No one knows exactly when it happened. But at some point in the early '80s--perhaps when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird first went head-to-head in the NBA finals, perhaps when Michael Jordan won the NBA's slam dunk contest--basketball became The Game. Suddenly, baseball and football were no longer "It," at least according to the only jury that matters: the street.
The changing of the guard came in subtle ways. A hot date meant a pair of tickets to the Lakers game. The neighbor's kid retired his Valenzuela uniform for Air Jordan sneakers. The phrases "I love this game!" and "We got next" found their way into the vernacular--as did the words "rides" (sneakers), "brick" (a horrible shot) and "the rock" (the ball).
Another sign of approval came when Hollywood stirred and sent forth "White Men Can't Jump" in 1992. The film, written and directed by Ron Shelton and starring Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson, was a hit in part because the audience could relate to its setting--the pickup basketball game.
According to Chris Ballard, a former Pomona College basketball player, we've become a country of Basketball Joneses. Ballard believes that basketball--dubbed "The City Game" by writer Pete Axthelm in 1970--became the national game because of the influence of street-style ball commonly found in pickup games.
"In the 1970s, with players like Julius Erving and Connie Hawkins, schoolyard ball influenced the NBA," he says. "In the '80s, with Magic and Jordan, TV brought that type of excitement to the rest of the world. You had kids in Nebraska trying to imitate Jordan's moves."
For his new book, "Hoops Nation" (Owl Books), Ballard and a couple of college buddies toured the U.S. for seven months, stopping their van long enough to play pickup ball in 166 cities in the 48 contiguous states. Ballard, whose motto was "with hightops and laptop in search of blacktop," rates about 700 locations based on such criteria as level of competition, location, playing surface, and whether women are welcome. Included are sections about on-court fashion, etiquette, dunking technique and playground legends. (It's a hot topic in publishing; in June, Verso releases "Pick-up Artists," a history of playground basketball by Lars Anderson and Chad Millman.)
From "The Slab" in Idaho--an ultra-competitive, waterfront spot in Coeur d'Alene, where Utah Jazz All-Star guard John Stockton once honed his jumper--to the 24-hour, multi-court hoop-plex in Atlanta called the Run N' Shoot, Ballard found pickup anywhere, any time, anyhow.
"Basketball is America's indigenous game," he says, noting that baseball and football were derived from European-based games. "It's fast-paced, fun to watch, and anyone can play at any time."
In his travels, Ballard discovered that pickup, like everything else in this country, engenders regional style. "East Coast ball" is considered a more aggressive style of play.
"Everybody takes it to the rack," he says, "because they're worried that the wind might ruin their jump shot."
On the West Coast, players are considered "softer" because they don't mind settling for the 15-foot "j" now and again.
Nationally, Ballard says, pickup has two distinct features. Everybody argues about foul calls, and nobody--but nobody--plays any semblance of defense.
Ballard rates Venice Beach among the top five places to play pickup ball in the U.S., in part, he admits, because of its celluloid fame. He ranks four other courts-- Rogers Park in Inglewood, Del Aire Community Center in El Segundo, the Westwood Recreation Center and Memorial Recreation Center in Santa Monica--as tops in the L.A. area.
Phillip Cooley runs Del Aire for the Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation Department. He's a former Auburn University guard who played with such future NBA stars as San Antonio Spurs forward Chuck Pearson and Utah Jazz forward Chris Morris. On Tuesday nights, Cooley opens the gym for drop-in games; the other nights are reserved for league play.
"Basketball is more of an action sport," says Cooley, explaining the sport's popularity. "[In pickup] you get people moving up and down the court, trying out all their moves--behind-the-back passes, alley-oops. There's no coaches screaming at them, so they try all the moves they've seen on TV without the coach taking them out of the game. Everybody likes to see dunking and styling."
Del Aire, a one-court indoor oasis also known as Isis, attracts many top players in the area, most recently UCLA point guard Baron Davis, who practiced here while attending Crossroads High School.
"When you come in here with a name, people want to challenge you to see what you've got," says Cooley. "The pickup game is a battleground for basketball players."
Chuck Harper is the recreation director at Inglewood's Rogers Park, which features pickup ball every morning and most evenings. According to Harper, Rogers draws local talent--including former USC star Harold Miner and former Laker Byron Scott--because they get an opportunity to hone their skills.