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Courts of first resort

Greater L.A.'s hottest spots for pickup basketball, where everyday talent can line up against pros like Baron Davis with the sounds of Tupac, or the beach, as a backdrop.

August 10, 2008|Jordan Schultz | Special to The Times

This summer my mission was to discover the five best public places to play pickup hoops in Greater Los Angeles.

I've been playing basketball most of my life. I grew up in Seattle and played guard at Seattle University, then transferred to Occidental College in Eagle Rock where I played the last two seasons on the basketball team. This fall I will be a senior.

I searched all over for games. My top five basketball spots, based on a combination of athletic talent, aesthetic visuals and sheer entertainment are: 1. UCLA, 2. Santa Monica College, 3. Venice Beach, 4. Marine Park in Santa Monica, 5. Laguna Beach.

Each spot is distinctive: Some offer better players and more spirited games, while others offer better settings and a more passive atmosphere. It all depends on what you're looking for. I had a great time finding these games -- now it's on you to go out and play in them too.

UCLA Student Activities Center, a.k.a. the old Men's Gym, second floor, Westwood. Times: Monday-Thursday, 3-5:30 p.m. Legends who might show up: Paul Pierce, Baron Davis, Kevin Garnett.

The scene: These contests have been going on since Magic Johnson began playing here during the Lakers' Showtime era. UCLA players, walk-ons and All-Americans throughout the country come here to play in one of the nation's most devastating pickup games and test their talents against some of the best the NBA has to offer.

The gym is jam-packed with adoring fans. Camera in one hand, Sharpie pen in the other, hundreds of kids line the two parallel courts. Emeka Okafor, Kevin Love, O.J. Mayo, Tyson Chandler and Russell Westbrook might be there flying down the floor with speed and power most fans have never seen from so close.

After each game, the teams switch courts based on the result. There might not be any referees or TV cameras, but make no mistake, bragging rights are on the line.

Suggestions: Last summer at the SAC I played against Pierce and Chandler in numerous games. It is essential to be assertive when the games are being organized.

The games are organized by Adam Mills, a real estate developer and former guard at the University of Texas. When Mills assembles the day's squads, guys will often say "we need a point," or "let us get another big." If you fit the description (i.e., you are 6 feet 2 and can handle the ball, or are 6-9 and can rebound), speak up and say, "I got you. I'll run the point for you."

Don't be timid when you see an all-NBA player standing right next to you. Most guys know each other, so the key for outsiders is to get there early and shoot and establish yourself as a good player (maybe wear a cutoff from a big tournament you played in). If you don't get in the first game, go to the other court and let the guys there know that you're ready for the next one.

Santa Monica College, indoor gym at the rec center, 1900 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. Time: Sundays, 8:30-11 a.m. (Note: the gym is temporarily closed for repairs.) Legends who might show up: Baron Davis, Nick Young (USC, Washington Wizards).

The scene: Situated in an old college gym, a talented crop of players has been running Sunday mornings for the past 15 years. Wooden bleachers surround the three courts, worn backboards have ball prints all over them and the walls are very close behind the hoops. Championship banners hang from the ceiling while a steady dose of Tupac and Biggie Smalls blares from the public-address system.

The SMC pickup games have become one of the best organized spots to play ball. Many players are former college players, with a plethora of guards who can handle the ball well and a profusion of trash talk. This place is not for the weak-minded. A bad foul call will almost certainly get contested. However, the man behind the game, simply known as Charlie, is quick to intervene and get play resumed.

There are three courts so the wait after a loss isn't that bad. If you have size and don't mind banging down low, or can really shoot it, this is the spot for you. In my first time playing here I had no problem getting picked up and earned respect quickly with my ability to knock down some shots.

Suggestions: Get here by 8:30 a.m. Games cost $3. When Charlie sets up the games, don't be timid or you'll never get picked up.

When the games start, it can be hard to get the ball, so do all of the little things: box out, rebound, hustle and make the extra pass. Unless you're a great ballhandler, let the designated point guard do the dribbling and whatever you do, don't start gunning and taking poor shots. And the worst thing you can do is call weak fouls.

Venice Beach rec center, 1800 Ocean Front Walk, Venice. Best times: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. -5 p.m.

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