I’ve always been a pick-up player. I went to a big high school and a big university. I wasn’t athletically talented enough to compete on a varsity level. In the late 1950’s and 1960’s, with the exception of little league, there weren’t multiple levels of organized sports for kids. Only the very best players had the opportunity to compete in more formal settings.
For the rest of us, through all levels of schooling, there were intra-mural sports, or whatever you could organize on your own. I found intra-mural competition entirely unsatisfactory. Games were almost always too short, the reffing was a joke, and the schedules were limited.
In the fifth grade I played one year of little league. I was the best player on a weak team. I was shocked at the level of interference from parents who cared way more about their own kids playing time than they did about the good of the team or the development of the players. I watched a parade of horrible pitchers (placed on the mound by bullying parents) sabotage all of our games. I didn’t feel sorry for the gullible, intimidated, and misguided coach who gave in to the parents. They were autonomous adults, weren’t they? Our team was 1-11 that year and I was so disgusted by the experience that I never played Little League again.
My favorite childhood team was Mrs. Kirschenbaum’s class in our self-organized fifth grade softball league. I organized a Friday afternoon league in which each of the four fifth grade classes played a twelve game schedule. We played our games between April and June. I kept the standings and posted them on the fifth grade bulletin board. We formed an all-star team that played another school in a neighboring town. This league was organized by and for kids. There were no parents or teachers involved. We did ask several parents to serve as umpires. We made the rules and even devised our own playoff system. The games were fun and competitive.
With basketball it was less necessary to organize a league because there were so many ways you could play the game. All you needed was two players per side for a good pick up game. On any given weekday or weekend, almost twelve months of the year, barring extreme heat or cold, all of the schoolyards and parks were filled with kids of all ages playing hoops. Typically a playground would contain about a dozen hoops and you’d find a different game at each one. It was too much of a luxury to play full court. There were too many players and not enough baskets.
When you arrived at the courts you would survey the scene and find both your age group and skill level. Most of the games were 3 on 3, winner stays on. As your game improved you could move up the hierarchy and play with the better players. You would have to earn this right as a lost game meant the whole team would sit. You could trace your improvement over a season by determining whether you improved your level.
Again, there were no parents, teachers, or refs. You got on your bike, rode to the courts, played for a few hours, and went home. I don’t wish to overly romanticize this play landscape. Of course there were fights, interminable arguments, bullying, intimidation, and nastiness. But there was much more camaraderie, teamwork, laughter, competition, and joy. I learned to avoid the nasty courts. If you wanted to play basketball, you went to the playground and found, or even co-created your game.
Sometimes I regret not having played a varsity sport. I wish I would have had the skill, confidence, and intensity to try out for and make a team. I would have gained from the coaching, the toughness, and the discipline of a varsity sports setting. But I do not regret the pressure, exploitation, and manipulation that is inevitably involved in playing environments that urge victory in front of demanding spectators. I remain ambivalent about organized sports. I love the spectacle, the spirit, the heroism and greatness, and even the regalia, just as I detest the ruthlessness and obsessiveness that form its dark side. I’ve seen these darker qualities emerge in myself as player (in city league softball and basketball as an adult) as coach (of a fifth and sixth grade team), and as a parent of a high school and college varsity basketball player. I always had the self-awareness to step back from the dark side, but it always lurked just beneath the surface.