It sounds romantic, even utopian, but I really believe pickup basketball has the power to bring humanity together as one. Yikes Moondoggy, you’re thinking, this is a lifestyle site. Stick to the details and spare me the drum circle. Fair enough, but for honest to goodness egalitarianism you can do a lot worse than the courts of our fair city. Between those two baskets, a group of strangers can become a team. It’s like magic. Sweaty, sweaty magic.
Fresh off the sobering experience of turning 30, I decided to throw myself into some quality basketball time. It had been too long and the fresh air would do me good. Sure I was out of practice. In fact, you could make a good argument that I had never been in practice. But never mind. I would visit a few of the many wonderful courts in San Francisco and find a game that suited my talents (or, really, my lack thereof).
First, a candid assessment of my game: oof. I peaked as a player in middle school, when an early entrance into puberty blessed me with height, strength, and a faint moustache that I refused to shave. (That last one was more of a mixed blessing.) The problem was that although I developed a big man’s skills – rebounding, shot blocking, and so forth – I basically stopped growing by eighth grade. Now, I am a power forward trapped in a guard’s body, albeit a guard with a weakness for Scotch whiskey and Korean barbecue. My jump shot tops out around six feet and my vertical leap precludes blocking shots attempted by non-middle schoolers. I still have the moustache though. And I run often, so I have some stamina. I would need it.
I asked my more athletically inclined friends for good places to find pickup hoop games. Many were unaware of my abilities on the court - but no matter. I came away with three solid options, one basic, one intermediate, and one advanced. I would climb this stepladder of basketball and reclaim my seventh grade glory as a present to myself. Or perhaps just discover that roundball immortality had passed me by for good. Either way it was time to dust off my old shoes, take out my replica Boston Celtics wristbands, slap on some sunscreen, and then put the wristbands back because they looked freaking ridiculous on me.
My inaugural game almost didn’t happen. The aforementioned birthday was celebrated the night before and I got up later the next morning than expected. Undaunted, I ventured over to Russian Hill’s Alice Marble Basketball Court for a promised “Saturday morning game“. Seeing as it was 1 p.m., I should not have been surprised that the court was totally empty. And I wasn’t. But what did surprise me was how beautiful the setting was. Like legit stunning. Sitting on top of a natural rise, the court offered a panoramic view of the city, the Bay, and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Along with two well-kept baskets – sporting actual nets - the park also features three busy tennis courts. (No surprises there, as the eponymous Alice was, it turns out, a number one ranked tennis player in the ‘30s who learned the game in Golden Gate Park.) As luck would have it, by the time I warmed up and semi-rediscovered my ugly jumper, enough other stragglers had shown up that we could run a full court, four-on-four game.
The adjustment from “friendly solo shootaround” to “full court basketball” was drastic, but the competition was only slightly above my skill level. In fact, by the end of the game my team had won and I had actually sunk a few baskets. One startling feature of the court was the strong gusts of wind that result from its lofty perch. This may have actually favored my short-range style, as the strong breeze carried more than a few jumpers well off course.
The guys I played with told me they had made the earlier game at Alice Marble on previous Saturdays. Apparently, things get started around 9:30 a.m., and it often gets crowded enough that you will wait to play. There’s also a regular game early evenings on Fridays, starting around 5:30 p.m. Additionally, because the court is a de facto vista point and is so close to Lombard Street, tourists often end up as unintentional spectators. But there’s nothing more fun than plowing into a group of German shutterbugs while trying to grab a loose ball, right?
Flush with my success at Alice Marble, I felt ready to tackle the intermediate game. I even had a budding storyline for my comeback: much like Michael Jordan reconfigured his game by developing a jumper as he aged, I was being reborn as an energy/hustle guy and staunch defender. Like Glen “Big Baby” Davis, but without the slobber.
My next stop was the Embarcadero YMCA’s regular Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning game. The court is free to use with a membership ($65/month), or you can pay $15 for one-day access like I did. I arrived at 6 a.m. sharp, expecting to have a little time to warm up, but I discovered nine guys of varying ages waiting anxiously for me – or someone like me – so they could get started. Shots were taken to determine which squad was shirts and which was skins and I was thrown on a team. (It was shirts, thank God – hustle isn’t the only thing the stout Big Baby and I have in common.)
I quickly determined that the leap from basic to intermediate was going to be a dramatic one. The most glaring difference was the scoreboard, which while only used to keep time for the twelve minute games was still utterly rad. The court itself was tough and utilitarian, much like many of the players, with glass backboards and seemingly new nets. The progression of the game forced me to realize that my hustle/energy role was less useful now that I was surrounded by guys who hustled as a matter of course. What’s more, my lack of a warm-up meant my early shots lacked the crispness and accuracy I had eventually found at Alice Marble. Soon my teammates were ignoring me on the offensive end and even the novelty of the scoreboard’s buzzer alerting us that 12 minutes was up couldn’t dim the disappointment of our decisive loss.
I discovered that I had to sign up on a blackboard by the door in order to play again, but another ten or so players had already done so while we were losing. Undaunted, I scrawled my name and attempted to banter with my now ex-teammates. They proved to be much more friendly than they were on the court, which had been a hotbed of shouted instructions and trash talk. I asked one of them if this group shared a lot of history. “Oh yeah,” he smiled “Some of these guys have been coming here for years.”
In the next few games my meager skills came back, but I was unable to recreate my successes of Saturday afternoon. The basketball was great though, fast, lively, and competitive. You’ve got to like banging around a little to play at the Embarcadero Y – as well as not mind that some sweaty, shirtless dude is the one doing the banging. Even though I was less satisfied with my performance, as we finished, the same guys who had shouted at me earlier now warmly invited me to return. And after they saw me with my shirt off, too!
Having been humbled at the Embarcadero Y, I was wary of moving on to the advanced level. Had I earned it? No. But, dear reader, I am here for you. So it was off to the Moscone Recreation Center in the Marina for some real deal b-ball. I had heard that the indoor gym at Moscone hosted a game of former high school and college players every Monday and Wednesday at 5 p.m. When I arrived, however, a seemingly-fresh piece of paper was hung on the locked door, announcing the facility would be closed on Mondays “from now on.”
Luckily, the outdoor court was bustling – and just as well kept as the facilities at Alice Marble. My happiness at not having ventured out to the Marina for naught was quickly tempered by the appearance of my new teammates and opponents. They were young, mostly very tall, and sporting a mix of athletic gear that implied long careers in intramural athletics. In warm-ups they dunked. A few other guys my height appeared, but they quickly distinguished themselves from me by sinking long jumpers with great frequency. It was on.
We played five-on-five, full court and my time at the Y seemed to have paid off, as I was able to keep up with the young legs that surrounded me. My shooting still sucked, and the preponderance of height meant most rebounding occurred well over my head, but hustle is hustle – and my defense was still good. That said, the first game went by without me touching the ball much. During the break, I commiserated with one of the other short guys and he grimaced, “It’s like fucking Space Jam out there!” Amen, brother.
Despite the fact that lots of these guys were much, much better than me, I actually had a great time at Moscone. Sure, I only sank a few baskets, but I was able to set picks, help on D, and even grab a few (uncontested) boards. Plus, as a fan of the game, it was serious fun to watch such skilled players close up. At the end, everyone slapped hands and offered “good games” with a sincerity only available to the recently coached. It was sort of adorable.
So I made it through all three games without injuring or embarrassing myself – which has to count as a huge win for a never-was some 18 years past his “prime.” Even better, though, I found three great games that each exemplified my gooney “Basketball as Grand Unifier” thesis from above. Pick up hoops really is a special thing, but you have to play to understand. So lace up your shoes, take off those sweatbands - and get out there! I’ll be waiting – breathing heavily and ready to sink anything six feet or closer.
Games at the Alice Marble Basketball and Tennis Courts happen Friday nights at 5:30 p.m. and Saturday morning at 9:30 a.m. They don’t have lights, so daylight only. The morning game at the Embarcadero YMCA runs 5:30 a.m.-8:00 a.m., Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. And the games at Moscone Recreation Center run every day around 5 p.m., outdoor on Mondays and indoor all the other days.