Disorder on the Court
The heat, the grit, the aggression, the asphalt facials—
it’s everything I love about pickup basketball
Hke, poke, poke went his
nger against my head.
was playing basketball
t my local public court,
nd some static had
eveloped between me
nd this guy nicknamed
omicide. I stared straight
ahead, trying to ignore his jabbing finger.
“You stink!” he yelled, barking right into my
face. He was six feet three inches, not as
tall as I am, but much stronger, a white guy
with impressive hops, good ball skills, a
gangster roll, and a smooth hip-hop lexicon.
Everyone at the park seemed to know
him, yet I first laid eyes on him just a few
weeks earlier, in spite of having come to this
playground for upwards of five years. So
where had he been for the past five years?
My thoughts circled back to his nickname.
Pop quiz: How long does it take to regress
to the primal fear of the playground in junior
high school? Everyone knows the answer to
that. No time at all. I wasn’t terrified, exactly.
I was petrified. Poke, poke, poke. I stared
straight ahead and wondered if he was
holding his fingers in the shape of a gun.
At last play resumed. For a while I
suffered abuse both verbal and basketball,
but finally my game showed up: I scored
a couple of times and then blocked
Homicide’s next shot. It wasn’t anything
glamorous, just my typical, intense style.
Of course, he then elbowed me in the face.
I went crashing down and, giving in to my
rage, took him with me. The freaky sound
of my head against the pavement—closer
to a pop than a thud—was the only reason
the situation didn’t escalate into a fight.
Everyone freaked out and intervened,
though not before Homicide got in another
elbow to my throat. I walked it off and the
game went on. Even more weirdly, or maybe
this was inevitable, Homicide and I became
not exactly friends, but communicants.
I always played him hard, and I showed
up all the time. He dunked a lot; I was the
other guy in the poster. After a full summer
occupying the same cosmology—our local
basketball court—he even treated me with
something approaching respect.
to jog so as to warm up. It was about
six blocks. After a few times, I realized I
wasn’t really jogging, I was running. I ran
straight down the center of the street with
an urgency that suggested I was either
running away from something or toward
something that would leave without me if
I didn’t get there soon enough—it was the
desperation of the addicted.
Oddly enough, my first encounter with
street ball took place in the winter. I was
Suddenly, the public court gets personal. You are
isolated one-on-one, the guy with the ball versus
his defender, and the unspoken question arises
again and again: What are you going to do now?
Thomas Beller’s collection of essays,
Lost and Found: Stories From New
York, will be published in May. He teaches
at Tulane University.
Basketball in America has two
discrete seasons, which makes
it unique among the major
sports. Hockey is a winter sport.
Baseball is a summer sport.
Men’s basketball, however, is a winter
sport for everybody playing or watching
organized team ball, from junior varsity
on up to the NBA. The other side of this
seasonal coin is the great wellspring of
athletic joy that bears fruit in the warm
weather: the public-playground pickup
game. For most people who actually play,
basketball is a summer sport.
I’ve always had a nearly addictive
relationship with playground hoops. I
tend to think of my local court the way
some people think of their local bar: as
the home, living room, and commune of
like-minded brothers. Since I’ve stopped
going to bars, or at least stopped
drinking in them, my feelings toward
pickup basketball have only intensified.
For a long time I rode my bike to the
playground, but at some point I started
12 years old, bundled up, wearing black
wool gloves, bouncing a new ball on an
empty, frozen asphalt court with battered
metal backboards and bent rims. I’ve
heard of similar beginnings from other
people; at that age, between 10 and 12,
you can start to interact with a basketball.
It’s around then that the strange, gravity-defying feel of the ball returning to your
hand takes hold. Or maybe you become
hypnotized by the sight of the ball arcing
up into the air and into the basket.
I returned to the playground again and
again, always by myself. It’s possible that
part of my initial attraction to the game had
to do with just how deep you can get into it
while alone. Surely every superstar—Magic,
MJ, Kareem, Kobe—has put in thousands
of hours by himself, playing out elaborate
fantasies, losing phantom defenders with
vicious crossovers, and hitting last-second
shots over and over and over. They’ve had
prolonged sessions of sustained basketball
orgasm in which streamers continuously
rain down from the rafters and teammates