For pickup basketballers, it’s all about the game


By Judith Stiles

<<Alex Liu, sitting, and Charles Croskey at the Sol Goldman Y

Between Christmas and New Year’s Day most organized recreational sports went on hiatus leaving entire teams of adults and children all over the city idle as they reached for another piece of pie and the remote control, itching for the holidays to end. However, this year basketballs around the city kept on bouncing in pickup games, dotting the asphalt courts in the parks when it wasn’t too cold and indoors at the Sol Goldman Y on E. 14th St. At the Y, players of all different shapes and sizes faithfully showed up for games, as they are devoted followers of a basketball subculture that never took a week off.

Several times a week, they play an urban game of five on a side, loosely following basic NBA rules, but with no referees. Instead they call their own fouls, and because it tends to be a physical game where tempers can flare, there always seem to be cooler heads in the group that settle any disputes, according to George Garcia, the game monitor at the Y.

“The city subculture of pickup basketball practically runs itself,” said 54-year-old Mike Meehan, a fitness director, who decades ago switched over from playing football to becoming an avid urban basketball player. “There is a strong social component to pickup basketball because when your team is sitting out, the guys talk and joke and a kind of bonding begins to happen,” he added.

During lunch hour and on Tuesday and Thursday nights, doctors, lawyers, actors, writers, accountants and a lot of Con Edison workers convene at the Y to play basketball. They put their name on a list where game monitor Garcia assigns them to teams of five, based on the random order of the list. There are usually 25 to 30 men, from age 19 up to 55, who play these rolling games of basketball, where there are no league uniforms, no skins and shirts and players just have to remember who on the court is on the same team. Each basket is worth only one point and there are no three-pointers. The first team to rack up 11 points stays on the court, while a new team is rotated in.

The consensus among the holiday week players was that the no-frills structure to the game allowed these basketball nuts to enjoy the pure form of the game, without getting preoccupied with winners, losers, league standings, trophies and all the paraphernalia that usually comes along with organized sports.

“People are usually drawn to solitary sports or the camaraderie of team sports, one or the other,” said Meehan, who was sitting out holiday week. “When these games click, everybody is touching the ball and the element of team play cuts through,” he added, shifting his weight from foot to foot, as if he couldn’t wait to get back in the game.

Some weeks the players who show up are mostly over 40 years old, other days it is a mixed age group, while in random sessions, the players happen to be in the under-30 crew. Across the board they are inclusive about all levels of skill from beginners to former N.C.A.A. stars to men who played on the Harlem Wizards. One thing they have in common is a tendency to periodic injuries caused by not warming up before games or improper stretching. According to Meehan, the knees and the Achilles tendons are the most vulnerable parts of the body in pickup basketball. However, as a fitness trainer he still strongly recommends this kind of game for men over 40.

“There is huge upside as you get older because you develop lateral movement, coordination and focus, which is important at any age,” he added.

If you love basketball and can’t bear to freeze playing on the asphalt in the winter, the Sol Goldman Y isn’t the only place with a good pickup game. The Tony Dapolito Recreation Center on Seventh Avenue South hosts pickup games indoors, as does the McBurney YMCA on 14th St. near Sixth Ave. Thursday nights at the Tony Dapolito Rec Center there are informal games for women, and the Sol Goldman Y is inaugurating an indoor season for women with open games beginning the second week in January, that is, so the ladies don’t feel left out in the cold when in comes to pickup basketball in town.