What Pickup Basketball Reveals About L.A.

Whether the setting is one of L.A.’s more rarefied neighborhoods or one of its most destitute, the rules are the same: Anybody can play, but it takes something else to stay

Most everything in Los Angeles feels vaguely familiar to a stranger from the East Coast. I assume that comes from a lifetime spent in front of televisions. What the TV failed to show was just how big L.A. is. I first saw the colossus from the porthole window of a redeye flying in from New York in the spring of last year. The city’s endless matrix of light looked like the embers from some great fire. I arrived with a couple of bags, a few promised couches to crash on, no car, and a pair of basketball shoes. In my travels around the world, I get to know a place by playing basketball with its people.

Whether I’m in New York, Athens, or Havana, I’ve found that while some rules differ, and while the pace may be faster or slower or the styles of play possess more grace or grit, the game is interchangeable. The stories of the people who occupy the court and its periphery are what make a place unique. L.A. is a city in flux. I spoke to my friend, Michael Deland, a Yale sociologist, who described the metropolis as being made up of cultural islands separated by distance and topography but sewn together by freeways. It has grown by luring people from elsewhere, and those people have transformed the neighborhoods they’ve inhabited. On each court you can see traces of the past and hints of the future.

Photograph by Dan McMahon

For more than six months pickup basketball would lead me to a seemingly countless number of L.A. neighborhoods. My cost of living was low because rent was free. I slept on almost 30 beds or couches, subsisting on the sometimes charitable, sometimes reluctant kindness of others. There were always courts nearby, although it’s a crapshoot finding pickup games. I always get butterflies in my stomach because there is no certainty of what will be on the court. I’ve had a dozen app designers ask me to help create an interactive map that lets hoopers know where and when people are playing. The idea is antithetical to the game. The soul of pickup basketball is its anarchy. It is controlled by no one. There is no centralized organizing force, no allotted times, no elected officials, no managers. To bring a court to life, players build a natural ritual around it. So when I set out to find a game in Silver Lake, where an old girlfriend had offered me her room while she was out of town, I worried. The area, once home to working-class Latinos, now has more money than diversity, thanks to the influx of white creative types (who look like me) over the last couple of decades.

I arrived at the Silver Lake Recreation Center at four in the afternoon, and I was the only one on the court. I shot around to get a feel for the rim. The backboard was a sheet of dirty stainless steel that thundered and shook if the ball touched anything other than the net, but the rims were soft.

After five the regulars began to arrive. Men in their late thirties and early forties, most were from Mexico and Nicaragua. I was a 28-year-old Florida boy. A steel drum trash can was filled with ice and bottles of Heineken. Waiting for the sun to go down behind the hills, the men sat on the benches in the shade and drank and smoked Swisher Sweets filled with good weed. I worried it would be poor etiquette to pass on the blunt, but I don’t like to play basketball high. My concern was for naught. As the blunt made its way down the line, it skipped over me as if I weren’t there.

Photograph by Dan McMahon

As the teams were picked, I stood in the middle of the conversation to make sure I got to play. It’s first come, first served. No matter where I’ve gone, the routine is the same: Two captains, usually the best athletes or the most gregarious of the lot, divvy up the players from among the earliest ten to arrive. “You get the güero,” one of the captains said, pointing at me with his chin. His name was Mario, and he was a short, heavily tattooed Chicano with a shaved head and carefully crafted facial hair. I was matched up against Michael, a lithe 43-year-old black man, because we were the two biggest guys there. Michael was hairless but for his eyebrows. He wore a shirt that was several sizes too large, so he looked smaller than he really was. I underestimated him. He was fast, his shot unblockable, and he moved as well with the ball as without. I felt I had to get a bit more physical with him.

Photograph by Dan McMahon

“Hold up, hold up,” Michael said. “You can’t put your hands on me like that.”

“What’re you talking about?” I said. I didn’t forget that I was a stranger. I didn’t want to come across as an entitled jackass, calling fouls, whining regularly, or playing dirty. Over time you earn your right to argue—in fact, bickering is part of the reason people play pickup. You don’t want to be a pushover either. I make more friends when I win.

“I’m playing good D,” I said matter-of-factly.

“All right then,” Michael said.

The conversation galvanized him. I lost. After the game, with sweat pooling at my feet, I approached Michael and let him know there were no hard feelings. The sentiment was mutual. “I’ve been coming to this court since I was 16 years old,” he said. “Used to be that by 4 p.m. the place was packed. You’d have to wait a while to get on court if you came too late.”

“Where’d everybody go?” I asked.

“I guess everybody just got older. A lot of them moved away, too.”

Photograph by Dan McMahon

Michael used to live in Silver Lake. Now he resides in South L.A. but was still putting in, by his estimate, 40 hours a week on this court.

“How does your wife feel about you spending all your time here?” I asked.

“Never had a wife,” Michael said with a smile. “I’m married to the game.”

The only light came from the passing cars on Silver Lake Boulevard. I had a long walk home, and my feet were sore. So I gave everyone my hand and said I would be sure to return. They passed me a beer and insisted I take a drag from their smoke before I left. The sidewalks were dimly lit, and I kept my gaze on my feet as I headed back to my friend’s place. I saw an animal in front of me and thought it was a cat. It turned out to be a skunk—we surprised each other, and I came out the worse. I still had a lot farther to walk.

To be in L.A. without a car should have curbed my roaming, except that Uber took me where I wanted to go for prices that had me convinced there was some kind of catch, like a digital monkey’s paw I’d pay for in an unforeseen, ironic way. I often acted as therapist for the drivers on the way to the courts: The actors faking it till they make it. The libertarians lost in their own good intentions. The immigrants looking for confidence in the American dream . Alejandro, who drove me to a sunrise game at Pan Pacific Park in the Fairfax District, told me about his long-distance girlfriend and their constant tumult.

I arrived at Pan Pacific before the sun. The early sky was white, and the haze made L.A. humid for a moment. There were already a couple dozen people gathered on the two full courts. Middle-aged Filipino men, they stretched gingerly and rubbed off the morning rust with some shots. They had the most unorthodox form—their elbows askew, with the ball brought all the way back behind the head—but they rarely missed.

“How long y’all been here?” I asked.

“We’ve been here since four,” one man said, lounging in a folding chair between the courts. He was drinking coffee and eating oatmeal someone had brought in a communal pot. “It’s nice to play when it’s not sunny,” said Matthew, a large 53-year-old with close-cropped graying hair. “Manny Pacquiao comes here and plays sometimes,” he said, referring to the Filipino boxing champ who owns a home in the area. “He is very nice but not so good at basketball.” Matthew pointed to a player shooting baseline jumpers. “How old do you think he is?” I shrugged. “Sixty-seven! We’ve got a few 60-year-olds here.”

“We come here to get away from our wives,” another man said. “It’s like marriage therapy.” I bet the wives enjoy the time apart, too. In truth the men come here to get away from people like me—a non-Filipino—in a conscious sort of segregation. Though I was taller than everybody by a foot, I didn’t feel unwelcome. If anything, I was a novelty, some white boy who got up real early to try a different kind of game. I think I let them down. My size should have been an obvious advantage, but I made little use of it as they zipped around me. I felt like the giant in Gulliver’s Travels. I didn’t win that morning. I blame the time of day. They told me I could come back anytime, but I’ll never be a morning person. I know that the early bird gets the worm; but the second mouse gets the cheese.

If you didn’t look too hard, skid row’s Gladys Park was like any other recreational space: exercise equipment, benches, shaded tables, a grass hillock, and, of course, a basketball court. The park was well maintained and calm. Back in 2008, the city renovated the
court at Gladys. Funny what happens when you give people something to care for.

Photograph by Dan McMahon

I met CruShow Herring on the basketball court one afternoon. Herring was 39 and wore his thin, curly, shoulder-length braids up in a bandanna. We played “King of the Court” with the other hoopers who happened to be around. You go one on one against each opponent, winning a point every time you score and sending your opponent to the back of the line. First to 15 wins. We used one of the park’s balls that was so worn, it looked like something from an archaeological dig. It occasionally rolled away and bumped into men napping in slivers of shade. Herring talked a lot of trash but always complimented a good move. He won.

Photograph by Dan McMahon

We had to stop by six, when the court was turned into an AA meeting space with free coffee and cookies. I walked with Herring around skid row. He seemed to know everyone. He played basketball in college and was trying to make it onto a pro team while working as a lifeguard at a South L.A. YMCA. Money was tight. “I had to borrow from a friend,” he said. “He pulled out this wad of cash and asked me how much I needed. Instead I told him, ‘I want to do what you do to have that.’” So he started slinging dope here.

It wasn’t until he had his first kid that he decided to get out of the business and left downtown. Herring converted to SlamBall, a style of basketball that uses trampolines, and competed around the world. Because of Herring’s basketball background, some of the people he knew from skid row contacted him to be a community organizer after the city rebuilt the court.

“I didn’t want to at first,” he said. “I thought, If I come back downtown, I’m gonna sell dope.”

That’s when he met Ant, a “skid row baby,” Herring called him, because he grew up there and still lived in the neighborhood. “He’s the reason why I’m here. He reminds me of myself,” Herring told me.

I was introduced to Ant the next time I went to Gladys. He has sleepy eyes and a wide smile. The year he was born, 1996, is tattooed in large numbers across his back. We played King of the Court again. Ant beat Herring a few times. They always beat me. Afterward we walked to a street encampment next to another that doubled as skid row’s bicycle repair shop. “People here aren’t all so crazy,” Herring said. “They’re living a simple life: eat and sleep. They’re not bad just because they don’t want to be a part of the rat race.”

Someone at the camp next door started to heat coals on a portable grill.

“I can come here with nothing in my pockets,” Ant added. “All I gotta do is ask someone to help me out: ‘Yo, you got $5?’ And boom, I left with more than I came with. I’ll always come back here.”

After several months of playing across the city, I started to get invitations to exclusive games. I’d like to think it’s because I’m good, but it’s possible the participants wanted to show me L.A. basketball after learning that I’d played around the world. Like a lot of people in the entertainment industry, Steve Carlston, the president and GM of NBC4, competes in a group that meets regularly on a private court. He wouldn’t give me the address; instead he had another player pick me up on a Saturday morning and drive me to a house in Marina del Rey that took up a third of the block. Made of those plastic mats that snap into place like Legos, the outdoor court was royal purple with a gold Lakers emblem in the center.

Carlston was in the middle of a full-court game when I arrived. He drove by his defender, wrapped the ball behind his back, and made a contested layup. At 61, Carlston managed to hang with guys half his age, so he instantly became a role model to me. Most of the men were past their prime, but they all had credentials. Carlston had been a walk-on for a couple of seasons at BYU, and one guy plays professionally in Argentina. It was the most organized and efficient game of basketball I’d played in Los Angeles.

I got bullied by the pro who competes in Argentina, but I made the shots I was given. We won and lost and won. After the game, I spoke with Rob Best, who had belonged to teams in Belgium and Beijing. “Sorry they couldn’t make it today,” he said, referring to a few well-known former pro athletes who were regulars.

This court is owned by Bob Antin, CEO of the VCA Antech company. He stopped playing about eight years ago when his body nolonger cooperated. I was surprised that he let people he’d never met come. “Bob’s a good guy,” Best said. “He grew up humble. Now he just wants people to enjoy themselves and wants to give back. He found a safe haven in sports when he was younger.”

I stayed for long spells with the family of a friend in the walk streets of Venice. I’d make my way to the boardwalk each day, dribbling my basketball on the narrow sidewalks bound by bright and sweet-smelling flowers. You could see into the living rooms or foyers of most homes. It used to be one modest Craftsman bungalow after another, but the old neighborhood is losing ground to massive modern homes of concrete, glass, and right angles straight out of Dwell magazine.

I felt like an imposter the first time I arrived at the famed courts. They were beautiful, and I was unworthy. Mounds of windblown sand nestled in the corners of the four courts. The hoops cast shadows that moved across the pavement like a sun dial’s. On any given day every type of baller can be found here: mischievous children with no parents in sight, brave women with something to prove, bikini-clad girls with something to flaunt, retired rich dudes hunting for adrenaline. There are dunk champions, former pros, drug addicts, Russian tourists playing in fedoras and bedazzled sunglasses, lifelong regulars who call themselves legends, and barefoot Aussie rugby players. I once saw Floyd Mayweather Jr. and a dozen of his crew ride through on beach cruisers and demand the ball so that “Pretty Boy” Floyd could take a few shots.

The weekends are bonkers. Scores of tourists and regulars sit on the concrete bleachers nearest the Boardwalk to watch the games unfold. The true height of the rim is a frequent subject of debate. The farther the courts are from the Boardwalk, the lower the level of play. The players do their best to put on a show, either with dunks or trash talk. Bravado is par for the course in basketball, but with so many spectators and the contagious celebrity culture of the city, a potent combination emerges. There is one player who has taken a swing at somebody every weekend I’ve seen him.

Photograph by Dan McMahon

It took only a few moments for someone to ask me to play. That first day I met Paul, a 56-year-old Chicano from Houston who embarrasses players half his age with his creaky knees, herky-jerky moves, and killer jump shot. Paul has been coming to the Venice courts for 18 years. He was there with his buddies AJ, a young black man who spends most of his time sculpting his pecs at Muscle Beach, and Jamie, a fiftysomething white guy whose deep tan and dirty blond hair make him look like a surfer. We played against some tourists. Paul talked nonstop trash. Jamie kept apologizing for his mistakes. “My butt is killing me,” he’d say. “It’s the cancer.” I laughed but soon learned it wasn’t a joke. Jamie had just been diagnosed and was facing chemo and radiation.

On another day I shot around with Hadj and Jack, wheelchair hoopers from London, who were all too happy to have the sun and the Venice backdrop. I had to refrain from overcompensating and chasing down errant balls that they could corral themselves. One afternoon a group of young men in button-downs and slacks showed up and called next. Tech bros having a laugh, I thought. Playing in their loafers—one hooped in just his socks—they were surprisingly good against a team of wiry teenagers in chic Nike apparel who underestimated their dressy opponents. A crowd gathered to watch the sartorial battle. In the end, the team in the more appropriate gear won, though just barely.

“Which start-up do you guys work for?” I asked the losing team condescendingly.

“What’re you talking about?”

“Your fashion,” I said.

“We just came from a funeral.”

The heat of my embarrassment was masked by the heat of the sun.

There is an economy that surrounds the courts. Besides drugs, I’ve had people try to sell me their “new” shoes, bikes, and jewelry. The most successful businessman at the Venice courts is Sal, a heavyset fellow who coasts around on a five-foot longboard with a cooler attached to the front. Occasionally his girlfriend sits on top of the cooler while he weaves between courts. Inside the cooler are the sugary beverages of the streets: Sunkist, Gatorade, Hawaiian Punch.

Because I’ve never had a car during my basketball travels, I’ve had to leave my belongings on the court’s periphery. At indoor gyms I’ve had my phone, my wallet, even my old sneakers go missing, but no one has ever stolen from me on the streets. I’d leave my backpack unattended for more than five hours at the Venice courts, and it would always be there when I returned. There must be something sacred about this place, as if the rim is a halo hanging above us.

Photograph by Dan McMahon

Even though anyone can show up, not all are welcome. Once a new guy complained about how he got skipped a couple of times. He was white, a decent shooter, and he wore a Lakers jersey (do not wear NBA gear if you want to be taken seriously—there is an antagonistic relationship between the league and the streets). To his credit, he confronted the tyrants keeping him off the court. But he did it all wrong. He didn’t realize he was entitled to nothing. Their response to his cries of injustice: “Go back to the Valley.”

He complained to me, thinking that because our skin color was the same an inherent solidarity existed. He preached about fairness, wanted to change the way things were done, make a list perhaps. But he got nowhere. On the court it doesn’t matter what car you drive, how thick your wallet is—you can’t buy a ticket to play. You earn it.

My face became a familiar one. Even the buskers on the Boardwalk who peddled their mixtape CDs stopped trying to sell to me. People would call out my name as I walked onto a court. I’d get picked up on a team without having to ask. I didn’t need to prove much anymore. You want to go where everybody knows your game.

Isaac Eger is a freelance writer at work on a book about pickup basketball.