The political lessons of pick-up basketball are unclear to me. But each time I watch or participate in a game, I have a renewed faith in people.
The last time I played, my teammate was on the wing on the left side of the court; he crossed over his man, went into the lane, slashed between two defenders and put up a strong shot on the right side of the hoop. It hit the backboard, rolled around the rim for a moment, and then dropped back into play. My teammate called a foul. The miss was rebounded by a hulk of a man on the opposing team. He passed the ball to a player on his team who dribbled down the court.
The team’s point guard, a graduate student at the School of Drama, couldn’t rebound. He constantly pushed the pace of the game and was never out of position on defense. He eventually passed the ball to his team’s primary scoring option, a lanky graduate student from New York. He was wearing knee-high socks, a pair of classic Jordans, a headband and baggy shorts. He caught the ball from the future actor and drained a mid-range jumper from the elbow.
This game, in the fifth floor gym of Payne Whitney, continued for a few more possessions until my team reached the 21-point threshold on a lucky bank shot 3-pointer from a New Haven high school student. I don’t know why he chucked it at the hoop, but I am happy that he did. The teams took a short water break. Those who had been watching practiced their lay-ups and half-court shots. When the winning team returned to the court, play quickly stopped.
Those who had been waiting organized themselves according to who had been waiting the longest, and the first five became a team. These five people quickly introduced themselves to each other. They sized themselves up, sized up our team. They quickly selected someone to manage the team’s offense and defense, and it was obvious who would be the guy to go to in the post with the ball. As they prepared themselves defensively, they stuck players of similar abilities and similar sizes. As usual, the opposing team stuck the token un-athletic Jewish player on me. Baruch Hashem.
Our team, having won the previous game, had first possession. Having played together for a game, there was a sense already of what each player was capable of. We had figured out who should be handling the ball, who should be inside rebounding, who should not shoot unless wide open, and the importance of helping other people on the team get open. By figuring out the roles that each of us could best play, we were able to maximize our team’s ability to win and thus stay on the court. All the lessons the winning team had figured out while playing together, the new team would have to figure out on the fast break.
The new team makes a few initial mistakes and falls behind. But quickly, they begin to hit their stride and come back strong. The players on the team have each defined for themselves a certain role that is both fun and in the interests of the team’s success. The slower, older graduate student stops shooting jump shots but drives strong to the hoop; the younger student from Old Campus cuts strong looking for the ball; the lanky undergraduate does what he is told to do. The tall medical student dribbles the ball up and plays killer defense. And so on. Their team wins the game, and we’re off for a while. We jump in line and wait our turns.
The season of March Madness reminds us of the beauty of basketball. But there is an indescribable majesty to a pick-up basketball game, especially at Yale. Different cultures and different styles of play come together on a court on the first and fifth floors of Payne Whitney.
African-Americans, Caucasians, Jews, and South and East Asians play in these games. People from all of Yale’s colleges and schools come out to compete. Birthplace is no determinant of who is there on a given night. Some players’ games are heavily influenced by their cultural backgrounds; others have broken free of them. Without a referee, without a governing institution, people abide by the rules of the game. Players develop an immediate trust with those on their team. Fights rarely break out. Once the game is over, the losers get off and the winners stay on. If there aren’t enough people waiting to form a new team, the losers shoot to see who stays on.
Buckets, not bullets.
Adam Lior Hirst is a junior in Branford College.