Play in the city: the spaces of spontaneous (or ‘pick-up’) basketball games

Mark Ball

By Mark Ball, on November 24th, 2015

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Phil Jackson, perhaps the greatest coach in basketball’s history, describes the perfect game as when players ‘do without thinking’. As with many sports and activities, true joy comes from the flow of action and reaction, as players engage in the dance of what we call ‘pick-up’ basketball. When I find myself in a new city I tend to seek out a basketball court, and though the people, gestures and rules may vary, I’m always far more struck by the similarities between the practices – how quickly players feel at home.

Thinking of the diverse cityscapes we negotiate daily, of what Doreen Massey called a particular ‘throwntogetherness’ of people, I slowly began to reflect on the importance of play in the city. Take a snapshot of a city and we may see ‘diversity’, even a ‘cosmopolitan vision’, but you might also see a lack of intimacy; are we really engaging with diversity by sharing a train, a bus or a lift? This could be described as ‘parallel existence’, and I hope that play (through basketball) can disrupt this.


Habitual encounter

We’re all guilty at times of ‘being in our own world’ in public; from checking emails on the bus to work, catching up with a missed radio show, or in such a rush that we have no time for the outside world – circumstances only becoming more regular as the 21st century rolls on. As much as we might champion the value of public space, I would challenge us to think how often we are really in it. One can point to the various instruments that lead to this behavior, as ‘work space’ spills into public space through the power of the smart phone, and commutes become longer and less pleasant as cities swell in size and population, yet what remains is that our newfound togetherness in the city does not necessitate intimacy.

But why is this important? To answer this, you would have to accept that positive encounters with a variety of people are a good thing for society broadly. You would also have to hope that prejudiced views can be tackled and lessened by positive encounters on a variety of platforms, yet can be entrenched by a lack of meaningful contact. Enter the basketball courts…

…where strangers play. Quentin Stevens, in his study of urban landscapes, cites play as those moments we ‘step outsider (ourselves)’. Like the description of basketball I began with, in playing we ‘do without thinking’, and give rise to a different way of being in the city:

A BASKETBALL PERSPECTIVE: Brooklyn, NY from Mark Ball on Vimeo.

My insight into ‘pick-up’ basketball, filmed in Brooklyn this summer.

Strangers rarely stay strangers in ‘pick-up’ basketball. Not only are the players animated in physical activity, but the game requires competitors to work in synchronicity. What makes ‘pick-up’ different from basketball more generally is that it remains both informal and spontaneous, and relies on new people continuously joining the game. Whilst in New York this summer I had the joy of playing at Brooklyn Bridge Park, by far the best public basketball facility I have ever seen. Located within the newly remodeled park, a dozen perfectly kept courts play host to many games everyday, bringing people together from across Brooklyn and Manhattan. Given its stunning backdrop and central location, the courts embodied a celebration of ‘pick-up’, and I have never felt so empowered as a player before or since.

To use a tired sports cliché, ‘pick-up’ is more than a game. In a city, the four corners of a basketball court can facilitate new friendships, and can bring together people who may have otherwise never met; for the ‘throwntogether’ tapestry of the multicultural city, a basketball court actually allows us to be thrown together! In the modern cityscape, can we have some more room to play?

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