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Pickup Basketball in the Production of Black Community

Abstract

Recent studies on basketball employ Elijah Anderson’s decent-street dichotomy. In these works, institutional basketball is “decent” and unifying, whereas pickup basketball is “street” and atomizing. Based on ethnographic research in New York City’s pickup basketball scene, this article argues that such an approach obscures many of the ways in which pickup basketball actually strengthens Black community. The article shows that through practice, contests, competitions, and its embeddedness in everyday life pickup basketball directly produces Black community by bringing together diverse people. Pickup basketball also indirectly produces community by: 1) articulating, enacting, and disseminating essential communal values; and 2) serving as a collective depot for information and support. In rejecting the institutional basketball-pickup basketball as decent-street binary, the article attempts to reorient the very understanding of pickup basketball and its place in the urban Black community.

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Notes

  1. The Muscular Christianity movement encouraged participation in team sports as a way of building character in line with Christian values. In the United States, the movement was largely associated with the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). James Naismith, the inventor of basketball and a long-term YMCA employee, was one of its notable proponents.

  2. DeLand (2012, 97) provides a similar definition: “Pick-up basketball is played in a public or quasi-public setting without oversight from formal organizations or institutionally sanctioned referees.” Jimerson (1996, 353) explains the origin of the name in stating, “They create teams by picking teammates and opponents from a pool of people waiting to play, hence the name: pickup basketball.” It is also known as “street basketball,” “streetball,” and “playground basketball,” among other names.

  3. New York University Press and the University of Chicago Press published Living Through the Hoop (May 2008) and Black Men Can’t Shoot (Brooks 2009), respectively. Both books also won awards and received positive reviews.

  4. McDermand (2006, 2) accurately notes that “non-sporting features of the game have not been given equal attention from scholars.”

  5. My participation in contests and competitions was relatively low because of: 1) my comparative dearth of basketball skill; 2) my regular participation in the other facets of pickup basketball, which are, as explored in this article, unrecognized but integral aspects of the sport; and 3) my regular movement between courts in the same park or complex, between groups of players in waiting, and between groups of bystanders.

  6. This and the paragraph’s following characterizations are rough sketches, as I did not formally survey players.

  7. While many players resided in the Bronx and Queens, to my knowledge, none hailed from Staten Island.

  8. Next is the system by which players take turns playing pickup basketball. As Mohamed (2002, 86–7) explains, “If a game is already in progress and other people are waiting to play, someone among the waiting will call out ‘next’ to indicate that he (and the four players of his choosing) will be playing in the following game. If there are more than five people waiting to play . . . someone among those waiting and who have not already secured a spot with the next five players publically calls out ‘last’—indicating that he claims the last ‘next.’” Jimerson (1999, 143) notes that “this catchphrase serves as a password that simultaneously initiates four sequences: summons/answer, identification, greeting, and ‘how are you.’”

  9. The player inadvertently conflated complexion with racial or ethnic identity.

  10. This is not to say that there is only one, cohesive black community in New York City (or elsewhere). Ample research has shown otherwise. In fact, research has shown the Black community to be both generally variegated and specifically rift with various internal conflicts. Rather, it means that pickup basketball builds unity within and across many diverse Black sub-communities, the greater totality of which I refer to in shorthand as “New York City’s Black community” or “the Black community.” It should also be stated that pickup basketball is not a single, stable social unit either. It is composed of many different courts, matches, and groups, the connection across all of them being the sport itself and, at times, as this article shows, the effects the sport has on participants.

  11. All of the basketball courts included in the research were public property, held by city or state authorities. Players, however, adhered to more general standards.

  12. Several variations of this game exist. In one, a player shoots until he makes a goal (or a certain number of goals), at which point possession of the ball transfers to the rebounder. In another, players simply rotate periodically, shooting for a few minutes each.

  13. Driving or slashing means dribbling the ball as close to the goal as possible in order to make a layup, a dunk, or an uncontested shot through the use of footwork, pump fakes, and guile. A pump fake means feigning a shot to force the defending player out of position and free up an open look at the goal.

  14. Matches between three or five-person teams preponderated. Matches between two or four-person teams were rare.

  15. While this may occur in other sports, it does not in institutional basketball. Instead, relatively fixed player positions, coach-determined strategies, and playbooks predominate.

  16. For important exceptions, see Coles (2009), Coles and Green (2010), and Edin and Nelson (2013).

  17. McDermand (2006, 59; see also Brooks 2011) comments: “Not only is basketball one of the least expensive sports to participate in, it is also a relatively inexpensive activity to take part in when compared to other non-sporting games and activities… an athlete must only provide their own specific footwear, and a ball.”

  18. In response, see Anderson (2002).

  19. In reference to a scene in the 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, Smith (1995, 316) states, “I couldn’t believe my eyes as I watched Arthur’s father do something that no dad who visited the gyms I was in ever did: go off to buy crack cocaine at the other end of the [outdoor] basketball court.”

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Vieyra, F. Pickup Basketball in the Production of Black Community. Qual Sociol 39, 101–123 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-016-9324-9

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Keywords

  • Pickup basketball
  • Sport
  • Blacks/African Americans
  • Community
  • New York City