Democracy’s Concrete Court
By Mark EdmundsonFebruary 23, 2020
This is what you say when you arrive at a basketball court dressed in your shorts and sneakers and ready to play. You say it when you walk into the gym where you’re a regular, but you can also say it at the playground where no one knows you because you’re new in town or passing through for a week or weekend. Someone will always respond. Someone will tell you that the guy over there dribbling by himself has not the next, but the next one down, and tell you that he’s only got three, so he needs two more to put a team together.
Even if you’re not what the team captain needs — if you’re too short or too chunky, or apparently too old (my situation, nowadays), he’s likely to nod his head when you ask him to play. Or maybe he’ll be more hospitable: “Yeah, sure man.” He’ll put out his hand and tell you his name. Not much later, you’re in a game, and in a small pocket of thriving democracy in a culture that doesn’t offer many.
Most of American culture now is about stars. We’re fascinated by the best, number one, the king. We worship the greatest athletes, business moguls, big-selling authors, celebrity chefs and doctors. In politics, all too many of us swoon before the Big Man. But to this trend there are exceptions — the simple game of pickup basketball is one of them.
The “who’s got next” business is part of the ethic of American pickup ball. You honor the game by keeping it open to anyone who wants to play; you welcome the newcomer to the ball court the way ancient Greeks welcomed a guest. Who knows, it might be a god coming in disguise. The skinny guy with the ragged shorts might be able to pick his way into the paint and flip it in with either hand; or, more likely, he might be able to nail a 30-foot jumper. In pickup basketball, you never know what you’re going to get.
As Brian Doyle says in his engaging book, Hoop, when you’re picking teams, “Don’t be afraid to choose the fat guy. Fat guys are often decent rebounders, they often set mammoth picks, they tend not to be arrogant and selfish, and at the very least they take up a lot of space.” On a ball court, it’s wise to extend hospitality to all.
The guy you just met might be feeling lonely and need someone to hang with, though without any searching conversation. He might be running from this or that. What he wants is to share in the oblivious happiness that a game of five-on-five can create. And you reach out and give it to him if you can. Some day, one way or another, you’ll probably be in his place.
Stanley Fish, the literary and cultural critic, is also a devoted pickup basketball player and well attuned to the welcoming nature of the game. “[F]or one thing,” he writes, “basketball players are […] generous. […] If you’re not very skilled, if you’re old and slow, they will make a place for you in the game.” In a good game of pickup, ball players create what Fish, following the writer Thomas McLaughlin, calls an “ethical fabric.” That means encouraging teammates, playing unselfishly, not showing off, not humiliating players on the other team.
I have often been the beneficiary of that ethical fabric, even when those weaving me into it [were] perfect strangers. For one of the great things about being a basketball player (or pretending to be) is that no court is closed to you, which is why I always have a basketball in the trunk of my car. You can just show up wherever there is a hoop and a game and you will be included.
Brian Doyle shares Fish’s affection for the democratic. “I love that you do not have to be burly and tall and grim and muscular to be good and even great at basketball. I love that there is no armor necessary, no hiding of the face, no idiosyncratic equipment. I love that you can be bad at it but enjoy it immensely.”
I know of people who take their basketball shoes with them wherever they travel, much as Fish always goes with his ball in the trunk. When the rest of the corporate gang goes out for a drink at five, they hop into their rented Fords or Chevys and look for a game. You can cruise over to the city’s black neighborhood, provided it has one, and you’ll always find a game, maybe two or three. If you’re white, you may get a certain look, but with the assumption that if you you’re willing to show up you probably can fit in.
Some players are pseudo-stars. They want to show up and dazzle the competition. And if you’re a certain sort of offensive player (I’m not) you can pull off some impressive stuff the first time you land with this group or that. All your moves are new to them. Your up-fake sends them to the clouds, and around the defenders you go for an easy two. Or your stop-and-go leaves them frozen there in front of you, and you’re off flying so fast, you might as well be wearing a cape. What’s tough is to bust that flash move a second or third time. What’s even tougher is to come back the next day and get away with it. Pickup ballplayers are sometimes slow to register an opponent’s style and to see what he can do and what he can’t. But once the book on you is written and everyone knows the contents, you’re going to have to do the thing that not all ballplayers can — you’re going to have to improvise.
Most players who go for glory in pickup games have a limited repertoire. They’re like restaurants that always sling the same hash. Eventually everybody gets tired of it. In the long run, the pickup game is inhospitable to the pseudo-stars. They lose too often and their selfishness demoralizes their teammates. In pickup, it’s collaboration that gets the job done.
Another kind of pickup player, the best kind, is the one who lives to help create a team. When you can turn five players who don’t know each other well into a cohesive unit, what you can accomplish is miraculous. Because in basketball there is a wonderful truth: five people who play together well, who pass and cut and rebound and don’t take stupid shots, can be quite a force. I’ve often stepped out onto the court with what looks like the most motley crew this side of the press gang, against much more high-test teams, and won.
We won by helping each other on defense. No one was ever single-teamed down close to the basket. Catch the ball there and at least one extra player came down on you. If the player you were guarding slid by you and you called for help, help was there. On selfish teams, members cover their own player and when someone else’s scores, they look down at the ground and shake their heads in exasperation.
What can make pickup basketball wonderful is the feeling that arises when you play the right way. You get out on the court and you help each other and you pass and rebound and run hard and suddenly the magic kicks in and you are not simply an individual but a larger being in motion. There is beauty in hitting someone with a perfect pass that makes him look great, and that beauty is hard to find in life. There is a beauty in setting a perfect pick that may earn you an elbow in the nose, but that results in a clean lane to the basket for your teammate. It’s wonderful when one team actually is a team — they often win against the odds. The true team is so much greater than the sum of its parts that it really does defy belief.
Playing pickup basketball is conducive to something even better than this feeling of harmony. When two teams are playing and they’re both into it, you often see people being better than they are and enjoying it. I don’t mean athletically better, though that comes into it. I mean ethically. They’ll call fouls on themselves; they’ll admit they hit the ball last before it went out of bounds, though no one else really saw it. They’ll not foul someone who has stolen the ball and is taking a layup.
A lot of the people who play b-ball on the street and in the park and the gym have tough lives. They drive buses, they work as laborers, they slop up the mess at the hospital: they aren’t big-time players in life. And so on the court it’s natural that they want to shine. They want to triumph in one place, and shouldn’t they have the right? But often they sacrifice the desire to star or even to win to something that you’d have to call respect for the game and good feeling for the people they’re playing with. “No man, that was out on me.” “No, I fouled you.” I’ve heard it a thousand times.
A pickup b-ball game is also one of the few scenes in America where white people and black do something together. And usually they do it without particular self-consciousness. If you walk into the college gym where I play, you’ll see six black players on the court and four white, or five and five or four and four with a couple of Asian kids too. You’ll see blacks and whites sitting beside each other talking about one things and another, often sports, not always. You’ll get a small taste of what MLK liked to go on about, people of all races having a good time together.
Pickup ball brings people together from every social zone. In my gym, you’ll find students but also high-powered doctors, professors, people from admin, and also indoor maintenance staff, grounds crew, and people who do those jobs in universities that no one quite understands. There are always plenty of community people, too. They come in as guests, sometimes through the front door and sometimes, with the assistance of the gym members, around the side. In general, whoever wants to play does. On the city’s public courts, I’ve played with people who’re just out of prison and people who’re probably on the way. Doesn’t matter much: on ball courts, everyone’s equal and everyone does his best to respect the game.
Girls? Women? On the university court where I play, there’s a steady stream of women who come into the game and hold their own — and sometimes more than that. Many of those I’ve played with are expert three-point shooters. The introduction of the three-point shot has had many effects on basketball, not all of them salutary. But it’s made success in the game less dependent on physical strength and more on the finesse you need to hit the long ball. And that’s brought women in to play. In time, more will join them.
I’ve been lucky enough to play with a couple of bona fide female stars. One of the best female players I’ve seen play pickup is Monica Wright, Virginia’s all-time scoring leader, who posted up guys who outweighed her by 20 pounds, and sometimes began her move to the basket with a hard shoulder in her defender’s chest. Another is the Virginia great Dawn Staley, one of the fiercest competitors I’ve played against and also one of the sweetest people. I was covering her once on a switch: she faked a jump shot, juked left with her shoulder, then took off to her right for the basket. As she blew by me, she half turned over her shoulder and said, “I’m sorry, sir!”
I usually don’t like group activities. I don’t care for clubs and societies and meetings; they aren’t what they say they are. They are not group activities but occasions for people to impose their wearisome dogmas on other people. Too often church is about believing the fundamentals; high school is about standard success; colleges are about creating something called “leaders.” These facts — well, facts to me — make it all the more important to locate activities where you can find some collective beauty and some grace, even if they don’t last long, and look imperfect from the outside.
Most people watching a great pickup game might not be able to see the beauty of it. We’ve been trained in our sports perceptions by what we see on TV. We think that the NBA is the epitome of excellence for the game. It is and it isn’t, if you ask me. The guys that play on the NBA courts are remarkable athletes, though the number of them who can’t reliably hit a jump shot from 15 feet is pretty shocking.
The NBA creates stars — who generally are wonderful athletes; LeBron makes your eyes go wide; so do Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Kawhi Leonard, and plenty of others. But the NBA and the TV producers package the game to give them a centrality that in other conditions they would not quite have. Sports news chronicles every off-court movement the stars make; the broadcasters talk of little else but them; their pictures are everywhere. Then the refs bend the rules for them. The NBA produces stars so it can create marketing synergy with other businesses and get their guys endorsing various products for the general betterment of everyone who owns stock in the companies concerned.
People come to the arena or turn on the set to see the star do amazing deeds. They don’t come to watch a third banana dominate the game. Paying $500 to go to a Lakers game and watch one of the role players jack up shots, even if they happen to be falling that night, isn’t the NBA experience. It would be like going to a production of Hamlet where Laertes steps up and begins swiping Hamlet’s monologues. The NBA is an arena audience of 16,000 people watching eight people watch two people play.
Women’s ball has more passing, more strategy, strong cuts, smart weaves. The game produces stars, sure. No one I’d rather watch than the Diana Taurasi, who always seems to be going slower than everyone else on the court but is, through some miracle power of hers, passing them all by (I’ve tried to adapt this approach to my own game — so far, no real results). Yet overall, the WNBA is far less about star production than the men’s league. And that’s maybe one of the reasons it has not done as well.
On the pickup court, there are no commercial interests to screw up the game. Selfish guys and lazy guys can screw it up — but they do it for themselves and for their own team. And when they lose, they have to sit down and wait. Winners hold the court. Losers have to go to Time Out. And on a popular court, where everyone wants to get his five on and keep them on, Time Out can last a long time. In pickup basketball, virtue gets rewarded. When you give up a shot to pass the ball to a player who’s more open or closer to the hoop or simply a better shooter, you get paid off by contributing to a score. And you learn one of pickup ball’s key lessons — it feels way better to win as a group than it does to be a stand out on a losing squad. Winning must boost some friendly chemicals that run around laughing in your brain, if only for a little while.
I’d often rather watch a good pickup game than a mid-season pro contest. Sometimes instead of playing ball at my college gym, I like to sit on the exercise bike, push the pedals in a noncommittal way, and look through the glass divide onto the court. The best is to see five players spread the floor, pass well, play hard-d, and rebound for all they’re worth. Players may give each other a look for taking an off-balance shot, but the only sin that will really tick them off is not playing tough defense or not fighting for rebounds. Usually there’s no criticism for missing a plausible shot.
Halfway through the game the unselfish team is in full sync. Players are talking to each other; calling picks, calling switches. When the opposing big gets the ball in the paint, he better release it fast because the cavalry’s coming. By the end of the game, after the win, the unselfish guys feel like they’ve known their teammates for a half a year even if they met a half hour ago.
We say we live in a democracy. But think for a moment about how many areas of our culture are dominated by values that are, to speak broadly, aristocratic. Pro sports are all about stars; so naturally are the movies. TV, too, and radio. We live in a moment of celebrity CEOs, chefs, and presidents. We’re all in for stars (not for nothing is LeBron’s sobriquet King James). The effect this may have on our long-term democratic survival isn’t pleasant to contemplate.
But here and there we do find instances of something like real democratic culture. These are places where there’s room for almost everyone, the racial vibes are good, and the gender vibes are too; no one is king, and everybody has a good time. Pickup basketball is one of those places — in fact, it’s the best I’ve ever found.
Mark Edmundson teaches at the University of Virginia. His newest book is The Heart of the Humanities: Reading, Writing, Teaching.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Sports historian Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff uncovers an archival mystery about France, China, basketball, and a forgotten attempt at Cold War diplomacy....
"High Flying Bird’s" Lukácsian dramatization of class struggle remains trapped, visually and narratively, in a neoliberal perceptual apparatus....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.