Coolin’ at the Courts Ya Know!

AU Courts

The AU Courts / the Personal Collection of Curtis Harris


“Now I think it’s more complicated than that. I’m unsettled by how quickly and naturally I reduced the complexity of the situation—and maybe even to some degree the humanity of the participants, including myself—to just two simple (and fictional) categories: black and white. I’m curious about how and why I did that. I’m curious, to use Steve’s words, about what thinking of myself as white got me in that situation, what it took from me, and most of all, what I gained when the thought fell away.”

Via “How Basketball Helped Me Realize I’m Not White” by Yago Coslas

And if you’re curious, by all means finish reading Yago Colas’s poignant article on his three decades at a St. Louis outdoor court and the community he became a part of there. Inspired by Colas, I’ve reflected on my own recent experiences with pick-up ball over the past year. And really, all of you who play ball should too.

This time last year, I was living in Washington, D.C. and was the Sultan of Swat, the King of Kings, the Lawrence of Arabia of the outdoor courts at American University. Exaggerations aside, this was not so much because I was the best player there. Sure, I was top tier (on the Dennis Rodman level perhaps), but some others were definitely better than myself. But among the court’s elite, I held a special place.

These elite weren’t the high council of the court’s best players, but of its longest-tenured. At a university that means the professors and staff. These middle-aged men were the chords of memory that kept the continuity and history of the court alive. These men had seen me show up as a doughfaced freshman who was there all the time to the alumnus who had to squeeze in a couple of days a week of play due to being an adult.

Over those 6 years, I learned every conceivable piece of knowledge there was about the court. Where to dribble to avoid “court irregularities.” Knowing how to shoot off the misshapen backboard just right to bank in a shot. How to fly in for a layup without knocking myself out on the metal pole holding up the basket. What angles to shoot from at a particular time of day given the sun’s placement. And, of course, knowledge on the players who came to hoop it up.

Sadly, I had to leave that comfort zone behind as I moved back to Texas earlier this year and I went in search of a new basketball home. Remembering a park that was brand new when I left the Lone Star State for college 6 years earlier, I went there to check out the scene. Much like the D.C. court, this one had also built up its own culture and hierarchy.

Showing up in my customary high socks and wrist bands, I had to wait a couple games to see my first action. I was less than spectacular due to rustiness from a month off from hoops. Instead of being looked upon with respect, I was viewed as the guy who couldn’t shoot and as dead weight. One mouthy individual even chided his teammate for going out to guard me. Not my finest hour, but it did get thinking on how we perceive fresh faces on the courts now that for the first time in years, I was one.

The most noticeable prejudice on this pick-up court was, unsurprisingly, race. Black players were hesitant to pick up white players, especially unknown white players. I’ve seen usually nonchalant players who take their sweet time between games by smoking cigarettes and pot, hastily call for the next game to get going to preclude a group of white players from having next. Another occasion a couple of Indian players were offhandedly dismissed with an “Oh, they’re not playing” from one black player to another. Surely, though man’s mind has conceived of other ways to harshly distinguish his brother. Stylistic prejudice for instance. It took months for me to gain any respect for my style of play which is best described as Bobby Jones-meets-Dennis Rodman-meets-Tim Duncan. If you don’t swish home long-range threes or knife through the defense on blitzing drives to the hoop, you’re really not valued highly.

However, that’s just the annoying, borderline bigotry of some players. There are many awesome characters that enliven the court and make it worth coming to. There’s the boyfriend-and-girlfriend hooping duo that everyone likens to the characters in Love & Basketball. There’s the beefy tall guy who once wore a Thundercats shirt and is now forever known as “Thundercat” no matter what he’s wearing. There’s Pee Wee who gets playful taunts incessantly for his huge outtie belly button. There‘s the chatter that goes on between the old school players (in their 40s and 50s) who rag on 30-somethings when they complain about how old they’re feeling. The topical, flavor of the month comparisons like this past June when everyone was claiming they’d pull a comeback like the Mavs whenever they got down 8-4 in a game.

Most endearingly I’ve regained a sense of community and most charmingly a nickname, the surest sign that you’ve found a home. In D.C., I was “Plastic Man”, not for Stacey Augmon type dunks but for my contortions while shooting and rebounding. Now I’m either “Rodman” to the old school hoopsters or, because of my rail thin physique, “Slim” to the younger crowd. Either way, it’s fine by me. If the game, courts, people and my memory of them are best served with a haze of untarnished aura, then why not myself?


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