Casual basketball players will often try to tell you that pickup games are a metaphor for life. You have to work as a team, everyone on the court has their responsibilities, you negotiate your own rules and blah blah blah. Maybe that’s true. I don’t really care.
But I do love pickup basketball at Yale. I try to play once a week. If I have a light workload, maybe more. Sometimes less. But generally once a week. I’ll go with one of my suitemates, with friends in my residential college, with people that I’ve met at the courts — anyone who will join, really.
Nothing picks up my day like those four beautiful letters (and one piece of punctuation) popping up on my phone: “Hoop?” The walk over to the courts is a time to unwind, catch up and talk trash. Usually, we end up joining a game that’s already going on.
The other players are mostly familiar foes, and we acknowledge them with a nod or a fist bump or some other nerdy-wannabe-jock greeting as we warm up. Some I know by name now, others are still just defined as “medium-tall, lefty shooter.”
We’re not a very talented bunch on the aggregate. Most of my friends and I were bench players on our not-very-good high school teams. But that simply doesn’t matter. At Yale, we do a lot of things really well. Basketball… well, we play because it’s fun. And who cares if we sometimes can’t make a layup, let alone a shot?
Despite the low stakes, the games remain competitive. There’s trash talk and shoving and elbows. A win secures another game against any waiting challengers and bragging rights for the foreseeable future.
So we run and we yell and we probably look like idiots to the outside spectator. But that doesn’t really bother me. Running on the fastbreak, I feel like a much less athletic, much less talented, much shorter Magic Johnson, throwing a slick pass to my partner-in-crime, a much less athletic, much less talented, much shorter Kareem.
For a glorious hour or two a week, we’re not aspiring finance bros or future politicians or excessively hard-working students or fastidious YDN journalists. We’re just a group of semi-athletic kids — and those shockingly old SOM students — who love to play basketball. Some of my closest friendships at Yale have started with “Nice pass,” or “Pick left.”
When we leave the courts, the friendships persist. We’ve come to each other’s birthday parties, piano recitals and comedy shows. We’ve had dinners and study sessions and movie nights together.
Now when I see them, it’s no longer a matter of hanging out with “a basketball friend.” They’ve graduated to “my friends.” But it started with that one simple question: “Hey, can we get in your game?”