Cooper Smith

The joys of pickup basketball


There is nothing quite like executing a perfect pick and roll with a complete stranger. It requires timing, coordination, awareness, and most of all a connection, with someone that five minutes earlier you didn’t even know existed. The moment only lasts a few seconds, but it never fully goes away.

“What suburbia cries for are the means for people to gather easily, inexpensively, regularly, and pleasurably — a ‘place on the corner,’ real life alternatives to television, easy escapes from the cabin fever of marriage and family life that do not necessitate getting into an automobile….Most needed are those ‘third places’ [home and work being the first two] which lend a public balance to the increased privatization of home life.”
Our Vanishing “Third Places” - Ray Oldenburg

Pickup basketball is a perfect social game. It’s flexible, able to be played with anywhere from two to ten people. The high frequency of offensive plays, and fast transition from defense to offence, mean you don’t have to feel too bad if you miss a shot, or fling that behind-the-back pass out of bounds. People of similar ability tend to end up guarding each other, so it’s not a massive problem to have people of varying skill levels on the court at the same time. Maybe most importantly, courts can be squeezed into lots of different places, so you usually don’t have to look very far to find somewhere to play. Playing with strangers is part of basketball’s DNA.

That DNA leads to small moments like forming an instant connection with someone you just met by pulling off an impossible comeback together. Or finding yourself guarding a friend, and the hours you’ve spent on the court together mean that you know exactly what he’s about to do, and he knows that you know, and everyone else fades away for a few seconds. Or getting a nickname for doing anything out of the ordinary, like ‘hotspot’ for hitting three shots in a row from the same spot on the perimeter, or ‘too-big-to-fail’ when someone with a height advantage is dominating the game. The rules of basketball and the culture of pickup turn the normally awkward and stilted social dynamics of interacting with strangers into the most fun thing you’ll do that week. Plus there’s the usual benefits of sport - competition, being in the sun and fresh-air, and getting fit.

Back in 2009 The Onion jokingly hit the nail on the head with the piece “90% Of Waking Hours Spent Staring At Glowing Rectangles”. An avalanche of entertainment options keeps us indoors and separated from the community around us, and is amplified by the increasing difficulty of making friends once you hit your mid-twenties. The more time I spend playing pickup basketball, the more I am convinced that it’s both the easiest and most enjoyable way to solve this problem.

Photo by MissDiagnosis  Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License