Sports & Recreation

Best ongoing pickup basketball game

Photo By Larry Dalton

Roosevelt Park

Early on a Saturday afternoon, in late summer, 10 men, familiar to each other, smiling easily but resting low and solid on their bent legs, are waiting for the ball. They wear their shorts long, their T-shirts baggy, and have great big shoes. They pace between plays, bare their chests, drink from the tiny schoolyard-sized water fountain and then get back into place. Out of more than a dozen men, there’s only one white guy. He has his shirt off, and he’s on the sidelines.

Two ball courts sit side by side on the southwest corner of this park downtown. The regulars prefer the court to the south, in full sun, bordered by a shady strip where a couple of men are lounging in fold-out chairs, their big knees relaxed and far apart. On the second court, a half dozen boys, sons of the players—some so small they need two hands to carry a basketball—sit on the edge of the asphalt, squinting a little and looking bored. Every once in a while, the taller ones get up and try to make a couple baskets. Then they sit back down again and stare at their fathers.

One player dribbles across the court in a few long strides, moving forward on his toes to keep hold of the ball. It barely touches the pavement before it’s up again and slammed across the court.

This game looks civil. The players are getting some exercise, getting some sun, playing with their friends. They don’t seem too invested in winning—until someone mentions the score.

“We are down by one!” yells a player.

Another gets in his face. “It was 10 to seven!” he yells.

The aggressive dance is on. The two men stretch out their arms, push their chests forward, approach each other yelling.

“That’s real,” someone keeps repeating as the conflict dies down and everybody starts thinking about the game again. But then, out of nowhere, the conflict boils over.

“Fuck him. Ten to nine is the score!”

“You all ain’t never been close to tying this game up!”

“Let’s go,” says someone on the court, authoritatively, and play starts up again, but it has more of an edge now. People are jumping high. The ball is bouncing off their fingertips. A player with long curls comes out of the knot of men, turns toward the hoop, flicks his wrist and then listens, sickened, as the ball bangs hard against the backboard off to the right of the hoop. The player turns away; he can’t watch. “Fuck no,” he says, rubbing his hands together in disappointment, “fuck no!”

People start moving faster. A player gets smacked in the face by the flying ball. “My bad, man,” yells the player who threw the ball, as he heads fast down the court.

Around the players, the rest of the park is almost empty. A young father sits with his tiny toddler son between his legs. They’re far enough away to miss the worst of the language but close enough to see the best of the play.

The ball rises over a group of players and sails all the way across the court. Someone catches it. Out there by himself for a split second, he pivots, barely glances at the hoop, gets up on his toes and drops it in.

Almost imperceptibly, everything winds down. Players wander off the court. One sits down among the little boys, his long legs out in front of him, and watches his teammates chat. That’s the game, and nobody’s complaining about a couple of points now. It doesn’t matter anymore how close the score was. If you lost, you lost. Two men are picking players for a new game already.
Roosevelt Park, 1615 Ninth Street.