Exercise fads seem to come and go about as fast as the latest trend in slick foreign cars. But pickup basketball, the Chevrolet of amateur sports, just goes on and on and on.
About 1 million people play basketball in Los Angeles' parks and gyms each year, according to the city's Department of Recreation and Parks. Tens of thousands more hit the courts at schoolyards, clubs or YMCAs from Monterey Park to Malibu--morning, noon and night--on every day of every week.
This isn't exactly the sport of kings. "The old crowd, we'll play and then we'll go down to the pier and drink a beer," Rich (Horse) Vanhorson explained. A 43-year-old furniture and carpet cleaner, Vanhorson likes to mix it up on Saturday mornings with the attorneys and stockbrokers--some with graying hair, several with knee braces--who haunt his home court in Manhattan Beach.
And pain is a fact of life on some of the rougher courts. "I see these cats coming out there and they're just getting tension off their minds," said Dwayne (Mr. Defense) Joseph, 20, a Cal State Los Angeles student who plays regularly at several parks around the city. "They're hacking away at you. They'll kill you and have no remorse for it."
Yet amateur basketball remains one of the better ways not just to mingle or blow off steam, but also to get a good cardiovascular workout--something most people should do about three times a week.
"Basketball is an interval activity. It's very much start-stop, start-stop," said Steve Davis, an exercise physiologist and director of research for the National Athletic Health Institute in Inglewood. As in aerobics, "people get to high intensities quickly," he explained.
To get the most benefit from a basketball workout, Davis strongly recommends a cardiovascular warmup before playing. "Shoot a few baskets. Play half-court for a while. Jog around."
The greatest health hazard in pickup basketball is almost certainly the risk of injury, since the same "start-stop" motions that build a pulse rate can be much rougher on bones and muscles than steadier sports such as swimming or cycling. More than 450,000 basketball-related injuries were treated in hospital emergency rooms nationwide last year, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. At least 100,000 of those injuries were sustained during informal, rather than organized, games, the commission said.
According to Davis, pregame stretching exercises can reduce the risk of torn muscles and other injuries. "Stretch out everything, not just the legs," he cautioned. The physiologist added that people who have been sedentary, or those who are over 35 with heart disease risks (such as family history or high blood pressure) should get a doctor's OK before playing.
Some local players also recommend scouting courts carefully--and staying away from the rowdiest, where pickup games can quickly turn into a contest for physical dominance. Still, other "experts" claim the rough-housing is just another form of physical education.
"You look on the sidelines and there are 15 guys waiting and you think, 'Man, I better win because I don't want to sit,' " said the Lakers' Magic Johnson, who played pickup ball on the playgrounds of Lansing, Mich. "So the guys are rough, it'll be running and gunning. It makes you stronger."
Pickup basketball is generally played according to the basic rules of the sport, but with plenty of local twists. On some courts, games are played three-on-three, on others five-man teams are usual. A game generally goes to 11, 13 or 15 points. When it's over, losers leave the court, and winners remain to play again.
Most playground games appear to be as socially mixed as the Southland itself. Bankers play against plumbers and overweight dentists are matched against ex-high school basketball stars. Women play, but not very many. No female players were spotted during a recent trip around Los Angeles-area courts.
If there is one thing about which most pickup players seem to agree, it is that amateur basketball can be a powerful addiction. "Once you've played, you can't get it out of your system. I can't walk by a gym without wanting to get into a game," said Adam (The King) Mills, a 25-year-old actor who plays basketball at least five days a week at UCLA.
Mills, born in Westwood, has gotten used to the shiny waxed floors and air conditioning at UCLA courts--a luxury that lures off-campus players to vie to be admitted as guests of students or faculty members. Thus, Ronnie (The Bird) Forchheimer, 28, stands outside UCLA's Wooden Center in green gym shorts and black Converse high-tops on a recent Tuesday morning.
The West Hollywood television reporter/producer for CNN has the day off, and the only thing he really wants is to play some basketball. But he's stuck by the door until he can coax somebody to sign him in, "like some 16-year-old waiting outside a liquor store for beer," he said.