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TRIED & TRUE : PACIFIC RIMS : Pickup Basketball Finds Players Courting Youth With Poetry of Motion

March 25, 1993|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

If there's a language of movement, then basketball, especially wide-open street basketball, is like speaking in tongues.

Go to any park or gym where there's a good game, and you can see it, the abandon that leads to the unpredictable. Players riffing, a little out-of-control, going for smooth and coming up with rough. But always letting the inspiration take them someplace on the court.

Then, like when the best improv clicks, everything smooths out. The tongue loosens, the language is precise. From the chaos of kids pounding a ball around, bumping and flailing, comes a lovely lay-up, a soft pass over the shoulder, a silky jump shot.

Forgive the gushing, but I'm not just a fan. I try to play as often as possible. I'm not a great player. Not a "White Man Can't Jump" kind, going out on weekends and making money with skill and flashy talk. More a ready player, getting a little older and slower, but always able to find a game. Sure, I'm bad enough. You want some of this?

(Need a little attitude out there, keeps everybody interested. That's part of the fun.)

As with any sport, you play because it's sublime and because it's competitive. It's a test, what you can do in the moment and in the framework of an entire game. A split second can be great--knowing that it was as good as you could make it; a full afternoon can be bracing--the highs and lows amounting to a few hours of understanding the can- and can't-dos of your body. Basketball is self-reflective.

I've been playing since way before high school, when, like many kids, I talked my father into raising a hoop in the driveway. Jerry West, Earl Monroe, Walt Frazier--those were the images I held during the long repetition of shots and skips.

Those were free moments, but they led to junior high and high school teams and coaches who were taken with the fundamentals. Never held that against them; learned how to pass and how to screen out guys and where to stand when I didn't have much to do in any particular play.

But there was something instinctively wrong with all that structure. Purists, especially those who wear whistles and spend a lot of time in campus gymnasiums, won't like that, but it's true. Basketball may not work best without strict organization, but it usually feels best.

That's why even when the knees and ankles complain, you'll find me at pickup games. I'll just wear heavier braces, thicker wraps.

There's a guy I know, a real estate developer from Long Beach in his 60s, who hasn't scooted in years, but he's got this nice two-hand set-shot. It goes in a lot, and it's enough to keep him out there.

One of the great things about hoops is that you can find games all over. There are rarefied courts, well-publicized and a bit intimidating, like those at Laguna Beach or Venice Beach where some really talented, ego-rich players congregate, but there are also more welcoming spots. My advice: Pick a court that matches your speed, just walk up, say "game," and wait your turn. Something good might happen.

It happened the other day when I showed up at the Mile Square Park in Fountain Valley. Youngsters, mainly high school boys (but a few girls as well; these days, street basketball is an equal-opportunity sport) were shooting around, and teams formed. Three on three--Jamie, Jason and I against Emmitt, Frank and John. Frank was tall and rangy, and he could dunk. He was showing off. Nothing to make a college scout flush, but he was slamming it through.

Now, like everybody else, I enjoy watching dunks. But it gets old. Although about as fancy as a shove to the chin, the dunk always draws the good press--it's become something of the moving logo for the NBA--but it lacks variation and whimsy. Frankly, all those 360-spins and Shaq-attack backboard breakers are like repeating "Oh my!" over and over until the brain numbs.

Never mind that I could never dunk, and could only pull one off today after a leap from a medium-sized chair. This concerns aesthetics. What I really appreciate is the pick-and-roll; it's always charmed me as basketball's subtlest play.

The simple maneuver, a standby that goes waaay back, has guile, resourcefulness and that ineffable connection participants in any team sport wait for. It spools out like this: A guy without the ball sets up the guy with the ball by strolling in front of his defender (that's the pick part).

After the dribbler looks like he's open for a shot or a drive, the guy standing still tears to the hoop (that's the roll part). A quick pass can turn into a gentle did-you- just-see-what-we-pulled-off? layup. It's a set play that may offend my anarchist's sensibilities, but the pleasure comes from watching machinery revolving into perfect place.

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