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Basketball Takes On Different Dimension Amid the Sun, Sand

Finding your footing and adjusting to the breeze become part of the game at Laguna Beach courts.


LAGUNA BEACH — "Who's got next?"

Surprisingly enough, I did one weekday afternoon at the Laguna Beach basketball courts. With the thermometer climbing into the 80s and the sun drenching the legendary beach-side courts, I figured on a minimum three-game wait.

But apparently all the players were in school, in the water or, dare I say, actually working. Within five minutes of asking for next game, my 30-something friend and I were picked up by two players nearly half our age, a 6-foot-6 redhead and a 6-2 athletic-looking kid.

There are two half-courts at Laguna. The South court is the 'B' court or warmup court, the north court is the 'A' court. On this day, there wasn't much difference between A and B. But since the 'A' court had the reputation for having better runs (hoop jargon for games), I decided to play there.

From the Pacific Coast Highway, conditions looked perfect for four-on-four basketball. But if you're accustomed to playing on wooden floors with glass backboards and no wind, be prepared to make some adjustments.

The minute I took my first jumper while warming up, I knew I was in trouble. Since my offensive repertoire is limited to long- and medium-range jump shots, it helps when the wind isn't blowing the ball five feet from your target.

It also helps to be able to feel your feet underneath you. The concrete court that looked so perfect from PCH is so worn and icy that even the newest Air Jordans wouldn't keep you up while making a move through the lane. My friend wondered how many people have wrenched their knees or broken their ankles on the ice and why the city never resurfaces the court.

So before the game even begins, I'm thinking, "I hope the wind dies down and I hope my 3-year-old black Converse high tops can keep me on my feet."

Once the game starts, I'm wondering if our team is ever going to see the ball and if I'm ever going to understand the take-back rule. I'm used to the defensive team taking the ball back to the top of the key before starting on offense. But here, one foot to the free-throw line is adequate.

I quickly learn that the fast breaks can be pretty fast, the games can end quickly when one team gets hot.

The biggest player on the court makes two 20-foot jumpers in our big man's face and then hits a jump hook from about 10 feet.

The guy I'm guarding is wearing a baseball cap on backward and he appears only mildly interested in the game. But once I give him some space, he swishes an awkward-looking 20-foot jumper from behind the arc. Fortunately, three-pointers count the same as any shot here: one point.

By the time we finally get the ball, my guy has drained another jumper into the wind and we're down, 6-0. Since the game is over at 11, I'm thinking things don't look so good.

They look even worse after I release my first jumper. Wide open from the baseline, I aim for the rim.

Bad idea.

The ball is blown about three feet right and it clanks off the side of the backboard.

I guess I should have tried out my inside game, but I didn't feel so bad when my friend, a pure shooter, misses his first five shots.

Our big guy finally hits a couple short jumpers in the lane but the deficit is too large and the defensive intensity just isn't there for a comeback. We end up losing, 11-4, in one of the quickest and worst half-court games I've ever played in.

Even if we had won, I wouldn't have felt satisfied. Maybe it was a bad mix of players or just bad players, but I expected more.

Still, I played on--though I would soon regret that decision.

Three members of the winning team were smart and gave up their game. I eventually won a free-throw contest with my friend for the last spot.

Three points into the game, reality slapped me in the face. As I reached for one of the few passes thrown to me all day, I felt a hand connect with my left eye. In all the thousands of pickup basketball games I've played, I can't remember getting hit so hard.

I took the accidental slap as a sign to quit. With an ice pack on my swollen eye and bruised ego, I watched my friend unsuccessfully attempt to navigate the wind for two more lackadaisical games.

After chatting with a Laguna Beach regular, I realized the level of competition and the intensity level is usually directly correlated to the length of wait for a game.

"Saturday, I waited seven games and two hours before I played," he said.

And how were the games?

"Well, Sean Rooks [of the Atlanta Hawks] was up here."


Other Places to Play

* Mile Square Regional Park, 16801 Euclid St., Fountain Valley--The best games are on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, top high school players and ex-college players, two full-courts, lights off at 8:45 p.m.

* Heritage Park, 4601 Walnut Ave., Irvine--Three full-court games, ex-UC Irvine players and top high school talent from Tustin, Irvine and Santa Ana.

* Newport Beach, 38th Street--The wait can be as long as five games on weekends, some of best talent in the county, mix of UC Irvine and other local college players.

* Edison Community Park, Hamilton Avenue and Magnolia, Huntington Beach (across from Edison High)--Three full-court games, the best competition shows up between 6-9 p.m., mix of high school and recreation league players and an occasional college player, lights off at 10.

* Orchard Park, 1 Van Buren, Irvine--Mix of Marines, ex-college players and top high school talent, including Villa Park's Eric Chenowith, Mater Dei's David Castleton and Woodbridge's Chris Burgess, lights off at 10.

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