The Irreplaceable Game

About 15 years ago, my parents wanted to redo our driveway. Repave it, level it, and add a basketball hoop. Both my parents played in high school, but given that their biggest disappointment in me is that I only grew to be five-foot-five, I never made it that far. It didn’t matter; I loved the game despite my lack of organized experience. So 15 years ago, I was excited about this.

As it does, time passed, and the driveway still hasn’t been repaved. The potential hoop never crossed my mind as the time did its passing. I created my own athletic path, and eventually nearly moved out when I went to college. 

It crossed my mind this past March. Damn, I wish we had installed that hoop.

Nicholas Marshall, an associate professor of history at Marist, pointed out the flaw in my longing. I wasn’t yearning for the hoop; I was aching for the experience. He explained, “I mean I have a hoop in my driveway and that’s fine, shooting around is fine. But pick-up basketball is not just about basketball. It’s about the social contexts.”

At this point in our present world, the gyms are locked up, and the hoops inside, rendered useless. People who would typically spend their free time searching for random half-court rivalries no longer have the option to do so. Add pick up basketball to the long list of everyday activities that, at least for now, are no longer. Professional sports have been replaced with reruns of classic games, students take notes on the final via zoom, yoga is taught on Instagram live. But pick-up sports, namely pick-up basketball, is stuck riding the bench.

Somewhere in the 129 years that people have been playing the sport, relationships that revolved around basketball and only basketball began to form. You don’t have to have the same interests, careers, or backgrounds to play with others. When they were freshmen in college in Florence, Italy, knowing no one but their 35 other classmates, Louis Higuera and Steven Jacobs figured out you don’t even have to speak the same language.

During the first and second weeks of their freshman year, Louis and Steven were strangers to their new home in Florence, Italy; in week two, they were nearly strangers to each other. Unfamiliar with the city, and with college life, one of the first things they did upon their arrival, was set out to find a basketball court. “We found one across the river that we ended up going back to every week or so to play,” said Higuera.

The court they found was on the other side of the Arno River, the less-touristy side of the popular study abroad destination. The relatively long walk to the court is about 25 or so minutes in length. Still, they always tried to make the trek weekly.

Jacobs will be pursuing a Ph.D. in Italian Studies at Rutgers in the fall, and Higuera is a recipient of the Fulbright award to Lithuania. Neither are strangers to embracing other cultures. “If you’re in a different country…it’s a way to break the ice with people there,” Jacobs explained.

Steven spent a week in March at the International Technology Education and Development (INTED) Conference in Barcelona, Spain. But he makes his time spent in foreign countries, well, not feel foreign. “I played pick-up basketball for a couple days and I met like three or four different people,” he said of his free time in Spain.

Before he was bonding internationally over his full-court press, Steven’s pick-up career plays out with all the platonic romance of the beautiful game, as if it were a subplot in an indie summer box office hit.

Steven played baseball until the seventh grade. In middle school, all of his friends were always playing basketball, so he walked off the diamond.

Every day after school, Steven and his friends would trot up Broadway to the park on 108th and Riverside. The adolescents with their newly dawned freedom kept up their routine in the summer months, and into their high school years. “We would just play with whoever was there for two hours.”

“Whoever was there” has a wide range.

The day before going to Marist, Steven texted his friend Sam. “Hey you wanna go play ball?” he wrote. Both were uncertain about wanting to play, but ultimately opted to go. They headed to Riverside Park on 79th Street and started to put their bags down.

They noticed a man at the court. Wearing old basketball shorts and a raggedy t-shirt, he could have been described as looking like he hadn’t left his house for several years. Sam turned to Steven, “Wait a second, isn’t that Adam Sandler?”

Steven turned to look. “Wait, yeah, that is!” The two approached the famed actor casually standing on an Upper West Side basketball court.  

“Yo, are you Adam Sandler?” 

“Yeah, yeah man, how’s it goin’?” 

Photo taken by Steven Jacobs

Playing a half-court three-on-three game, Steven saw how tough Sandler was on the court. “He’s short, but he’s kind of stout and he’s stocky,” he said. “He had a lot of point guard skills, like he could pass the ball really well.”

They started a full-court game. Steven hit a few three-pointers on Sandler to which he joked, “Oh shit, man, I can’t keep up with you.”

As many would in any old pick-up game, Steven had jokes too. “I remember I was cracking some jokes and he laughed at one of them, which was really cool.”

Meanwhile, while a middle school-aged Steven Jacobs ran around Manhattan parks with his classmates, 100 miles north in suburban Massachusetts, Louis Higuera would practice with his team. Being one of the four million kids to go to Boy’s and Girl’s Clubs of America, his basketball career (that started when he was younger than he is able to recall) grew rather rapidly. “It was usually more organized basketball—house league, all-stars, high school, and stuff like that,” he explained.

Attending Marist College’s Florence campus during his freshman year, organized basketball at any level was off the table. “I feel like I started playing way more pick-up basketball once I got to college because I wasn’t part of a team at that point,” he recalled. “Even before that, I was always playing on the weekends with my friends and stuff whenever we could.”

During his sophomore year and this past semester, he spent his Tuesday afternoons guarding the adults in the room, playing in Marist’s student-faculty game. He tried to play pick-up every weekend throughout the school year and participated in intramural basketball on campus. He took advantage of his chances to enjoy the game.

Now without those opportunities, “I feel lazy,” Louis reflected. Recently, he went to see if he could shoot around alone at the outdoor courts on Marist’s campus; keep up with playing. The hoops had been taken down, “You can’t even go out and shoot by yourself.”

When Louis and Steven just hoped to get a weekend game brewing on the new intramural courts, Tyler Saint-Furcy would be practicing in the main gym. The 6-foot-4-inch guard is in a place where basketball has grown beyond just the fun of it. Pick-up basketball doesn’t come with the red backpack or scholarship, but without it, he might not have gotten here.  

“It helps your IQ in a way,” Tyler said. “Playing pick-up, you have to do things a certain way because it’s not like organized basketball. So, in order to win, you have to kind of strategize things on your own.”

He grew up playing pick-up with his dad and older brothers. Playing at parks almost every other day, their game wouldn’t go off until the lights did. For Tyler, playing pick-up allowed him to play against those who were bigger and stronger.

“It can get rough on the court. I was always playing with grown people,” he reflected. “Always yelling, cursing, beating up… it’s a lot, so that definitely helped me. Because once I got to a certain level, I was used to that stuff.”

The thick skin and IQ he grew in the parks is difficult to replicate in an organized setting. There aren’t many organized opportunities for kids to play against people that are far bigger and stronger. For Tyler, the development of this unique skillset has brought its advantages—he is playing Division I basketball after all. But the personal advantages are the ones Tyler speaks to immediately.

“I would say basketball is like a stress reliever for me,” he said. “So, every time I’m facing problems in life…I express everything on the basketball court. It’s kind of like my medicine I guess.”

Meanwhile, across the Marist campus (and while Tyler would apply his pick-up life to the MAAC competition), Professor Marshall heads over to the McCann Center. It’s a Tuesday nearing 12:30 p.m.

Nicholas Marshall organizes the student-faculty basketball games at Marist, hoping to constantly create the sense of community he has found with it, even accidentally.

“I didn’t start playing because I wanted to meet other people… it just worked out that way,” he explained.  

As it worked out that way, he has seen the building of a community, one that expands beyond the bounds that are typical of students, faculty, and staff on a college campus.

“There are people on buildings and grounds who play, and there are the jocks from the gym who play, and there are philosophy professors,” he shared. This diversity has allowed himself and others to know students they never would have crossed paths with and relate to them in a setting that is not a classroom. 

“It’s this place of access for all parts of the campus, but it’s all in the context of this wonderful game,” he elaborated. “There’s just a different feel to Tuesdays than there is to other days of the week.”

Marshall is also a cyclist. Riding around his neighborhood, he sees many of the families have hoops set up looking over the street.

Now on his rides he no longer sees the Norman Rockwell type image of a group of kids playing neighbor basketball in Any Town, U.S.A. Rather, he sees a simpler image, though somber may be more accurate: a kid, disconsolately shooting baskets, alone.

“They have access to a hoop, but they don’t have access to what makes the best part of it, which is playing with other people.”

Going for a ride a few weeks back, Marshall rode by a kid shooting alone. “Here, throw me the ball and I’m going to try and shoot it as I ride my bike by,” he tried to make a friendly connection; neighbor to neighbor, baller to baller.

“I could see he was like, ‘Oh…Should that guy touch this ball?’” The pandemic has changed things. The potential for a neighborhood trick shot is now considered under a microscope. While it comes with good reason, it takes parts of our everyday culture that created connection.

“Pick-up basketball is not just about basketball. It’s about the social contexts,” Marshall said. “It’s getting together. It’s old friends that you just have through basketball. And they’re not even friends in the sense that you know them deeply and you’re socializing, but they’re just your basketball friends. And that’s a community.”

One could say we’re all wandering in an unknown city right now, searching for something we are familiar with. Searching for our basketball court.

Edited by Will Bjarnar

Header illustration by Kristin Flanigan

Leave a Reply