Some Thoughts on Streetball

So it is in life—from sun, to moon, to earth, to night, to day, to you getting up in the morning and going out to play a game of ball. All the rhythms of life are in some way related, one to another.

The First Book of Rhythm by Langston Hughes

So you know, that you’re over the hill
When your mind makes a promise that your body can’t fill

Old Folks Boogie by Little Feat

I love to drive past Brea Junior High School on Lambert Road on warm nights when guys are playing basketball under the lights even though I had to quit over a decade ago. I played regularly in the same pickup game for over twenty years (roughly 1980-2000) until my body said, “No mas.” At some point we all must accept that the beat goes on without us.

On Saturdays and Sundays we would meet on the dirty asphalt: Kenny, Mitch, Oscar, Bob, Tony, Carl, Dave, Robert, Michell, Regan, Jeff, Rob, Brian, Don, Andy, Steve, me and whoever else decided to show. Some showed up sporadically; others were there every Saturday and Sunday. Year round unless it was raining, we almost always had enough guys to play five on five full court basketball. Sometimes so many guys showed up that when you lost you’d have to watch three or four games before you could play again.

Streetball has no constitution, but there are rules which vary somewhat from court to court. Two nearly universal rules make it possible for a guy to show up and play almost anywhere.

(Warning: Although I’ve shown up by myself and played at ballcourts in various locals without serious incident, it is always advisable to bring backup when playing with guys you don’t know. And some games should probably be avoided outright. I stopped playing at a particular court in Pomona when a buddy told me that disputes there sometimes involved firearms.)

Rule One: Players call their own fouls and all calls are respected. Play stops any time a player yells “foul,” and his team gets the ball back without any arguing or complaining–well, that’s how it works in theory. But if someone abuses this rule by calling a foul every time he misses a layup, that player will eventually face a barrage of verbal reprimands, sometimes from his own teammates. This is how the game regulates itself.

Rule Two:
The winning team keeps playing while the losers go to the back of the line. At our court next game always went to the five guys who had been waiting the longest, which is a good way to maintain tranquility and keep the games flowing. (At many streetball venues, players are able to call “next” and then choose whomever they want to be on their team–for example, one player might call next and then wait to choose the best players from the team that just lost, ignoring guys who have been waiting for several games.)

Streetball is an institution which functions as a building block of our civil society. Each week we chose to freely associate with one another in order to exercise our appetites for conflict, competition, and fellowship. All sorts of good and bad things can happen when grown men attempt to maintain comity and civility while fiercely chasing a round little ball. Over the years there was often much shouting and bluster, but we were usually able to settle disputes without assaulting one another.

I don’t want to frighten any of my younger readers, but in the age before smartphones, human beings who desired fellowship actually had to talk to the people around them
. And that’s what we did between games, we talked about everything. Sports. Life. The weather. We even talked about the onomatopoetic ramifications of Chick Hearn’s expression, “in-n-out heart BUH-RAKE.” That’s why I miss the guys as much as I miss the game.

Drivers, teachers, lawyers, students, contractors, forklift operators, electricians, surgeons, linemen, entrepreneurs, computer programmers, waiters, painters, carpenters, college professors, air conditioner repairmen. I miss the guys.

by Richard W. Bray

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