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The 'Noon Game'

The ‘Noon Game’

Two weeks ago I was stuck. Between late afternoon meetings and more than a few comments from my girlfriend about getting out of work and the gym at a decent hour I came to the realization that I was either going to have to go a week without playing ball or be forced to join the ‘Noon Game.’ Of course I played ball, but the decision was harder than you might think.

Now, I’m not talking about all games played at noon, I’m specifically writing about standing noon games, which, on university campuses, are sometimes called Fac-Staff games. Most Noon Gamers work full-time, are married, and have kids (if not grandkids). They play at noon to stay active, to network, to avoid the treadmill, to combine interaction with exercise, to add excitement to a life filled with afternoon meetings, and/or because their doctor told them they could either get busy liv’in or get busy dy’in.

One of the perks of working on or near a university campus is the presence of recreation facilities that offer basketball courts, massage, weights, showers, and rent-able lockers within one building. Since the mid 90s these behemoths have been going up across the country and are hubs of activity and a source of school pride. Students love them and prospective students and their parents love the idea of them even more.

With pools, climbing walls, and basketball courts, the highlight of the university campus tour is its student recreation center [photo: Illinois.edu]

The Noon Game on college campuses is usually populated with tenured professors and university staff who are established enough in their jobs to afford them the flexibility of a 60-90 minute lunch break. Rounding out the ranks of the Noon Game players are grad students who are either too early in their PhD programs to realize they don’t have time to play ball or Law students who have scheduled lunch-break exercise into their weekly routine.

In SAT/GRE test item terms, the Noon Game is to pickup basketball as Singapore is to Tokyo, Taipei, and Shanghai. Singapore has most of the things that make Tokyo, Taipei, and Shanghai world-class cities yet Singapore’s got some quirks you might not expect. Likewise the Noon Game has many of the attributes common to regular pickup basketball yet, it is its own unique version of pickup culture.

Interact with interesting people, eat great food, explore the beautiful city-state but don’t chew gum in Singapore, it’s forbidden.

I’ve played in the Noon Game at Gregory on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin several times and generally enjoyed it. It wasn’t until I changed Universities that I was able to look critically at the Noon Game. And even then, it took me a while to understand what it was about Fac-Staff pickup games that made them so unique and so ill suited to my pickup preferences. So in the spirit of basketball scholarship and during-work entertainment, here are 8 different quirks of the lunchtime version of pickup basketball. These aren’t flaws so much as unique facets that are enjoyed by some and endured by others.

1. A Well-Defined Insider/Outsider Status

In the Noon Game, insider-outsider divisions are more prominent [Photo: ben@casnocha.com]

In regular pickup basketball on university campuses, 3-6 players on a court will be regulars with the other 4-7 players made up of people who only play infrequently. They came with a friend who plays, they emerge from the weight room to get in some cardio (identified by the stretch marks around their shoulders and their ability to miss a free throw-line jumper by five feet to the left). In these environments, the on-court culture of pickup ball exists in a legible but semi-fluid state of flux and re-assembly. When around half the players balling on a particular court have never played with each other, there’s an opportunity, as well as a need, to negotiate how closely any particular game will follow the implicit conventions of a court/gym/university. For instance, on the courts at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign’s ARC gym, as soon as a player calls a foul, any basket made via continuation is negated. Whether you agree with that convention or not, no one argues that call because anyone who’s ever played a game at the ARC (or most any other pickup venue outside of Texas) has probably witnessed the application of this rule before. However, if a player says, ‘and 1‘ while in the act of shooting at the ARC, a game-halting debate usually ensues with some players (usually on defense) saying this is the same as calling ‘foul,’ while others (usually on offense) argue that it’s just a statement of confidence about the ball going in despite an (uncalled) foul. Whichever way the call goes the game is played that way from that point on.

For me, part of the fun of playing pickup is engaging in on-court discourse. I don’t do much trash talking but I like to communicate on defense, encourage teammates on offense (unless they are chuckers or pouters), crack a joke, and stand up against on-court tyranny. Much of this communication involves 5-20 seconds of dead-ball conversation. These play-stopping periods are not only necessary in ensuring both teams get a chance to argue their side of things but they also serve as an opportunity to get a little in-game rest.

While Noon Games usually accept new players, there are often very few of them. So when 7 to 9 players on the court are lunchtime regulars, they tend to have a shared sense as to how the game should be called–leaving little need for periods of play-stopping on-court negotiation. This makes sense as they feel they’re up against the clock. They can stand around and talk when they go back to work but they only have a fixed amount of time to get in a workout.

For me, a serial communicator and on-court break-taker, except for calling out screens, my normal comments during Noon Games don’t fit within the accepted interactional grammar and no-stopping/sub-out-if-you’re-tired pace of the game. There’s talking that goes on, but it’s more about how Bob has finally cooled off after a week of hot (50%) shooting or how Rodney’s limp after knee-replacement surgery four months ago is now nearly undetectable. These aren’t conversations that are easily joined by outsiders. If you don’t feel the need to communicate during games then you’re probably fine, but if you are like me and like to engage in some on-court banter then brace yourself for few openings and a low tolerance for stoppages in play.

2. The 1pm Deadline

Ride a winning streak or return to off-court life, for Noon Game players, the choice is clear

Ride a winning streak or return to off-court life, for Noon Game players, the choice is clear

That fixed amount of time Noon Gamers to play yields the second quirk. You know the feeling as a baller when you and the guys you’re running with start to click and you get on a roll. Winning not one, not two, not three, not four… games in a row? It’s the type of run that bonds you to your teammates, no matter their faults or yours. But chances are, if you only play noon ball, then you’ve never known a winning streak beyond two and a half games. The 50 minutes to an hour that Noon Gamers have to play just isn’t enough time to get on the sort of roll that would lead to grabbing some Korean barbeque afterward to celebrate winning 8 games in a row and owning the court.

Instead, at the Noon Game, you come back from getting water after winning two in a row to hear two players on your team announce that they have to go because they have a meeting. As a regular pickup baller, this smacks of basketball blasphemy. When’s the last time you heard a baller say that they had to cut a potential epic run short because of a date, a test, a class? Sure, they might say they have to go but with just a little peer pressure they stay and play. Lunchtime ball on the other hand begins by 12:10, is going strong around 12:25 (possibly on two courts), thins out around 1pm and dies promptly at 1:10. The Noon Gamers just leave, and once two take off to rejoin the world of work it breaks the spell over everyone else and suddenly it’s just you and the visiting scholar from Nepal who’s using basketball as a way to practice his English.

I mean imagine how debilitating it would be if every time someone said he had to stop playing because he had to meet his girlfriend at the library, not only did he follow through but his statement but suddenly, everyone else remembered that they too had girlfriends (or boyfriends) and decided to leave the court and go spend time with them. Of course, pickup ballers would need to be a lot more sensitive for this to be a threat.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not deriding Noon Gamers for being responsible, I take my job very seriously. It’s the reason I often plan on playing ball at 4:30pm but don’t actually there until 6 or 7. I love what I do, but I also know that when I’m playing ball I don’t want to have to think about anything except the next game especially if we’re on a winning streak. As a pickup baller, there are just a few plausible reasons for ducking out on an epic or potentially epic winning streak: (a) there was nobody left to beat (b) your team lost, (c) you tore your hamstring or sprained your ankle and can no longer run, (d) the gym is closing for the night and the Rec-Sports staff have turned out the lights, (e) it’s valentine’s day and you are supposed to pick up your date in 20 minutes. Given this mindset, it feels arbitrary and disingenuous to stop playing ball simply because the little hand on the clock happens to be pointing at the 1.

One of the reasons I enjoyed the Noon Game at UT Austin’s Gregory Gym so much was because one or two of the higher ranking Noon Gamers players would actually stick around beyond 1pm and keep playing pickup with the regular ballers who would start showing up by 1 or 1:30.

3. Silverbacks, the Noon Game’s version of Alpha-Ballers

In a blog-post about conflict and pickup basketball I unpacked my court culture = pack culture theory with ‘Alpha-Ballers’ at the top of the hierarchy. Alpha Baller status at the Noon Game depends much more on seniority and frequency than on skill or size, thus I call these players Silverbacks, not because they are the biggest and strongest but rather because they tend to be older men with more than a touch of silver in their hair, beards, and, sometimes, their backs.

Silverbacks are upbeat caretakers of the Noon Game culture who, along with a few more traditional alpha ballers (usually Law or masters students who play regularly).

The Silverback Baller, happy caretaker of the Noon Game [Photo: wikimedia commons]

Some of these Silverbacks have been hooping it up for years if not decades, they play 3-5 times per week, they know everyone, and they generally make sure they get to the court in time to play in the first game. You too can ascend to the rank of Silverback, just be ready to put in the time to get there, I played in a Noon Game once where the guy they called ‘Young-Buck’ was at least 40 years old.

4. Shirts vs Sweat

Not all lunchtime games involve the shirts and skins approach to team differentiation but many do. Going shirts vs skins is an old-school, somewhat sexist way of being clear about who is on which team, it is old school and if the Noon Game is anything it is that. I don’t mind tradition and while it also may be a way to perform masculinity and reconnect with playground basketball, the reality is that most indoor gyms are kept at 73 degrees or cooler year-round, meaning that when the Noon Game employs a shirts vs skins convention you end up with a lot of hardened nipples pointing out from salt-and-pepper haired chests. This visual, coupled with the inevitability of getting slimed at some point makes both being a skin and guarding a skin a lose-lose proposition.

And as for telling people apart, unless you have prosopagnosia; faces, court positioning, and clothes should be more than enough.

5. A Dearth of Dirty and an Absence of Edgy

The Noon Gamers I’ve played with are likable and unassuming. They’re not trying to make a name for themselves or be recognized as a PUB-GOAT (PickUp Ball’s Greatest Of All Time). They’re just using their lunch hour as an outlet for physical and social energy that is less alienating and mind-numbing than watching the midday farm report followed by the first half of the Young and the Restless on a 5″ screen on the elliptical machine. They’re secure in their profession and themselves and are generally just happy to get the chance to squeeze a workout into their All-American life complete with a 50 to 70 hour work week, two teen-age kids, a dog, an addiction to Breaking Bad, and a feigned interest in Mad Men.

This means that trying to join a Noon Game without toning down the typical I-got-game edge a regular pickup baller brings to the court will probably have you coming off more like the uber obnoxious guy in the video clip above than as the dedicated, legit pickup baller you are.

6. Reservations, Party of 10

There’s no waiting to play for the first 10 players to arrive for the Noon Game [Photo: janetm1000]

I’ve had a few lucky streaks during regular pickup where I show up, get picked up by the team who has next, and start playing within 10 minutes of arrival, however lunchtime basketball players can take this for granted, being able to go months without having to wait longer than 5 minutes to play.

As a regular pickup baller, unless you have a friend who gets to the court early to call next for both of you, playing pickup is often a crap shoot in terms of how how long you’ll have to wait to get on the court. I’ve had to wait as long as two hours just to play one game of pickup. The Noon Game however starts as soon as there are 10 people, in other words no walking into the gym not knowing if you’ll be waiting for 5 minutes or 90 minutes to play your first game. If you show up at 11:55 you are practically guaranteed to be playing basketball within five minutes.

7. Work Interrupted

Playing in the Noon Game can interrupt flow

If your job has you going from one meeting to the next with little need for prolonged periods of uninterrupted work, then lunchtime ball might be just the ticket to break up the monotony. I love playing basketball but I love my job just as much (okay, nearly as much). But it’s a job that requires prolonged periods of thinking, reflection, and productination (productive procrastination). Knowing that I need to stop what I’m doing early in the day (11:30am) to go do something else messes with my morning flow as well as my afternoon efforts to be productive. If you’re like me in that you do your best writing and thinking when you know you don’t need to stop writing or thinking until you leave for the day, then the Noon Game might not fit with your preferred work patterns.

8. It is Unavoidable, it is Your Destiny

Part of my unease with the Noon Game is the feeling that at some point I’ll be forced to only play ball over lunch. It’s a constellation of unspoken fears that at some point my pickup skills will deteriorate, my job will demand 60 hours a week instead of 50, and I’ll end up with too many kids, a yard, social obligations, and a commute that will make playing regular I’ll-leave-when-I’m-done pickup ball an impossibility.

I did however, meet a guy at the ARC last month who said he stopped playing in the Noon Game once he retired from his job and went back to playing regular pickup, so I guess I could try and convince myself that I could do that, but who knows what my joints will be like in 30 to 40 years or whether or not civilization in 2048 will still tolerate non-digital activities like pickup basketball.

Coda

So that’s it, again, my goal was not to ‘hate’ on the Noon Game or those who play over lunch, but rather to unpack some of its quirks in a possibly funny way. There are as many versions of lunch-time ball as their are courts (including one well-chronicled variety played in the suburbs of San Diego (lunchsketball)). Hopefully some of these observations resonated with your experience.

In some ways, being a part of the Noon Game is a way to reconnect with after-lunch recess from one’s grade school days–when you were 10 and you’d inhale your food and then slip outdoors, pick teams, and play ball right up until the moment Ms Youngerberg blew her whistle, or the bell rang, or someone got a concussion and everyone would line up for 5 seconds at the drinking fountain before pretending to pay attention during science or social studies class while you felt your sweat drying across your body and tried not to catch a whiff of Andy who had a reliable jumpshot but unreliable deodorant. The main difference between after-lunch recess and the Noon Game is that Noon Gamers have the option of showering afterward, they decide for themselves when to stop playing, and as adults they now pay attention during science or social studies class–mostly because they are the ones teaching some form of it. Maybe the joys of after-lunch basketball got associated with science and social studies–predisposing its participants to someday become scientists, social scientists, and Silverbacks.