The Pickup Basketball Gym Story: Own Your Backyard

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When I arrived for my first semester at Penn State Altoona, the first place I needed to see was the basketball gym.

I grew up playing pickup ball in Mt. Airy, earning my respect and building my confidence/experience/reputation based on my performances. To me, pickup ball — with no referees and no set plays — was where a player solidified and/or prepared for everything he did in the real games. Pickup games have no system, no plays and no coaches. In pickup, the trash talk was unfiltered and ruthless, the fouls hard and not often not recognized. Losing a game could mean the end of your day at that court.

I always saw pickup basketball as a lawless proving ground, for me and everyone else. So imagine my shock when I got to Adler gym at Altoona and none of the basketball team guys were playing.

The pickup games at Altoona were being run by “regular students,” guys who weren’t on the hoop team and had no plans of trying out for the hoop team. When I saw they were “run” by them, here’s what I mean: The people with the loudest voices in the gym. They shouted others down in disputes over calls. They walked around the gym as if they were the best players to ever come around. And none of them was on the basketball team.

I couldn’t understand it. I soon met the returnees from the basketball team, and got a quick understanding of why they never played pickup: They felt they were too good to play against the regular students.

I never walked around campus challenging random people to play me one-On-one, but this was the basketball gym. The only gym on campus. Anyone who wanted to play ball had to come there. To me, that one place should’ve been dominated by the people who were best at that activity.

The returning players had an arrogance about them, an energy that came off as, I don’t need to prove that I’m better than these guys; my spot on the basketball team roster proves it for me. 

Technically they would be correct: on college campuses, the basketball team players are generally better at basketball than everyone else. Being on the team is a full-time commitment that a casual player wouldn’t be willing to make. You must have some level of skill to be on the team. And if you believe you’re good, you’d better be showing up to play against the best your campus has to offer.

The basketball team players had nothing to prove to the regular guys. But standing in that gym the first day watching these regular students play, talk shit and stomp around the gym just didn’t sit well with me. I mean, this is our only basketball gym. And we are the fuckin basketball team. If anyone is gonna be King Kong in the basketball gym, he better be on the damn team!!! 

By graduation three years later, we — myself and a new crop of hoops team players who weren’t too proud to kick regular-student ass for sport — had changed the culture in that gym. Only Lord knows how well future teams have kept it up in the years since.

Anything that I’ve ever been actively doing, I’m always willing to prove why my name is my name. While playing pro basketball, I still played offseason pickup ball and in rec leagues against people who had no dreams of getting paid to play. I didn’t have to be in those games. I had nothing to prove. When someone started shit talking in those Games, I could’ve rattled off my playing resume to shut them up.

But I liked proving it better.

I’d rather beat them right there, that day, in that high school gym, than tell them where I’d been a month before or where I was going a month later.

When you’re good, you have factual results to point to.

When you’re real, you’ll create the result right there on the spot.

Does this mean you need to take on every challenge? Answer back to everyone who has something to say? No. It means that whatever space belongs to you, you own it, and by your actions, you make sure everyone knows about it.

We got next game.