highlighted on YouTube, but this is because they are, first and foremost, festive. Vendors sell ice cream, artists hawk their wares, and players’ family and friends cheer.
“Yeah, this makes my mom proud,” a player said. “She comes to every tournament. Every one. Doesn’t matter where it’s at. And afterwards, that’s all she’ll talk about.”
Pickup basketball is not a utopia: insults, bad manners, and undesirable conduct happens. Generally, bad manners are done in-game and spectators and players try to cool heated disagreements. Rarely is it personal and once the game is over, the conflict ends. Fights are rare.
Pickup basketball can be a deep and meaningful experience that is woven into the fabric of players’ everyday life. Within it, they become a part of the larger community.
“Pickup basketball does not escape New York City’s greater structural realities,” Vieyra writes. “It can, however, serve as a reprieve from these issues.”
This is written by Joshua K. Dubrow and is based on “Pickup Basketball in the Production of Black Community” by Francisco Vieyra in Qualitative Sociology in 2016 (39:101–123).
Copyright Occam’s Press 2021: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND