A tall figure is firing off jump shots at the far end of the spiffy new basketball court at the 24 Hour Fitness club in Hollywood. Near the other basket, nine men are trying to sort out teams for a pickup game, and the lone shooter is recruited to play.
Up close, the shooter turns out to be a giant (a head taller than anyone else), and he bears a striking resemblance to Elton Brand, the Clippers’ All-Star power forward. There is some whispering, but nobody is sure if it’s really him, and no one has the gumption to ask. It’s an uneven matchup, and the game quickly goes the way of the giant’s team. It turns out there’s another player on his side who can also take the ball to the basket with ease.
The real Elton Brand’s game is inside, but this look-alike is mostly taking jump shots and not hitting them all. No matter. His team quickly dispatches the competition and another group of five steps up. Again, there is whispering. “Is that Lamar Odom?” one kid asks his friend. “No way, man,” his friend replies. “I think maybe that’s Brand from the Clippers.”
The second game is closer until the might-be Brand, who has attracted some onlookers, starts swatting away shots as though they were annoying mosquitoes.
“That guy should be a pro,” comments a muscular fellow who’s smiling and waiting to get into the game.
“Is that Elton Brand?” asks a sweaty kid leaving the court. “What’s he doing here at 24 Hour Fitness?”
“That’s him, I tell you,” another guy replies. “I don’t know what he’s doing here, but that’s him.”
In fact, it was Elton Brand. It’s not every day that an NBA All-Star shows up to play pickup basketball, but they all started out with the free-form playground game. The run-and-gun free-for-all is a mainstay across the country, and here in Los Angeles, it’s argued, strutted and slam-dunked from the palm-fringed courts on the Venice Beach Boardwalk to egalitarian private health clubs with shimmery wood floors, to the hard cement and bent rims in rec centers.
Pickup players in L.A. are as skilled as anywhere, talk a heap of trash and are prone to taking the ball to the hoop without glancing at fellow team members. You never know who’ll turn out to be the next LeBron James.
Mark Perry, who’s long and lean with a finesse shot, played three years professionally in Brazil and dominates at the LA Fitness club on La Cienega. Keith Mowbray, the lanky guy taking it easy in a rough game in Venice because he doesn’t want to risk an injury, has an agent, would like to make it in the NBA and is a professional SlamBaller (a hybrid of basketball, hockey and football with trampolines built into the floor). Simon Emze is an undersized but cocky 19-year-old Persian kid with Peja Stojakovic-like skills. His three-point shot was a dagger for his Beverly Hills High School team, but now he’s graduated to pickup games in which more experienced players tower over him.
These days, with players coming from everywhere, there’s a global flavor seeping into the game, bringing in a new sensibility, notably occasional flashes of teamwork. But mostly, as always, it’s every man for himself.
It takes all kinds
The same basic archetypes show up on every court in the city: amazing Carmelo-Anthony-like 14-year-olds who never pass the ball; obnoxious trash talkers who pick fights; venerable, gray-haired guys with perfect jump shots; speedy Asian kids who worship Allen Iverson; quiet, lanky and unstoppable college-athlete types; chubby youngsters in Chris Webber jerseys, and actual high school and college coaches who are often skilled but for some reason cheat more than anyone else.
Though there’s little at stake in a pickup game, the sport can be gritty, violent and ludicrously argumentative. The art of arguing a call, in fact, can be as significant a skill as passing.
Seventy-one-year-old Ron Beals has seen it all. He’s been playing for more than half a century, was cast in the movie “White Men Can’t Jump” and is a fixture at the famed courts on the Venice Beach Boardwalk. “Your manhood’s at stake,” he explains. “If a guy keeps beating you and beating you to the basket, you don’t look like a man.
“Then there are the egos. Sometimes, you bring your girl down and your girl is watching you, so guys will argue and do a lot of things. Mostly, real ballplayers don’t argue, real ballplayers come to play ball. When I played pickup games in Chicago when I was young, it was like night and day. We were all about playing ball. We didn’t have any ego trips. When a guy called a foul, you’d give it to him. If there’s an argument, you’d shoot for it. Out here, it’s more like a training camp for lawyers.”
Pickup matches begin informally. Teams are made up on the spot, chosen by shooting free throws or picked by captains (leaving the forlorn unpicked player to wait on the sidelines for the next game). At crowded courts, getting into a game can involve signing up on a list, asking around for whoever has the next game (“Can I run with you?”) or arguing about who arrived first.
Games are usually played to 11 or 13 points by ones, and the score is a major bone of contention determined by whoever claims to have kept count.
The absence of referees is part of the appeal, says ESPN Magazine Senior Editor Chad Millman, coauthor of the book “Pickup Artists: Street Basketball in America.” “It’s a different kind of intensity. It’s a little bit freer, and it’s more fluid. I played high school basketball, and it just wasn’t nearly as fun as just getting out there to play. Generally, there are a lot of turnovers and a lot of showing off and a lot of guys yelling but not really doing much.”
Beyond the constant quarreling (“You traveled.” “I didn’t travel!” “You took like four steps!” “I took like two steps, dude!”), the hogging of the ball like it was the Baby Jesus and the occasional tussle, there’s the requisite cheating. Players cheat as often as taxpayers, with just as little guilt. The cheater is the boisterous, self-appointed coach who barks commands at his teammates, the guy who calls the most fouls and always claims his team is ahead.
“It’s about pride,” says Millman. “You want to win because it’s bragging rights. You usually play on a court where you’re playing all the time, and you don’t want to leave the court. When you lose, you leave.”
There’s a different game of pickup being played abroad, says Derek Moore, who has played on pickup teams all over Europe, Asia, Australia and Canada.
“In pickup games in Europe, you see guys doing a lot more of the fundamental things like the pick and roll, where in L.A. or New York, it’s run and gun. It’s about strength, how high you can jump, taking the ball off the dribble and dunking. Also, here it’s more selfish, like whoever’s got the ball is going to make the move and that’s it. They’re done.”
You could see the stamp of the international game at the LA Fitness health club in Alhambra, where the court is packed largely with Asian players. As many as 20 are waiting on the sidelines to get into the game, while the two teams go at it as if it were the NBA Finals.
A skinny Asian kid with a hip-hop inflection shouts at a plump fellow with flailing elbows, who’s overly aggressive under the basket.
The game stops for a good 10 minutes as the argument about fouls turns into the standard “who-was-keeping-score?” wrangling. But when the game resumes, the squad with the hip-hop kid passes the ball around like a real team and finds their man cutting to the hoop for easy layups.
Their passes are crisp and precise, and all the guys waiting on the sidelines stop dribbling and start clapping. This crowd knows they are watching the game as it should be played: by two actual teams instead of 10 showboats.