A graphic showing the needs of pickup ballers as if they were Maslows Hierarchy of needs

You Got Next? A Guide to Getting on the Court: Part 1

Given the [name] of the blog, is there going to be an entry on the intricacy of the ‘you got five yet?’ dance as played at Gregory and other large, competitive gyms? –Hadi

Hadi, a fellow former UT Austin baller (now Dallas area baller), sent me the above message a while ago suggesting I write a post about the complexities associated with getting on the court. I liked the idea but it had been a back-burner idea until I was reminded last week just how useful such a post might be.

So, in the spirit of more balling and less waiting to ball, as well as in the spirit of at-work-entertainment, I’ve written a two part series on the cultural nuances of getting on and staying on the court. Part one focuses on the cultural norms that govern both getting picked up by a team and getting next on a court. Part two concentrates on the strategies a baller can employ to maximize the total overall time she/he spends playing ball (instead of getting caught up in a cycle of waiting, playing one game, losing, and waiting again).

When there’re as many people waiting to play as there are people playing, getting in the game can be tricky [Doin It In the Park Trailer]
Here in part one, I begin with a retelling of what happened to me this past June. Then I unpack several elements related to getting on the court, organized and informed by a theoretical principle I’ve adapted from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (see graphic below). This post aims to be escpeically helpful for ballers interested in showing up lone-wolf-style to play some pickup on an unfamiliar court.


I left work a little early to make sure I’d get to the gym in time to play some ball before everyone left. It was a sunny Friday evening in late June so I wasn’t sure what I’d find when I got to the ARC on the campus of UIUC. As I passed through the double doors of the main courts I was happy to see that there were games on not one, but two courts. Court 1 offered both a higher level of basketball and six or seven familiar faces.

“You got next?” I asked two guys standing near the bleachers alongside Court 1.

“Yeah,” said an undergraduate with short wavy brown hair in an orange tee shirt.

“You got five?” I asked him.

“Yep,” he said only making brief eye contact before turning back to talk to his friend.

I walked a little farther down the bleachers and spotted Vince, a big dude and team player with a reliable set shot from behind the arc.

“You running with them?” I asked motioning toward the guy in the orange tee shirt.

“No man, they’re running with us. If I’d have known you were coming I woulda picked you up instead,” he said.

“I got next after you then?” I asked Vince.

He nodded and I grabbed a ball and started shooting at the far basket whenever the current game was on the other side. I shot alternating jumpers and floaters trying to get a rhythm going. During an especially lengthy possession on my side of the court I walked over to orange tee shirt.

“Why did you say you had next when it was Vince’s game?” I said pointing over toward Vince.

“Cause I’m part of the team that’s playing next, so I got next,” he said shaking his head slightly and arching his eyebrows.

“Only one person really ‘has’ next,” I said, “everyone else is just running next with em.”

“What are you talking about?” he said looking at me, “I’m up next, I got next, I’m next.”

“That’s not how some people would interpret it,” I said half to myself, “it’s, complicated.”

Once Vince’s team took the court, a guy from the losing team came up to me and asked if he and his brother could run. “Yes,” I said. The two of them went over to an unused basket on court 3 to shoot around.

I kept shooting whenever the game was on the other side of the court and watching the game whenever it was on my end. With the exception of Vince, his team had less beyond-the-arc shooting and overall talent than the squad they were challenging but enjoyed noticeably more size and higher energy. About 20 possessions into the game, one of the two brothers who had picked up with me came over.

“Just wanted to say that we picked up on the other court,” he said, pointing toward Court 2.

“No problem,” I said.

A typical summer pickup team might have two ballers who can either dribble and shoot, one guy who rebounds but has Dwight Howard-like touch, another who feels that playing good defense means double teaming the best player on the other team in hopes of a steal, and one guy in skinny jeans. From what I had seen, the two brothers couldn’t dribble, or shoot, or rebound so their dropping from my team meant I could probably add better players from the losing team.

A rebounding edge for Vince’s squad and cold shooting from beyond the arc for their opponent turned out to be the difference. As soon as the game ended I started picking up from the losing team. I picked up Josh: who could dribble, dunk, hit pull-up mid-range shots, and was even pretty good from behind the arc; Sam: who was usually deadly from behind the arc both spotting up and off the dribble; and Matt: a long-armed rebounder who could reliably convert on put-backs. I was considering who to pick up as my fifth when a guy in a maroon tee shirt came up to me.

“We’ve got next,” he said flanked by three guys who I recognized as the dudes who were shooting at the other basket and warming up during the last game, “I think I saw you playing in the game before this.”

“No, I’ve been waiting to play since the game before,” I said.

If you’ve played pickup ball for any length of time you’ve experienced this. Two, sometimes three ballers each think that she/he has next and each brings a team onto the court expecting to play. Usually this happens when the courts are overcrowded at the beginning or end of the Fall semester but it can happen at any time, even on a Friday night in June.

I had noticed the guys hanging around by the other basket during the last game, they alternated between sitting on the bleachers and shooting at the other basket. While I try to spread positive energy on the courts, I didn’t engage any of them. In part because that’s not the responsibility of the person who has next, in part because I didn’t recognize ’em, but mostly because they didn’t seem to be very good. They didn’t seek me out either, possibly for the same reasons.

“We’ve got our five,” maroon tee-shirt said.

Just like in Game of Thrones where the line of succession determines who has the right to be king, the line of succession in pickup basketball determines who has the legitimate right to find four other ballers and play in the next game. While kings usually are chosen by bloodline, having next on a court comes from calling it in front of whoever has the game before, that way he/she can help sort it out if there’s an issue.

“Let’s go ask Vince,” I said turning away from the usurpers and walking toward Vince who was standing around the half-court line.

“Who’s got next?” I said.

“You do,” he said pointing at me.

I walked away and resumed my search for a fifth baller. I felt kinda bad about not picking them up. Having played on courts where nobody knew me, I know what it’s like to get shafted out of a game. People have told me that they already had five only to see them pickup from the losing team once the current game was finished. It’s disappointing but I get it, if they don’t know me and just see a 30ish white guy with glasses and a beard asking if he can play they might prefer to play with a known quantity. That’s why my policy is to pick up anyone as long as I have room and as long as they ask. But these guys didn’t, so…

“Who’s your five?” the guy in the maroon shirt said walking over to me.

“Some people,” I said, “I don’t know all their names, they’re getting water.”

“Uh huh,” he said in the same skeptical tone I’ve used myself a dozen times.

Since I only had four at this point and since maroon t-shirt seemed like he might play with a small-guy, shafted-out-of-his-game chip on his shoulder, I turned toward him.

“We’ve only got four,” I said looking down at him, “if you want to run with us you can.”

“I’ll run,” he said.

We strung together three wins in a row before everyone left to, in Josh’s words, “get their Friday night on.” Before I left, I went downstairs to lift. Halfway through my second set of dumbbell bench presses I started thinking about all the subtleties associated with just getting on the court that night. By the time I finished my ab routine I had mentally mapped out several cultural elements that were important to understand in terms of securing ‘next’ or getting picked up. The subsections below break down the cultural practices and norms of getting picked up on most of the courts I’ve played on in North and South America. Take a look at the glossary or the urban dictionary if there are any questions about the specialized vocabulary used in the piece.


Just as Maslow theorized a hierarchy of basic human needs (Wikipedia, 2014), I theorize that pickup ballers operate based on a sort of implicit hierarchy of basketball needs. These needs show up to different degrees in most ballers and influence each baller’s prospects and approaches to getting next, getting picked up, and picking people up.

The individual and competing needs of pickup ballers influence all aspects of court ecologies including getting on the court.
The individual and competing needs of pickup ballers influence all aspects of court ecologies including getting on the court.

I use this hierarchy as a theoretical point of departure. It does a fairly nice job of explaining some of the motivation driving how picking up and getting picked up works. In this post I’ll focus on strategies for getting next or running next. These strategies are mainly governed by imperative #1 (Play as soon as possible), and imperative #2 (Win so as to play again). In part two I’ll continue using this hierarchy as a way to make sense of how and why people try and increase their odds of playing several games in a row.


A. Scoping out the courts.

Just as people tend to survey the entire menu at a new restaurant before ordering, ballers usually review all the possible courts before deciding where to play. Surveying  outdoor courts is easy as they are usually lined up next to each other. On the other hand, playing in a fancy university rec sports complex requires some more investigation as there may be as many as four different gyms/areas within the same building each with multiple basketball courts.

Would-be ballers use the eye test to try and see where they can play the soonest. If there are games going on multiple courts they’ll seek out the courts that match their own ability level. When I moved to the University of Illinois from Texas I asked a few guys who looked like they could ball where the best basketball was played. For the most part, the court they mentioned has the the highest level of competition followed by the ones next to it. By far, the top courts are also the most consistently used as well. On a typical Saturday afternoon on the outdoor courts or Friday afternoon inside during the semester there’ll be games running two or three down on the top court and someone with ‘next’ on the other courts with even more games going on in the second and third gyms within the rec-sports complex.

A busy night of summertime ball on the ARC courts of UIUC
While it’s easier to get a court during summertime ball, playing on the top courts can still take time [ARC, UIUC]
Playing as soon as possible is the base imperative in the hierarchy above because it is the most urgently felt need for regular and casual players alike. The difference is that casual players either don’t feel or don’t answer the call of the game on a daily basis. Some are good players but most are just regular dudes of questionable ability, other priorities, and fleeting passion for the game. They’re there to play one or two games with a friend or two before going back to the library to study or out on the town. They don’t want to wait for three and a half games before getting on the court to try their skills against the top ballers. For them scoping the court is mainly concerned with seeing which courts are just getting started, or which look like they have only a few people waiting. For them, the point is to play with their friends, and no matter if they win three games in a row or get slaughtered 15-4, they can remember the one shot they made while taking a study break, or tease their friend from ChemLab study group about how they got rejected three times on the same possession.

People who play more frequently also want to play as soon as possible, but they feel an additional desire to win against players who’s games they respect (imperative # 2 and # 4 in the hierarchy).  For them the first step isn’t simply to figure out where they can play the fastest but also to identify which courts have players within a range of acceptable/comparable ability. If watching game play on a court evokes pity they’ll look for another place to play even if someone is trying to pick them up to play next. On the other hand if game play on a court produces fear and self-loathing a regular baller might still play there and simply take on a minimal role in hopes of being part of a winning team and gaining acceptance among better players.

If you’re reading this and you aren’t sure how to self-level, try this. Find the court with the highest number of ballers that remind you of your regular court back home. I’m not talking about your cousin who walked on at Michigan State or your best friend from 3rd grade who you let play out of pity, I mean the ballers who score about as often as you do, dribble about as well, shoot shots that you would… Look for the court that reminds you of their games and you’ve probably found where you fit the best/where you’ll be the most comfortable.

As I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, ballers sometimes take on lesser roles in order to play sooner on better courts (see the pickup basketball manifesto for more information on adjusting one’s role based on the level of play). They also might play on a lower court if they’re working on new aspects of their game or are rehabbing an injury. Once I get to know the regulars, I tend to play on the courts where they play. In the summer that’s the best court, in the Fall and Spring it’s usually the second-best court. I’ll usually pickup on the top court if they’ve got a spot open but if I’m within 20 minutes of playing on my regular court I’ll turn down a chance to play sooner on a JV court.


B. In the Beginning there were 10: The genesis of next

Most people who come to the gym and check out a basketball are there to play ball first and work on their game second. If no courts are running fives then players tend to space themselves out one or two to a basket. They’ll shoot around and maybe play three on three but as soon as 10 or 11 people show up someone’ll start going around to the different courts asking everyone if they want to run 5s. With ten or more agreeing, everyone will move to one court and shoot threes to pick captains or free throws to get a first-five and second-five. Anyone who doesn’t get picked by the captains or misses too many free throws can have next so long as they call it (by saying, ‘I got next’). If there aren’t any games going on but a bunch of people start shooting at the same basket, go over and start shooting with them. Unless it’s the annual ‘friendly’ between two university engineering labs, this is the court where the games are about to start. If people start shooting free throws then get in line and do the same, otherwise if they’ve picked captains just try and look as tall, strong, youthful, and baller-like as possible to ensure you get picked up.

If there’re exactly ten ballers then no need to suck in the gut and no worries about hiding a Rafer Alston-esque jumper (who according to Sweat has been the worst shooter in the NBA over the last 10 years  (Sweat, 2012)), getting picked up is guaranteed. Once the game begins, the next person to enter the gym, go over to the court, and call next gets it. On some courts (e.g. UT Austin’s GRE) there is no implied next, if no one calls it then no one has it; whereas on other courts (e.g. UIUC’s ARC) there can be an implied next if a baller got there first and stayed close to or shot at one of the baskets. An implied next can be over-ridden by someone who called next explicitly and was heard by people playing in the current game and/or by others waiting but usually the sequence outlined in part C below takes care of these types of misunderstandings.


C. Games in Progress

The most likely scenario is one where games are already in progress on one or multiple courts each with several people standing along the sidelines. One way to get picked up is to start draining 3s and jamming home misses Kawhi Leonard style.

In no time whoever’s got next will come calling in an attempt to add your Kawhi-esque game to their squad (imperative #2). If on the other hand your skill-set involves things like passing, defense, hustle, high-fiving, and team spirit then the better option is to walk up to whoever is standing underneath the basket and interrupt their conversation by saying:

“You got next?”

If they say yes, then ask:

“You got five?”

In a perfect world they say no, to which you say:

“Can I run?”

If they admitted to not having five then it’s a good sign that they’ll say yes, meaning you’ll be running next with them. At this point you can get a drink of water, get warmed up, watch the game before to look for tendencies, and get up some shots.

Sometimes the person who has next won’t answer right away when asked if they’ve got five. They’ll hesitate instead,  cocking their head to the side and looking you up and down trying to remember if: (a) they ever played with you before, (b) you were any good, (c) you were fun to play with, or (d) you look like you’d be good. If this happens expect to hear one of the following:

“Yeah you can run.”
Subtext: I respect your game, or, you look like a baller.

“I think we have five.” or “My friends are coming so we got it.”
Subtext: I don’t have five but I don’t remember you, or, you don’t look like much of a baller.

“Weeee got five.”
Subtext: I remember you, you suck, or, you look like you might suck.

If they say that they either have five or think they have five the best strategy is to swallow your pride and say,

“Keep me in mind in case you end up needing one?”

They’ll almost always say yes to this as it lets them off the hook for judging you and lying to you. Once they’ve said that, say thanks and walk away, don’t be a pest about it or try to befriend them. Just shoot around at the same basket. If the jumpers fall consistently, if you look like you’ve got a good handle, and/or if you throw a few down, there’s a decent chance they’ll pick you up if they end up needing one.

Superficial Knee-Jerk Range of Assessed Ballerness
Superficial Knee-Jerk Range of Assessed Ballerness

On the other hand if they say that they don’t have next or have five for sure then ask them if they know who has next or who has after them (a.k.a. two down). If they say they don’t know, ask someone else, otherwise go up to the person they point to and rerun the script above. If they say that no one has it, then ask around to confirm it and tell them that you’ve got it. Now start building a team.

On busy days the top courts might be running 3 or 4 down. Once during finals at UT Austin I was 9 down. Be prepared to run the above script several times on several different courts. Also, if you’re 3-4 down you might consider implementing one (or several) of the diversified strategies described in the next section so as to play sooner.


D.   X-K Red 27 Techniques

While lone wolf ballers may have more trouble staying on the court than ballers to play with a consistent core of players, the upside is that they have more flexibility in terms of getting picked up. Instead of having to find someone who has room for three, the lone wolf baller can decide at the last minute to pickup on any team that just needs one. Don’t get me wrong, playing with people you know nearly always works out better than going rogue but sometimes it can’t be helped. This section describes some scenarios open to all but especially to those operating without a crew.

I should also mention that those concerned with equity and fairness in terms of waiting one’s turn will no doubt be upset by many of these strategies. Number 6 in hminami’s list of pickup game don’ts is trying to play again after just playing. The author suggests that if they’re shooting for the next five, then players who are just coming off shouldn’t be allowed to shoot out of a sense of fair play (hminami, 2014). My goal is not to change how pickup is played on any particular court but rather to outline the dynamics that circulate on the courts where I’ve played while using the Baller’s Hierarchy of Needs as a way to make sense of it. (I would add however, that if the dudes on the sidelines don’t have the foresight to shoot for the next five while the game is going on then they deserve to battle the losers to see who’s got next)

I. Multiple Reservations

Of the strategies open to lone wolf ballers, the most widely used is picking up on teams on multiple courts. If there are, say, three courts that look good to a lone wolf baller, she/he might go to the first one and get picked up to run 3-down and then continue on to the second court and also get 3-down, and get picked up 2-down on the third.  Instead of canceling the first two pickups, such a baller might just see which comes open first. While it’s relatively easy to get picked up on multiple courts, it’s much harder to actually try and call next on multiple courts. This is because would-be ballers will keep coming from two different directions to ask if they can run, eventually someone with 2 down on one of the courts will notice and choices will have to be made. Some people do a reciprocal pickup with each picking up the other for their game on separate courts. Giving the game to someone else who agrees to keep you on their team is another way ballers run this. Of course when lots of people do this the result is inflated wait times. Eventually the people with multiple reservations end up playing on some court and another squad will find themselves a player short. The brother pair in the example at the beginning of this post are an example of how sometimes holding multiple reservations can benefit everyone. It’s also another reason why asking someone who has five to keep you in mind, ‘just in case,’ is a good idea.

ReservationHop is an app that lets you buy a pre-made reservation at a busy restaurant. What would you pay for NextHop?
ReservationHop is a controversial app that lets you buy a pre-made reservation at a busy restaurant. Multiple Reservations is the closest thing pickup has to NextHop.

II. FrontRunning

Most ballers won’t walk away from the chance to play again but sometimes after running off five straight wins someone’ll leave to go to class or work or on a date (though if they’ve been dating for a while they’ll likely only leave when their date shows up at the gym). To further increase the chances of getting on the court as quickly as possible, trying to pickup with the winning team is a great strategy. This works best for ballers who know someone on the winning team. After a game finishes and everyone starts walking off the court to get water or check their phones approach either someone you know or the alpha baller on the winning team and say:

“You need any?”

If they say yes then say:

“Pick me up?”

If they agree then you’ll be playing next on what should be a pretty good squad instead of siting out another game hoping your girlfriend/boyfriend will believe you when you say you really were playing ball for four and a half hours. If they say they don’t know if they need any then just ask them to ‘keep you in mind.’

This strategy can also be applied if you just lost and are walking off the court, just after  congratulating the winning team, ballers will ask if they need any and if they do to pick them up.

The rich getting richer also happens on the court when someone on the winning team drops and they pick up the best player on the losing team

While it’s usually the apha-baller who handles picking up for the winning team, the person who is dropping can give their spot to someone they know as long as they tell a few teammates before leaving. Sometimes several players from the winning squad will each pick someone up and then they’ll have to sort out who actually gets the spot. Again the hierarchy theory above suggests that since they are already playing (imperative #1) they’ll pick the person most likely to help them win (imperative #2). Some ballers will seemingly go against this and pick up their friends instead of a better available player, I say seemingly because in the long-term it’s a strategy that increases their odds of playing sooner and in the short term, most ballers have an inflated sense of the odds of their winning the next game and tend to think that they can win as easily with the friend they just picked up as with the player who dropped.

III. Man Down!

I don’t know of any baller who hopes someone else gets injured just so that they can play, yet basketball is a sport where ankles get sprained, ACLs snap, Achilles tendons rupture, and dudes get their glasses smashed across their face (for more see my post on eyewear abuse in pickup basketball). When someone does go down and can’t continue, getting picked up as an in-game substitute becomes a possibility. The nice thing about getting pickup up in-game is that the sub retains her/his next or spot with their team, as long as the game in need of a sub is on the same court. If the sub’s the team wins then the sub has the option of staying with the winning team or playing with their original squad.

Due to the delicate nature of the situation, i.e. being seen as trying to benefit from someone’s misfortune, the grammar of getting into the current game as a sub requires some tact. Say you find yourself two down and watching the action on the court:

Two post players jump to try and block the shot of a guard driving Derrick Rose-like to the rim. As they come down, the guard yells in pain and grabs his ankle. Four to six ballers gather silently around injured player while two more turn away.

“You okay man?”

The player pounds the floor in an apparent attempt to distract himself from the pain of his ankle by fracturing his wrist.

More slapping and muttering ensues.

The remaining nine ballers start to look at each other.

“Can you go man?” says one of his teammates offering him a hand.

The guard on the floor shakes his head, avoiding eye contact and starts trying to use his hands to slide himself over the baseline and off the court.

The sideline/baseline slide is a clear indication that a sub will be needed. At this point one or two ballers will say:

“You need some ice?”

Most injured players are in too much pain to pick their sub or to say that yes they would like some ice. If their best friend or someone from a very small town was playing with then then he/she may run up to the front desk and get ice. This is the worst possible outcome as the game will be stopped for at least 10 minutes while Jimmy Chitwood fills out a clipboard’s worth of medical incident reports and comes back with a ziplock baggie filled with six ice cubes.

If no one offers to get ice or the injured baller says he’ll get it himself, then players on both teams will start scanning the sidelines for the opposite type of player (imperative #2). Someone on the team with five will point to the kid in skinny jeans shooting half-court shots by himself two courts away and say:

“Pick him up,” then yelling, “hey you wanna play?”

Meanwhile the team with four will look for someone who looks like a clear upgrade.

The key to getting noticed is to take a few steps out onto the floor while making eye contact with the four and looking as baller-like as possible. Then point to their alpha baller and say:

“You need one?”

They’ll either ignore the overture (subtext being: we can do better) or they’ll nod and say yes waving you on.

Meanwhile the guard with the sprained ankle has either retied his shoe tighter and has his foot elevated or has taken off his shoes and is sitting with his back against the wall waiting for his ankle to swell up and turn black and blue so he can take an injury selfie.

Usually the on-court injuries are of the give-it-a-week-and-you’ll-be-fine variety. But when it turns really bad, the best one can hope for is that it happens on a court where they’re a regular so their friends can haul them to the emergency room and snap a photo of the deformity for baller cred (see image below).

UT Austin Baller John snapped this in the ER after suffering this pickup ball injury [Photo Credit: John Dao]
UT Austin Baller John had this snapped while in the ER after suffering this injury during a game of pickup [Photo Credit: John Dao]

IV. Taking My Talents to Court #3

Sometimes you gotta change it up and be your own GM to win (in LeBron’s case) or get next (in the creative baller’s case).

If not all courts are running fives, there sometimes is the possibility of convincing a team that has three down on court two to play against a squad you’ve assembled over on the open court. The key to success with this strategy is to convince both teams that the level of competition they will be facing on court 3 will prove to be nearly as good as they ball they would have played on court 2 (i.e. both teams should feel like they’re evenly matched and if ballers on each team know each other then all the better, see imperative #4). The more people a baller knows on a particular court and the more time he/she’s been waiting to play the less willing they’ll be to trade courts but still it’s worth a shot.

Easier than getting other people who have next to change courts is seeing if the five shooting on the open court want to run fives against your newly assembled squad. Of course in this scenario you’ll likely be playing against less-talented players.


V. Claim Jumping

Occasionally, less-than-scrupulous/entitled ballers will roll into the gym as a group and try and bully their way onto the court by claiming that they had next when in fact they didn’t. Their main tactic is being as confident, loud, and obnoxious as possible. This will sometimes lead very meek or ill-informed ballers to acquiesce and give up their next.

The other version of this happens when some regulars take advantage of someone who looks new and/or non-alpha-baller-like.

Big John told me that it was he who had next. This trick has been pulled on me more than once. I knew to stand my ground. I told him that I had been at the park for over an hour before he even arrived. “Didn’t you hear? My boy called next for me.” (Eger 2012)

In Eger’s case, he was a Floridian who moved up to Brooklyn for the summer to play pickup ball and didn’t know anyone and didn’t really fit in initially. He ended up getting pushed off the court when the guys who he had picked up left him for the guy who claim jumped him (he wrote up his experience as part of a larger piece for the New York Times).


VI. The Ultimate Shaft

There’s Claim Jumping and then there’s the Ultimate Shaft. I’ve only witnessed it twice, both times while I was waiting to play on a different court. In each case the team that won the last game and the team that had two down really wanted to play each other and no one respected or seemed to like the dude who had next (who was pretty much by himself). So instead of keeping the court the winning team and the team who had two down moved over to an empty court and played against each other–telling the guy who had next:

“Court’s all yours man.”

Reminiscent of the Colts sneaking out of Baltimore and relocating to Indianapolis, moving the entire game to another court just to avoid a team or a player is both rare and low.

I’ve been known to call out some toxic point guard teammates during games before, and I’ve yelled at a few ballers who played at 100% when they had the ball in their hands and 60% when they didn’t, but I’ve never given someone who had next the Ultimate Shaft. I’d like to think that if I disliked him/her that much I’d just want to beat them that much more.


VII. The Outcomes of Outliers

For people who look like ballers or are known as ballers a line like “keep me in mind” isn’t even needed. For those on the cusp of passing the baller eye test that line works well. For those that don’t look like what people expect ballers to look like, there’s a need to employ alternative strategies. Alas pickup culture is wary of outsiders and this is most obvious when outliers try and get next. I know a guy who is 79 years old who plays sporadically at the ARC and most every time he has to either follow Ballard’s advice and get there first (Ballard, 2014) or just get last because no one’ll pick him up. He’s patient and just waits for his game, picking up the ballers who denied him two games before when he asked them.

The first time I played with him I noticed he was slow to get back on defense and I called him out, thinking he was only 65 or so. When he told me that he was 79 I told him I’d cover whichever of our guys got down the court first and he could take the trailer / the one closest to him (he declined to be interviewed).

Getting picked up while looking old, out of shape, or atypical in any way, as shown in the Range of Knee-Jerk Ballerness graphic above, often requires something more aggressive than “keep me in mind” as Melissa King writes:

‘I can play,’ she said, looking at Rolando, ‘and I play to win, so don’t you even be tellin’ me I can’t get in this game, cause I’m tellin’ you right now, I’m the best.’ (King, 2005, p.28)

I’ve played with outliers of all shapes, sizes, ages, and genders and just because they don’t look like they can play doesn’t mean they can’t. Sometimes it’s the ones who really look the part (shoes, clothes, talk, size, athleticism) who end up being terrible or a detriment to winning.

One additional point, the world is full of different groups or cliques, each one with their own special vocabulary, mannerisms, and clothes that make up a subculture (Gee, 2014). The ecologies of pickup basketball that I’ve experienced in Texas, London, Indiana, and Illinois have been more similar than different. Yet most of these have been within the context of university campus settings and all my interactions within those groups have been as a glasses-wearing, bearded, 6’1″, 170 pound, blue-eyed, Norwegian-looking man. The dialogues I list above, asking people to “keep me in mind” may come across as too passive on some courts. As I mention above, the person who is running the script maters as well. Being an academic and a white dude, saying “keep me in mind” both feels right and works for me in the context of the ARC, GRE, and other pickup basketball ecologies. Part of the reason it works for me is because on a college campus some of those features count as cultural capital. It also fits what people expect someone who looks like me might say. Additionally, both Eger’s piece for the New York Times and King’s book acknowledge the fact that whiteness affords increased access to courts to join games even while not acting like others might be expected to act within that culture. Those dynamics are, no doubt, also facilitating my prospects of getting on the court despite my use of language that, were it uttered by someone else on some other court, might come across as weak and unballer-like. (Thanks to Peter Caisse for bringing up this issue: see the comments section)


E. A Nexus of Nexts

As mentioned in the scenario at the beginning of this post, a few times a night there’ll be a dispute between two or more groups over who has next. This usually happens right before the game is about to start when the winning team asks if the next team is ready.

“Check ball, you got your five?”


“We got next,” says yep.

“No, we’ve got it,” says yeah.

“I saw you play’in on the other court,” says yep #2 pointing to yeah #4.

If no one knows about the line of succession or the challenging team from last game lost and left the court then the back-and-forth conversation continues meaninglessly for several minutes until someone on the winning team says…

“Com’on, I don’t care who, but one of ya get off the court and let’s play!”

By this point the players on the two squads have been crowding around their captain to add their support and voice. This can quickly get out of hand (for more on disagreements and on-court conflict see this post). Part of the reason there are so many disputes is that the courts are like a big fish tank with ballers in constant motion walking around looking to get next, shooting at an unused basket, getting picked up and then going to talk to a friend, get a drink, or take a Bobby Hurley. Usually one team steps aside due to confirmation of next from whoever had next before them or because the one of the ballers who had next caved and agreed to let the other, usually louder, claim-jumping baller to have the game. Once and a while they’ll shoot for it but usually the squad who is too eager to shoot for it is the one who feels the least confident in their claim of next.


F. Clipboard Diplomacy

When I mentioned the theme of this post in a Facebook pickup basketball group, Roshan and Coleman, ballers at UT Austin’s Gregory gym, told me of the signup sheet system employed at some 24 Hour Fitness centers and church gyms.

Often when you ball on church property, fairness supersedes the baller’s hierarchy of needs. [Photo credit: Korean Presbyterian Church of Metro Detroit]
“In a lot of church open gyms, you gotta be there to sign up, first 5 signed then next 5 signed,” said Coleman, continuing, “if there are a lot of teams, [and] you win three straight  both teams leave and 2 completely new teams play.”

Coleman went on to say that only people who are physically present can sign up and that while some of the rules are flexible, the WWJD honor system applies. Roshan added that some 24 Fitness Centers employ a signup sheet as well (though the higher power they’re following is probably a lawyer).

This tactic of sign-in sheets has been touted in the Onion-like news media as the best way to combat on-court conflict related to got-next disputes:

Macrapolis leads the nation in who’s got next killings. And, City Council is pushing for legislation that would require pick-up basketball locations to post sign-in sheets for those seeking to declare next. (Lewham, 2014)


I Got Last [Word]

In a perfect world, all ballers would get equal court time, everyone would get put on a team as soon as they entered the gym, all shots would go in, and nobody would ever lose. But, unless you’re playing in Lake Wobegon, a Noon Game, or in Clipboardville, ecologies of pickup basketball are driven by hierarchies that respond to the zero-sum-game world of make vs. miss, win vs. lose, picked up vs. you suck.

While some feel like finding in-progress pickup basketball games isn’t as easy as it used to be due to waning popularity among millennials (Hulme, 2011), on college campuses it’s still easy to find a game, especially compared to pickup football, lacrosse, baseball, or volleyball. In a recent multi-cited piece for ESPN, Medcalf and O’Neil chronicle the move indoors by the nation’s top young ballers,

There is no single cause. The best players, young and old, want to be inside instead of out; they want organized games to showcase their skills, not pickup games to earn street cred. … But the appeal of an indoor game isn’t just the quest for fame, scholarship or structure. It’s also about safety. It’s easier to control an indoor space than an outdoor one. Buildings have walls and private entrances; you can’t put a metal detector at every park. (Medcalf & O’Neil, 2014)

University recsports complexes have never been fancier, are always part of the campus undergraduate recruiting tour, and may even help improve GPA (Baulkman, 2014). Let’s hope that indoor pickup continues to be popular and the 7000 words on the ins and outs of getting on the court I’ve written are both useful for years to come and spark a renaissance of playground ball.

Before closing I feel the need to state that as knee-jerk / judgmental as ballers can initially be, they are also some of the most accepting people I know. Win four games in a row with a group, fill a role well, or play consistently smart ball and they’ll pick you up next time even if they judged you the first time as a total non-baller. Become actual friends with a group of ballers and they’re likely to pick you up at the expense of their chances for winning. In terms of an analogy, for people who don’t give off the prototypical baller look, pickup culture is like East Coast street culture. When you show up in Boston or NYC and you don’t know anyone it seems like everyone is crusty and judgmental, once they get to know you, you find out that these same people are as warm as any Southerner or Midwesterner.

Hopefully this journey helps in maximizing your chances of playing as soon as possible (imperative #1). How long you stay on the court is a different matter that is both up to you and the subject of next month’s post.


2 thoughts on “You Got Next? A Guide to Getting on the Court: Part 1

  1. Wow. As someone who’s played their fair share of pickup, this is right on the money. Amazingly thoughtful and thorough analysis. The title could have just as easily been “The Sociologoy of Pickup”!

    Your post left me wondering how much different you experience would be if you were black (and as such had more perceived ballerness/belonging, at least in an urban environment). For instance, I’m pretty sure none of the black dudes I play pickup with in Philly would ever say “Keep me in mind in case you end up needing one?” because they would be perceived as weak. Just an example that got me thinking.

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