Courts of first resort

Special to The Times

This summer my mission was to discover the five best public places to play pickup hoops in Greater Los Angeles.

I’ve been playing basketball most of my life. I grew up in Seattle and played guard at Seattle University, then transferred to Occidental College in Eagle Rock where I played the last two seasons on the basketball team. This fall I will be a senior.

I searched all over for games. My top five basketball spots, based on a combination of athletic talent, aesthetic visuals and sheer entertainment are: 1. UCLA, 2. Santa Monica College, 3. Venice Beach, 4. Marine Park in Santa Monica, 5. Laguna Beach.


Each spot is distinctive: Some offer better players and more spirited games, while others offer better settings and a more passive atmosphere. It all depends on what you’re looking for. I had a great time finding these games -- now it’s on you to go out and play in them too.

UCLA Student Activities Center, a.k.a. the old Men’s Gym, second floor, Westwood. Times: Monday-Thursday, 3-5:30 p.m. Legends who might show up: Paul Pierce, Baron Davis, Kevin Garnett.

The scene: These contests have been going on since Magic Johnson began playing here during the Lakers’ Showtime era. UCLA players, walk-ons and All-Americans throughout the country come here to play in one of the nation’s most devastating pickup games and test their talents against some of the best the NBA has to offer.

The gym is jam-packed with adoring fans. Camera in one hand, Sharpie pen in the other, hundreds of kids line the two parallel courts. Emeka Okafor, Kevin Love, O.J. Mayo, Tyson Chandler and Russell Westbrook might be there flying down the floor with speed and power most fans have never seen from so close.

After each game, the teams switch courts based on the result. There might not be any referees or TV cameras, but make no mistake, bragging rights are on the line.

Suggestions: Last summer at the SAC I played against Pierce and Chandler in numerous games. It is essential to be assertive when the games are being organized.


The games are organized by Adam Mills, a real estate developer and former guard at the University of Texas. When Mills assembles the day’s squads, guys will often say “we need a point,” or “let us get another big.” If you fit the description (i.e., you are 6 feet 2 and can handle the ball, or are 6-9 and can rebound), speak up and say, “I got you. I’ll run the point for you.”

Don’t be timid when you see an all-NBA player standing right next to you. Most guys know each other, so the key for outsiders is to get there early and shoot and establish yourself as a good player (maybe wear a cutoff from a big tournament you played in). If you don’t get in the first game, go to the other court and let the guys there know that you’re ready for the next one.

Santa Monica College, indoor gym at the rec center, 1900 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. Time: Sundays, 8:30-11 a.m. (Note: the gym is temporarily closed for repairs.) Legends who might show up: Baron Davis, Nick Young (USC, Washington Wizards).

The scene: Situated in an old college gym, a talented crop of players has been running Sunday mornings for the past 15 years. Wooden bleachers surround the three courts, worn backboards have ball prints all over them and the walls are very close behind the hoops. Championship banners hang from the ceiling while a steady dose of Tupac and Biggie Smalls blares from the public-address system.

The SMC pickup games have become one of the best organized spots to play ball. Many players are former college players, with a plethora of guards who can handle the ball well and a profusion of trash talk. This place is not for the weak-minded. A bad foul call will almost certainly get contested. However, the man behind the game, simply known as Charlie, is quick to intervene and get play resumed.

There are three courts so the wait after a loss isn’t that bad. If you have size and don’t mind banging down low, or can really shoot it, this is the spot for you. In my first time playing here I had no problem getting picked up and earned respect quickly with my ability to knock down some shots.


Suggestions: Get here by 8:30 a.m. Games cost $3. When Charlie sets up the games, don’t be timid or you’ll never get picked up.

When the games start, it can be hard to get the ball, so do all of the little things: box out, rebound, hustle and make the extra pass. Unless you’re a great ballhandler, let the designated point guard do the dribbling and whatever you do, don’t start gunning and taking poor shots. And the worst thing you can do is call weak fouls.

Venice Beach rec center, 1800 Ocean Front Walk, Venice. Best times: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. -5 p.m.

The scene: Overlooking the Pacific Ocean and next to the Venice boardwalk, young and old basketball enthusiasts line these crowded courts waiting to stake their claim as basketball kings for the day on four full-sized courts. The wind is big enough to kill jump shots and force out-of-control drives to the basket. There are no legends playing, but the competition is stiff, often including weekend tournaments at one of the two main courts.

Suggestions: The most crowded runs are on the weekends, so I’d recommend starting during the week. Unlike a Saturday or Sunday, if you lose in a weekday game you can probably jump right back on and continue playing. During the week, guys respect calls and games move rather quickly, but on weekends arguments are too frequent.

Marine Park, 1406 Marine St., Santa Monica. Times: Saturday, 11 a.m. -3 p.m.; weekday afternoons and nights.


The scene: Marine Park is bordered by trees, baseball fields, tennis courts and a golf course. The two green courts are a little worn down, as are the metal rims, but the backboards are as good as you’ll find for an outdoor game. The quality of play is solid. Players from 5 feet 6 to 6-6 call it their home court. The games are relatively fast-paced and, unlike the argumentative nature of Venice Beach, this outdoor run is far more forgiving. Players range from surfers in board shorts to guys wearing matching Adidas gear with headbands. The ocean air provides a welcome breeze. Although the wind can knock down jump shots, this is a fine place for the highly competitive recreational player to find a game.

Suggestions: Players are spirited and some are quite talented, and if you’re decent you’ll have no problem playing here. Weeknight games are solid, but weekends are the best.

Laguna Beach, Main Beach Park, Broadway and Pacific Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. Times: Sundays, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

The scene: Resting on a platform overlooking the Pacific Ocean is one of Southern California’s most magnificent outdoor basketball courts. The unparalleled sightlines display lifeguard camps, joggers, families and surfers.

Oddly, the setup is two separate half courts, not one full court. The games feature players of different skills, but are competitive. Mostly they are four-on-four half-court affairs, with many players in their mid-30s or younger. For friends who are not playing, there is a beautiful backdrop of grassy knolls from which to watch. The ocean breeze is a factor because the courts are only 30 yards from the water. Rigid metal hoops make shooting long-range jump shots challenging, so the key is beating your man off the dribble.

Suggestions: Sunday games tend to get very crowded and often make waiting times longer because only six or eight guys can get in the game. Games can get quite physical, especially with lesser skilled players who don’t have a true feel for the game. Given the fierce winds, talk to your teammates about employing the pick and roll. Such a tactic can be an effective weapon in a small game, because many players do not know how to hedge screens or help defend.