Pickup basketball hones your game, finetunes it, inspires it. It is in the rough anarchy of randomness that the beauty of basketball shines the brightest.
Pickup basketball forces you to think on your feet, to play to your strengths and develop your athleticism. Once you have the fundamentals down, pickup is the test - you’re thrown to the lions and you will get eaten if you don’t fight back.
It’s the purest form of the game, a place where swagger and chirping is respected, if you back it up. Here, your weaknesses get exposed and your ego gets humbled.
This is an ode to pickup basketball, a part of black history, and an integral part of developing the best American basketball players the world has ever seen.
Kyrie Irving seemed to fit seamlessly with the Dallas Mavericks, especially during his first two games. It was amazing to watch how he just days earlier practiced with another team and now was able to inject energy, leadership and creativity into a team with players he hadn’t even practiced with.
After Luka Dončić joined the Mavericks for Kyrie’s third game, it became clear that he needes more time than that. He played a certain way for at least four years and now he needs time to adjust. I don’t doubt that he will, however, but the transition will not be as smooth as Kyrie’s.
Why is that - and how was Kyrie able to just walk on the court and play with a new team like he’d known them for years?
I spent a long time thinking about that. Then someone mentioned that Kyrie was playing pickup in New Jersey, when he was told about the trade to Dallas.
Was Kyrie so good at adapting his game and playing to his teammates’ strengths, because he had and still spends a lot of time playing pickup with random guys?
I’m probably not the first person to point this out, but the link still seems notable when the contrast has been so stark.
It seems obvious, right? And obvious why someone who is not known to play a lot of pickup would have a harder time adapting, as well. Pickup basketball logically makes a player more versatile and ready for change. Because when you play with strangers, you never know what you’re going to get.
Some of the best players love pickup
Pickup can be played inside or outside, but common for the game is that the rules are almost identical, no matter where you play. Whether it’s a white suburb or Harlem, whether it’s in Paris or Morocco, pickup basketball is a universal language, which pickup players are fluent in.
Games are played everyday around the world, probably by more people than play organized basketball. Usually players just show up, and when there’s enough people for a game, a set of rules are followed to pick teams and call fouls. It’s disorganized, entertaining - and the perfect place to try a new move.
With roots in black culture, pickup has served as a way to keep young people off the streets, like the famous Rucker Park in Harlem, New York. Here, they started a basketball tournament in 1950 to help less-fortunate kids stay off the streets and aim for college careers. Multiple players went on to play in the NBA, among just some who played at Rucker are Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius “Dr. J” Erving.
But current NBA players also see a use for pickup, a way to keep inspiration and motivation up and to hone their game.
Kobe Bryant played multiple times at Rucker while he was with the Lakers.
In Los Angeles, there’s also a proud tradition of playing pickup. Here, some of the world’s best players meet in the summer to play pickup to this day.
According to HoopsHype the list includes LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving and DeMar DeRozan.
Especially the UCLA gym and the Drew League are popular. “There were three courts and it was booming. That’s when you had Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Cuttino Mobley, Baron Davis and other legitimate pros in there every day. There were some overseas players and we’d sprinkle in the UCLA guys since we were using their gym, but the majority of the guys were NBA players,” L.A. native, Dorell Wright, told HoopsHype.
The fact that many pickup games have older, more experienced players playing together with young energetic guys, who are not used to playing grown men, is beneficial to both.
“It helped my confidence and made me a better player. I had to earn my stripes. Early on, I was more of an energy guy – playing hard, getting rebounds and chasing loose balls. The older guys were established and some were pros, either playing in the NBA or overseas. It made me learn how to play the game without the ball. When you’re ‘the guy’ in high school, you get most plays called for you and you get a ton of shots. Playing with the older guys, the pros, I learned how to play the right way – moving without the ball, making the extra pass, becoming a better defender and a lot of other stuff,” Wright explained.
This is something European clubs are elite at - having young talented players play with the grown men of 2. Division. When they’re ready to move up, they come prepared, ready for the pressure and experienced. Exactly what they did with Luka at Madrid.
I know the perils and pleasures of pickup myself. I’ve played grown men on a military base in Florida, won streetball games with my teammates on concrete and been humiliated by rough and athletic female players without formal training.
All basketball players should spend time playing pickup. Whether it’s in a park, in the local gym or an actual court. There’s no way around the fact that the best players in the world have been shaped by pickup. That in itself should serve as inspiration to both current and future NBA players trying to reach the next level.