John Branch IV

The City Game

Bobbito Garcia

April 11, 2023

A playground basketball legend explains the social dynamics of pickup basketball.

A playground basketball legend explains the social dynamics of pickup basketball.

September 2010. I was shooting jumpers on an empty basketball court in the middle of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Towers, formerly known as Foster Projects, in Harlem, when 20 teenagers gathered to argue over who the best NBA player was. A heated debate — or, more accurately, a shouting match — ensued and wound up becoming hyperlocal: 

“Dre is the best player in this park right now!” 

“I bet you he can’t beat Daheem!”

“How much money you want to put on that?”

The boasting was not just a potential hustle for bread; more importantly, it was a spirited diversion from the teenagers’ day-to-day struggles. In other words, a way to survive. 

During the 1920s and ’30s, the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural explosion in the areas of the arts, literature, theater and music, helped redefine African American identity within the community and for the rest of the world. Unfortunately, since the Great Depression that followed, the community has experienced immense problems with crime, drugs, unemployment, education, housing, gentrification, health care and poverty. 

In 2010, Harlem residents were two to three times more likely to die of cancer, HIV/AIDS or drugs when compared to other NYC communities. The area also had one of the highest high school dropout rates in the United States. Unemployment exceeded 25%, more than 50% of all households were on public assistance, and one out of every four Black males would face prison time. These statistics were staggering and blurred the vision of youth to see a brighter future. There was, however, a powerful positive outlet for them ...

“Go at him, Dre! He’s a bum!”

The two players intensely defended each other, creating a one-on-one match that drew everyone to their feet, so much so that all spectators were standing inside the out-of-bounds lines to get as close to the action as possible. Daheem, the underdog, pushed himself to close the deficit by defending as hard as he could. Dre, the favorite, dribbled more creatively than ever to present easier scoring opportunities. Until …

“I told you Dre would win! Where’s my money? Pay up!”

Welcome to New York City outdoor pickup basketball, a unique sports environment that’s one of the most mythic in the world. 

Basketball, invented by Dr. James Naismith, was first played on December 21, 1891, in a tiny YMCA gym in Springfield, Mass. The organized game quickly spread to schools, athletic clubs, churches and colleges. The sport’s debut as a medal event at the 1936 Olympics sealed a global movement. 

Meanwhile, in New York City, basketball was being reinvented — outdoors. During the 1920s and ’30s, Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side of Manhattan who couldn’t afford a ball were creating makeshift ones by balling up papers and wrapping them with rubber bands, then utilizing fire escape ladders as their goal. During this same period, “Black Fives” players in Harlem were infusing full-court team concepts and exceptional conditioning, thus speeding up the game and elevating play above the rim. This was the era when the sport started to be called “the city game,” and New York was claiming it 110%.

In 1934, there were 119 playgrounds throughout New York City. By 1960, there were 777. The NYC Parks and Recreation Department had an ideal to provide a year-round healthy environment for athletics to steer at-risk youths away from negativity. The stage was set. 

There is no governing body, no schedules, no coaches or referees present, only unwritten rules that change from playground to playground.

According to legend, a community activist in Harlem by the name of Mr. Holcombe Rucker (1926–65) invented the idea of organized outdoor summer basketball for youth in 1946. In the early ’50s, the top pros and college players of the era started playing in his tournament in front of thousands of fans. Many spectators left inspired to play, thus increasing the fever for schoolyard pickup. 

From the 1960s until today, an explosion in New York City’s parks has occurred. Popular court locations are packed with players of all backgrounds who show up willing to wait hours to get a game in. There is no governing body, no schedules, no coaches or referees present, only unwritten rules that change from playground to playground, depending on the day and how skilled, or unskilled, the faithful present are. 

Pickup basketball happens when an appointed captain forms a squad by selecting teammates who happen to be available before the game starts. They are informally “picked up.” Unlike organized ball, there are no formal tryouts, no contracts, no recruitment letters and no academic requirements. There are no membership fees. There are no stat sheets, fantasy leagues or media coverage. There is no obligation to be there. Players show up because they desire to. It is spontaneously for the people, by the people, and to be experienced completely in the moment. It is not a spectator sport (although an audience may very well form). It is only to be played.

Pickup basketball can also simply be the moment that a player picks up a ball and does something with it recreationally. It doesn’t even have to be on a court. Kids may punch out the bottom of a milk crate, use a bicycle rim, a garbage can, monkey bars, the bottom rung of a fire escape, even reshape a wire hanger … whatever it takes to create a goal.

It is common to see young folk dribbling on the sidewalk to and from school, holding a ball in their hands on the train or bus, or carrying groceries with one arm and their object of passion with the other. It can be anywhere someone’s imagination goes. There are no rules. 

Playing pickup ball in the park is about the freedom of choice, being creative with one’s outfit and not conforming — the antithesis of organized sports.

Because for so many decades so many different people have spent so many hours playing ball, a rich culture has developed with its own unique language, attitude, behavior and style.

When a player shows up to the park, they can come dressed however they please. There is no coach passing out uniforms and no referee instructing someone to tuck in their shirt. There aren’t any shoe endorsements either. A sneaker obsessive can call next with Reeboks on, change into Nikes to play, and leave afterwards sporting Adidas! Playing pickup ball in the park is about the freedom of choice, being creative with one’s outfit and not conforming — the antithesis of organized sports.

When one shows up to the park to play, it is quite possible that not a single soul knows anything about their background, their playing career or even their name. When teams are being picked, a captain may immediately nickname a player: “I got Big Man,” or “I’ll take Dirk” (if the player is tall and looks German, like former Dallas Maverick MVP Dirk Nowitzki). And that player may be called by that alias on that court for the rest of their life. 

At Mount Morris Park (officially Marcus Garvey Park) in Harlem, there is a player with a heavy foreign accent who everyone assumes, correctly or not, is not from the neighborhood but owns some buildings. He, in perpetuity, is called Landlord.

At Goat Park in Manhattan, Milani Malik is a woman with an accomplished basketball résumé. Unfortunately, her name, for some, is hard to pronounce. After she hits shot after shot, a teammate anoints her “Mama.”

Over the decades, New York City’s pickup scene has developed its own language to describe the unique situations, rules and plays that comprise the sport. Like nickname culture, words on the street can be inventive and very entertaining. 

A New Yorker can say to a teammate visiting from London, “Don’t let him take your cookies!” He is warning the tourist to protect the ball so they can win and stay on the court. The Brit, even if alert to the quirks of American English, may still be worried more about the pack of chocolate chips in his backpack on the sideline.

Although New York’s pickup basketball scene is extremely diverse racially and ethnically, the sport takes most of its cultural cues from the influence of the African American community. This is most evident in trash-talking, with roots as far back as West African oral traditions, when someone on court or on the sidelines verbally challenges a player, teammate or opponent. These witty, sometimes humorous comments can be proclamations of self-praise or insults directed toward others. Whichever the case, they are shared by the apparent loudmouth to gain mental advantage to win a game, or to save face in the event of a loss. It is where the language, attitude and behavior of the park ballplayer combine to the greatest degree, resulting in pure entertainment at its best, or physical confrontation at worst. 

When a legend like Tim “Headache” Gittens shares, “You need a new pair of sneakers, because your feet ain’t staying in front of me!” it is said completely in jest. When a defender gets dunked on or severely deceived by a dribble move, friends may remind them of the play for hours — maybe months — after the game. Unlike at your parents’ home, the trash doesn’t always get taken out at night. One might have to live with it for a very long time.

For women in New York, pickup basketball is almost identical to the men’s game. They love the outdoor sport with a passion; practice their moves to perfection and excel at being skilled; adhere to the same dress code; have jazzy nicknames (like Thelma Without Louise); speak the same street slang; talk as much trash if not more; and frequent all the popular courts that men do.

Men constitute the majority of outdoor pickup participants. Consequently, women quite often play in coed environments.

Women feel that they must play twice as hard as men to earn the respect to be picked for teams, since most of the opposite sex will unfairly assume they can’t play or, if skilled, are not physical enough to compete with strength. Another disadvantage of the coed environment is that as minorities on the court, women have no say in what ball will be used. They constantly shoot and dribble with the regulation men’s ball, one that is bigger than the official size for women’s games. 

Some women use these disadvantages to gain an edge. “I love playing with men,” states Milani Malik, a former college star also known on the playground as M&M. “Men are stronger and quicker. If you can keep up, it makes it that much easier when you play against the women.” 

Niki Avery, a professional player overseas, takes advantage of those who assume she can’t play: “My friend will tell men who don’t know me, ‘I bet she’ll outshoot you.’ And they look at me and wind up putting up money. I’ll stay quiet, then after the game they’ll scream, ‘We can’t play with her no more!’”

Pickup basketball in New York is ultimately about inclusion.

The playground is the common ground for the entire city, a place that is free to everyone no matter their background, gender, age or status. Where else but on a New York City court can one simultaneously find an unhoused person, an undocumented immigrant, an ex-con, a priest, a college professor and an acupuncturist not only all gathered, but physically interacting with one another? 

Pickup basketball in New York is ultimately about inclusion. One can play high school or college for four years, perhaps professionally for a decade; balling in the park, however, is for life. From the moment a child can run until the very last day an elderly person can walk, they can be found on a court shooting jumpers. Players are forever eligible.

One word sums up the entire culture: love. Love for a sport, a city, a community, a court, a game, a win, a challenge, a highlight, an inventive move, a coded language, a nonconformist uniform, a good sweat, a connection to others of like-minded passion, a new friend, a feeling. 

And the freedom to experience it all. 

To New Yorkers, basketball is not just a sport. It is a way of life.

The local park can act as one’s mother and your father, a home away from home, a classroom, spiritual center, dance studio, workout gym, office, even a deathbed and public tombstone. There is no other location where so much joy can be shared, as well as frustration released. When peace of mind cannot be found among family or in careers, it is the basketball court where many city dwellers find their immediate sanctuary. It is sacred space on earth. It collects the dreams, prayers, blood, sweat and aches of an entire community, pushes it up court, and returns it all with an “Oh” and an “Ah.”

Dr. James Naismith, years after inventing the sport and looking at what he had created in retrospect, once asserted that basketball was not a game that can be coached; it could only be played. His goal wasn’t entertainment or pro leagues for elite athletes. He desired recreation and exercise for all. He wanted to change lives by providing a physical and spiritual outlet that would positively affect society. 

No one in the world earns a living by playing pickup outdoors. Anyone who steps on the asphalt, the concrete, the blacktop does so wholeheartedly … for the love. 

Naismith would be proud.