Pick-up Games, Participation, and Basketball

As is evident from a glance at my “About” page, I blog on cricket. Which would seem to indicate I’m obsessed about the game to some extent. But when it comes to actually playing a game, cricket is not my favorite sport. And the reason for that is simple: cricket too often permits non-participation by players (this can all too easily be induced by one’s teammates, a fact I bemoan in my latest post over at The Pitch on ESPN-Cricinfo). For that reason, and sometimes, I suspect, for that reason alone, my favorite game to play is pick-up basketball, whether three-on-three in a half-court, or five-on-five in a full-court.

On a basketball court, during a game, no matter how poor a dribbler or shooter you are, you can contribute somehow. And the best way to do that is to play solid, vigorous defense: keep close man-to-man markings, set picks, go up for defensive rebounds; in short, put on a good old non-stop hustle. Similarly, when it comes to offense: run hard, keep your marker guessing, and get in position to receive a pass from the more talented shooters and playmakers. I never mastered a lay-up, and never had any fancy offensive moves. But I was capable of at least attempting a shot if I was not under pressure, and always managed to keep moving in an attempt to shake off my defender so that I could get the space and time required. I was not a very talented shooter either, so I need more time and space than most. But I did manage to sink a few and those went up on the scoreboard like anyone else’s baskets. Even when I played with the most selfish of players on my teams (a terrible fate for anyone playing a pick-up game), I managed to at least shutdown the one player I was in charge of marking. I contributed, somehow, in every single game I played.

Playing a basketball game involved me more completely than any other pick-up game I’ve played (even soccer, where again, players can be marginalized, frustrated and shut-out). In basketball, I was able to always make myself participate and force a presence for myself in the game. That is the particular genius of this game of nets; it manages to draw us all in, making space for competent and incompetent alike, accommodating our weaknesses and strengths, ensnaring us in its charms and challenges as it does so. In doing so, basketball accomplishes what many social orderings are unable to do: provide an egalitarian space for human endeavor, one that rewards our honest toil, and leaves us all in the end, satisfied and sweaty, with elevated heart-rates and lowered LDL counts.

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