We play for the camaraderie. We play for the competition. We play to feel good. We play to feel ourselves.
He arrives at the gym on a chilly Wednesday night a few minutes after 8 PM. He’s holding his sneakers and a black elastic ankle brace in one hand and a pair of mesh shorts in the other. The staccato squeaks of rubber-on-gym-floor echo in the background. And the fellas exchange a few head-nods and grip hands.
The familiar faces are here, each going through his now-familiar pre-game ritual. One is carefully applying the right knee brace. Another flexes forward in a runners stretch against the gymnasium wall. A third takes warm up shots inthe hoodie sweatshirt that will soon be discarded, but not until mid-way through the first game, as is his tradition.
Pick-up basketball. It is fluid elegance. It is speed. It is a perfect blend of guile and athleticism.
But let’s be honest. Most of our pick-up games aren’t Rucker Park ball or the kind of street-ball on display in White Men Can’t Jump. Sadly, for many of us – and particularly as we get a little bit older- our games evoke a style that is more in the vein of Along Came Polly‘s Phillip “Let It Rain” Seymour Hoffman than Wesley Snipes’ “It Is Hard To Look This Good.”
That is to say, this is not necessarily a graceful game.
It can be slow. There is a dazzling litany of injuries; ankles, knees, backs, achilles, hamstrings. And the next day, it sometimes seems, we’re a few steps slower still.
So, why do we play? What pulls us to the gym?
Its our own space. Walking into that gym is a bit like “Cheers.” “Everybody knows your name.” They also know your style, your character, and all those little details about your game – that go-to spin move when you get into the lane, the drop-step on the baseline, that you like to cross-over and drive left when you start your dribble from the right elbow. That one’s a shooter! Force him right! Pressure the ball!
In pick-up basketball, you have a role to play. And so does everyone else. And people dependably play to their stereotypes on the court.
The reliability of that feels comfortable and familiar and right. It fits. It jibes. It’s good.
Incidentally, it is also hilarious. This funny-because-its-so-true phenomenon is expertly captured, to great comedic effect, in the YouTube video, entitled “Stereotypes: Pickup Basketball.”
We play for the camaraderie. We play for the competition. We play to feel good. We play to feel ourselves. And by playing together, we learn each other.The defenses come down. There is joking and ribbing. But we also talk. We talk about our families, we talk about our jobs, we talk about our lives.
In short easy bursts. Camouflaged by an orange ball.