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Hoop Schemes

Five Alive: Pickup basketball in a local park is a great way to hoop it up.

Photo by Robert Scheer

How a geeky-looking outsider found basketball comfort and joy on the pickup courts of Cherry Park

By Will Harper

I DON'T KNOW WHAT it is about being on a basketball court that causes my vocabulary to drop a few grade levels. Maybe it's all the adrenaline tweaking my speech centers, permitting only monosyllabic grunts. In every pickup game, I inevitably address a teammate as "baby."

This is a mystery to me, since I don't even call my girlfriend "baby."

"That's what I'm talkin' about, BAY-beee!" This is invariably followed by a platonic slap on the rump.

Usually--when I'm not writing articles on pickup basketball--I try not to think about my on-court behavior. Of course I act like an idiot when I'm hoopin'. So what, BAY-beee?

Flashing my college degree isn't going to impress any street-ballers or put rotation on my knuckle-ball jump shot. Besides, the whole point of hoopin' is not to think. For a couple of hours each week when I'm on the court, there's no deadline looming, no traffic to negotiate, no cat box to clean.

When I moved down to San Jose from the East Bay a few months ago, it meant I had to locate the essentials: housing and a regular pickup game. A few hours of basketball each week provides the kind of mindless catharsis that's absolutely necessary for my day-to-day sanity.

I felt kind of nervous about having to prove myself on a new court. Although I'm over 6 feet tall, I don't strike people as the athletic type. Maybe it's because I'm a skinny white guy. I'll admit I'm no star. But I'm a steady, competent role-player who can rebound pretty well and convert on a fast break. And, in a pathetic attempt to look more impressive, I recently bought a fashionable pair of baggy Converse gym shorts.

I do boast some glamorous basketball war wounds--a permanently crooked pinky, swollen finger joints, two sprained ankles, a broken elbow and hundreds of dollars in dental work.

A co-worker at Metro suggested I try Cherry Park on the weekends, but cautioned me to go there early since the thyroid cases start assembling around noon. My first challenge was finding Cherry Park. Though San Jose natives refer to it as Cherry Park, though located on Cherry Street, it's listed on the map as Paul Moore Park.

When I finally got there, the smell of reefer and barbecue hung over the sounds of little kids screaming and sweaty grown men grunting. There was something warmly familiar about the place. Watching from the sidelines with the rest of the peanut gallery, I could see the usual pickup suspects:

The Coach: This is the guy who states the obvious as if it were some kind of Einsteinesque revelation. His job is to deflect blame from himself and to demoralize his teammates. After someone blows an easy layup, the coach scolds, "You've got to make those, BAY-beee."

The Superstar: This ball-hog never passes, takes low-percentage shots and provides the most trash-talking. When he's really good, though, he wins games.

The Whiner: This jerk calls a foul when someone breathes on him. When he tries to drive to the hoop, he acts like the defense is supposed to escort His Highness to the basket and not muss his beautiful hair in the process. The whiner is usually responsible for any extended game delay.

There are no referees--just a bunch of cutthroat competitors who don't want to lose and have to wait forever to get back on the court. When disputes reach an impasse, they're settled by having the complainant shoot a jump shot from the top of the key.

Every pickup court has its own tacit protocols. On the more polite courts, team selection essentially works on a first-come, first-served basis. Not so on more cliquish, competitive courts where players are chosen according to how they play, how they look or who they know.

In pickup vernacular, the key catch phrases are "You got your five?" followed by "Can I run with you?" I had a tough time getting on a team that day. I didn't help my cause by playing like a spaz, turning the ball over and blowing an easy layup ("You've got to make those, BAY-beee," the Coach scolded).

Now that I've been hoopin' there a couple of months, I'm feeling more confident about playing with the big boys. As I write this final paragraph, I'm just getting back from my latest effort. I made a few jump shots, busted a baseline move and dropped a reverse lay-up. Yup, pretty soon these guys will actually want me to be on their team. Just in case, I'm going to buy some cool Nikes and some more baggy shorts.

Everybody on a pick-up court is a liar. No one ever admits when he's knocked the ball out of bounds. This doesn't help during the inevitable disagreements. Disagreements expose the anarchy that is pick-up basketball.

The north court at Cherry Park is the varsity court where the big guys play. The side court is a repository for everyone else--the also-rans who aren't quite good enough for prime time.

That first week I resigned myself to playing on the side court. The following week, I decided to try the big time. But first I had to get on a team.

On weekends, the north court at Cherry Park is of the latter variety. All these guys had to go on was my outward appearance--a geeky white guy with cool shorts.

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From the May 1-7, 1997 issue of Metro

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