I don’t “pick up” anything from pickup basketball except for bruises, rebounds and the frequent jealousy of my haters. And yet, every few days in bio lab, when I get a text from a member of the “Ball = Life” group chat pleading for “pre-din ball” in Silliman College’s three-on-three court, I drop my pipet to join an event with no apparent purpose. I rarely remember the details of a game an hour later, let alone weeks or months past. No one truly cares, not even me.
So why do I play?
Pickup is great exercise. This alone could be a good enough reason. However, I play too infrequently to get stronger or improve my cardio without supplemental gym workouts. Instead, I play because pickup is “fun” for me. But why?
At a superficial level, I enjoy the sport because it gives me a chance to battle against friends, try out new moves and consistently play the same sport with the same people. But I believe there are deeper reasons why Yalies — and most people for that matter — play pickup.
These reasons have to do with the fundamental purpose of the game. At its core, basketball is a sport predicated on creating order from disorder, on putting a ball in a hoop over and over again for hours. And this repeated imposition of order on an otherwise disorganized court — where a basketball can zip around anywhere — appeals to college students because it gives them a rare opportunity to change the world they see in a concentrated period of time.
Of course, I am not saying that pickup basketball is a form of social change or as important as stopping a certain fear-mongering presidential candidate. But it is undeniable that there exist very few, if any, activities in college that offer students a chance to make quantifiable change to the world — in this case, scoring a basket in a grueling, hypercompetitive shootout — every 45 seconds for over an hour.
Yale is a place where students overvalue extrinsic validation like getting into clubs, optimize schedules to fit in resume-padding activities and rush to finish lengthy problem sets in just one night. At such a school, playing pickup basketball with a group of friends several times a week is therapeutic and significant because such an experience is unattainable outside of the confines of the “Sillidome.” In the heat of the moment, players finally control an otherwise uncontrollable life.
Even the literal confines of the Sillidome confirm this. It is way too small to fit a full three-point line; on both the left and right sides of the Sillidome, the arc comes to an abrupt stop at tall, unpadded walls that leave room only for drives, midrange shots and straight away threes — in other words, the highest percentage shots in basketball.
The rules and parameters of the Sillidome are artificially designed to maximize scoring, giving players what they seek but rarely find at Yale: a chance to directly and frequently influence their fate.
But any order attained is contrived and temporary, as the “Ball = Life” warriors keep on scoring in a Sisyphean attempt to push a 22-ounce orange rock up a 10-foot rim.
Life, like basketball, must go on, troubles and all. “Ball is life,” one might say. Yet in truth, ball is life only insofar as the sport mimics living. We shoot to score, but in the end, just the scoreboard remains. In the case of the puny Sillidome, nothing remains at all.
This doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t use the basketball court to unwittingly act out our idealized vision of Yale’s keep-yourself-busy culture. For in truth, pickup basketball is not really a break from Yale but rather an extension of it. The only difference is that — in the Sillidome — we run and jump to get hoops, not go through them.
Frazer Tessema is a senior in Silliman College. Contact him at