In praise of pickup basketball

“We go to the playground in search of our fathers. We didn’t find them but we found a game and the game served as a daddy of sorts,” the novelist John Edgar Wideman wrote in his book Hoop Roots. This quote is a fitting epigraph for Thomas Beller’s Lost in the Game: A Book about Basketball, a nonfiction collection of essays by a New York City kid who lost his father at the age of nine and found meaning and lessons on manhood through the sport.

Lost in the Game includes several humorous, psychologically probing profiles of the NBA’s biggest luminaries—Kyrie Irving of the Dallas Mavericks, Anthony Davis of the Los Angeles Lakers, and Zion Williamson of the New Orleans Pelicans, to name but a few—but also of some of its obscure, near-forgotten players, like Bol Bol of the Orlando Magic and Kerry Kittles, a pre-Brooklyn New Jersey Net. 

“The Jokić Files” merits mention for anyone who even casually follows the NBA. These “files” contain precise descriptions of the Joker’s hands, gait, and nose as if his physical traits could be broken down and added back up into the basketball oddity that the pudgy, almost seven-foot, two-time–MVP-winning Serbian is. 

Unfortunately for fans of the hapless Bulls, this collection contains no elaborate descriptions of DeMar DeRozan’s inestimable pull-up jumpers from either elbow or his slinking drives to the basket that defense stoppers nevertheless fail to block or disrupt. 

Nor does it dwell much on the college or high school game, although there is brief mention of Beller playing Division III basketball at Vassar and at a private school while growing up in New York City. 

Beyond the NBA chapters, what is of most interest for those of us past our primes or, at the very least, no longer full of hoop dreams, are his tales of being a “late bloomer,” someone who came into his own only as an adult, and for his attention to the peculiar lingo and unspoken rules of street basketball.

The first thing I did when I moved to Chicago during the pandemic was search out the nearest basketball hoop. The ones at Kozminski Community Academy nearest my apartment were shorn of their rims—they still are—the white backboards attached to long gray poles looked like enormous metal swans with their orange beaks removed. 

Beller writes about playing on a court in New Orleans in the early days of the pandemic just like Kozminski, where he plunked shots off the backboard, imagining that a hoop and net were there. That, for me, is a cheap facsimile of what it’s like to shoot. But maybe if I had been desperate enough, I would have too.

Instead, I found courts, rims miraculously intact, at the playground on 49th Street and Drexel Avenue, with the vibrant mural by Bernard Williams dedicated to the civil rights leader Rev. Jessie “Ma” Houston as a backdrop. 

The Loyola Park basketball court in Rogers Park without rims in August 2018. Credit: Alison Saldanha

Fortunately for Chicagoans, Mayor Lightfoot only shut down courts on the lakefront during the pandemic, and select wards had rims removed by order of their respective alderpeople, unlike in New York City, where the Parks District disabled 138 rims to discourage people from gathering to play or even shoot around. 

Games on that court during the summer of 2020 featured an eclectic, unlikely mix of folks, young kids like Shaggy and gray beards like David from the adjacent housing projects as well as undergraduates and staff from the university in Hyde Park. Every day there were full-court, five-on-five games, with guys milling around on the sidelines waiting for next.

About the dynamics of outdoor basketball, which apply equally well to my experience in Chicago, Beller writes, “It wasn’t personal, but it was. It wasn’t racial, but it was, a little. It was about talent but also about physical grace and personal style . . . Street ball is a place where triumphs and defeats are only partly about basketball.”

As I’m guessing it was for many, basketball was a lifeline for me during that period of social isolation and physical inactivity. 

“Like a heavy drinker attuned to the moment in the afternoon when it is acceptable to make the first drink, my afternoons were—and are—always punctuated by a moment when I am suddenly aware that going to play basketball is an option,” Beller writes. These words capture something I have long felt, including that summer.

My basketball education came on the asphalt courts of New York and San Francisco, where I played almost every day from June through August. In those pickup games at Riverside Park and the Panhandle, I was fouled hard and smacked down many times while going for a layup or a rebound, got up bleeding from my chin or mouth, with jammed fingers or skinned knees, but, nevertheless, kept running and hustling until the game was through. And I kept coming back for more, some insane, masochistic impulse driving me.

A more positive spin to my basketball passion has been its role as a source of male bonding. I’ve made lifelong friends, one after an intense mano a mano game against a guy from my freshman dorm, played in the middle of a furious downpour from Hurricane Sandy, and another by simply showing up one day to play at a sandy gym in the middle of the Moroccan desert when I was serving in the Peace Corps.

This past summer, Coach “Tree,” a two-time Illinois state championship-winning assistant coach for Hales Franciscan High School, with the rings to back it up, approached me while I was shooting on a half-court riven with cracks outside Ray Elementary on 57th Street. 

He talked my ear off from the get-go about the history of Chicago basketball. 

Because I grew up there, I knew a bit of New York’s history, but I knew next to nothing about the Windy City’s storied past. Tree filled me in. 

The world-famous Harlem Globetrotters originally hailed not from the streets north of Central Park but from the south side of Chicago, playing at the Savoy Ballroom, a crowd-pleasing prelude to the dances hosted there. 

“Look that up if you don’t believe me,” Tree said. 

I did. He wasn’t kidding.

Tree learned how to shoot not on a flawless hardwood indoor court like the hoopers of this generation but on the fenced-in court on the west side of Washington Park.

There he played with the likes of Mel Davis and Porter Meriwether, guys who had their summers off from pro ball, worked a second job during the off-season, and came to the courts to teach kids like Tree the ins and outs of the game.

That said, the state of pickup basketball is perhaps on the decline, at least according to Beller’s and my own limited observations. 

The culprits: gentrification, the pre-professionalization of the sport (there’s money made in organized basketball, whereas there’s none in street ball), the lure of sports like soccer or video games, and the dangers outside of gun violence or police brutality for young men of color.

For lovers of the game, that’s a tragedy. 

What was once normal in places like Chicago, New York City, San Francisco—where all-time greats like Isiah Thomas, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Bill Russell practiced their skills on outdoor courts for all to see and for those foolhardy enough to compete against—is today unimaginable.

And with the commodification of exercise, meaning indoor recreation spaces for only those who can afford it, and public school closures leaving once teeming gyms vacant, it may be getting harder for young people without the means to find spaces to pick up the game.

Few, if any, will reach the summit of the sport and go pro, but if Beller, Tree, or I offer an example, perhaps they’ll find a lifelong passion that cuts across racial, cultural, and generational divides. 

Lost in the Game: A Book about Basketball by Thomas Beller Duke University Press, paperback, 240 pp., $22.95,

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