James Larson

For a group of professors and graduate students mainly hailing from the History and American Studies Departments, life at Yale is far from all work and no play — beginning in the 1960s, the staple “Friday morning” pickup basketball game has continuously pitted members of the faculty against each other in five-on five-action.

The game, which originally took place early on Friday mornings as a way to exercise before the long academic day, now is held at around noon. The contests serve as rare opportunities for graduate students to interact and bond with their professors in a very different way, as well as a time for healthy and spirited competition. Today, the game features such distinguished Yale instructors like Professor Ned Blackhawk and Professor Paul Sabin. Despite the long existence of the game, the focus remains the same: healthy competition, relationship-building and exercise.

“I was invited when I came here about 12 years ago and I’ve really enjoyed it,” Blackhawk said. “You get to know people that are doing very different things in a unique way. I’ve never played organized basketball before so it’s great exercise and everyone is accepting to all skill levels.”

Some of the earliest memories of this game date back to 1975, when graduate students like Jeff Fuller ’67 began competing up on the fifth floor of Payne Whitney Gymnasium. While today the courts on the fifth floor sport a fresh Yale Blue coat of paint and glass backboards, in the 1970s they were drafty, completely wooden and nearly uninhabitable in the hotter months. Yet that did not deter students and faculty alike from flocking to the courts to compete.

The basic structure of the games has not changed since those early days — with games ending when one team reaches the score of 21 — but the contests have adapted along with the sport of basketball. According to Fuller, the three point line was a recent addition when he began playing pickup on the fifth floor. The sequence of games was simple: the winner would stay on and a second squad of five players would come on to challenge the victors. Upwards of 15 people would be packed into each of the two courts at a time, itching for a chance to unseat a streaking team.

Another defining aspect of the early days of this competition was the participation of high-profile players on some occasions. Fuller recalled that former NBA players Chris Dudley ’87, Scott Burrell and Donny Marshall would sometimes play with the group to work out and prepare for their coming seasons. While the presence of NBA players in Payne Whitney was rare, those instances only further evidenced the overwhelming popularity of the games within the Yale-New Haven community.

“I have challenged myself to write an essay every day on things and I have a long one going on basketball, especially pickup,” Fuller said. “I played pretty continuously in Lanman from the time I was 40 years old up until a couple years ago, around when I turned 71. I had to stop after knee surgery. The game is a great ongoing tradition that has been there well before I started. I like to think I am the all-time leading scorer, simply based on my longevity.”

More presently, the game has been a defining part of the Yale experience for many of the graduate students who went on to teach at other colleges. While competing against your professors and potential advisors might be initially daunting to a graduate student, former students like Christopher Bonner ’14, now an assistant professor himself at the University of Maryland, found the experience exponentially rewarding.

Despite at first being hesitant about giving his all against his older professors, Bonner recalls that people like former Dean of Yale College Jonathan Holloway did not shy away from giving it their all in the game, and that attitude was instrumental in keeping the game fun but competitive. Work was cast to the wayside as the game became the central focus of the morning.

The Friday morning game, though a chance for a break from academic work, has also played a significant part in a recent research project done by a former Yale graduate student. Michael DeLand ’17, now an associate professor of sociology and criminology at Gonzaga University, began as a postdoctoral assistant at Yale in 2014. He had always had an interest in the social and athletic aspects of pickup basketball, as well as in what made it such a widespread phenomenon. This interest led him to publish research about the legalistic nature of pickup, in which he utilized data and experiences garnered in part from his time in Payne Whitney.

“The game included people from all over campus,” Bonner said. “There were guys from Computer Science, the hard sciences and music. We all came together to play basketball. Nobody talked about work. Those days were always good days. I would get good exercise and little competition, but nothing too intense. It was pickup, but with people you know as opposed to total strangers. That game was a huge part of my graduate student experiences and I was so grateful for how inclusive the faculty all were.”

The Lanman Center opened in April 1999.

Eamonn Smith | eamonn.smith@yale.edu