As his team jogs back on defense, Sebastian Telfair takes an inbounds pass and before dribbling looks into the crowd and says, “Watch this.”
Dribbling down the right side of the court, Telfair meets his defender, and with an unconventional crossover manages to bring the crowd to its feet and blow by his man all in one motion.
When Telfair’s feet hit the lane, he zings a no-look pass to a man in the post who completes the play with a rim-rattling dunk.
Telfair is a point guard for the Los Angeles Clippers, but this game was being played on an outdoor court in his hometown of Brooklyn, N.Y.
The game pauses as fans rush the court, jumping up and down, cheering in disbelief at the move Telfair just put on his defender and the pass that followed. The shot wasn’t a game winner and the stakes weren’t high, Telfair was simply playing pick-up basketball.
In gyms across the country shoes squeak, balls swish through nets and eager laymen and women look on, occasionally calling out that they’ve got next game.
The majority of them aren’t NBA caliber, or even college-caliber players, they’re simply playing pick-up basketball.
The origins of pick-up are the origins of the game
In December 1891, at the request of his superior, Dr. Luther H. Gulick, at the YMCA in Springfield, Mass., Dr. James Naismith organized a vigorous recreation that was suitable for indoor play in the winter months — known today as basketball.
Naismith, after coming up with a few rules and regulations, nailed a peach basket to a 10-foot elevated track. In contrast with modern basketball nets, this peach basket retained its bottom and balls had to be retrieved manually after each basket or point scored. This proved inefficient, so a hole was drilled into the bottom of the basket, allowing the balls to be poked out with a long dowel each time. A further change was soon made, so the ball merely passed through, paving the way for the game we know today.
A soccer ball was used to shoot goals. Whenever a person got the ball in the basket, his team would gain a point. Whichever team got the most points won the game. The baskets were originally nailed to the mezzanine balcony of the playing court, but this proved impractical when spectators on the balcony began to interfere with shots. The backboard was introduced to prevent this interference; it had the additional effect of allowing rebound shots.
The first official game was played in the YMCA gymnasium on January 20, 1892 with nine players – it was simply a game of pick-up basketball.
State tournaments, March Madness and million-dollar contracts evolved out of that first game. And while good old-fashioned pick-up has been a sustained success, it too has evolved and taken to the streets.
From the Y to the streets
Streetball began in Washington D.C. and New York City in the early 1900s.
As the popularity of this particular version of pick-up basketball increased, some cities began organizing streetball programs, such as midnight basketball. Many cities also host their own weekend-long streetball tournaments. Hoop-It-Up and the Houston Rockets’ Blacktop Battle are two of the most popular. In recent years, streetball has seen an increase in media exposure through television shows such as ESPN’s “Streetball” and “City Slam” as well as traveling exhibitions such as the And1 Mix tape Tour which display highlights, dunks and tricks.
Ganon Baker grew up running streetball games on the outdoor courts of Hampton, Va.
The skills he learned there helped Baker lead his Hampton High School team to a state title in 1989 and earned him over 20 Division I scholarship offers. He’s currently a Nike Skills Development trainer and director and is the author of 25 top-selling basketball DVDs.
He’s also an expert when it comes to how streetball’s version of pick-up has changed the game.
“I’ve got nothing against the And1 players,” Baker said. “I think those guys are very talented and phenomenal, but the streetball I promote is less individualized and more team oriented.
“More like the true game.”
And that’s the kind of streetball Ganon played: less for entertainment, more for pride and skill enhancement.
“With streetball, a lot of it’s played outside,” Ganon said. “So you’re shooting a lot of times in the sun, against the wind. You’re freezing cold and maybe even it’s rainy. You’ve got to learn to play against those conditions and if you can, then inside the gym is easy.”
With the increased exposure of the highlight reel that is the current version of streetball; Ganon said there’s less emphasis being placed on what pick-up basketball is really about: Proving you’ve got game in the context of winning, not breaking someone’s ankles with a crossover or dunking on someone.
“The score is tied 9-9 and you’ve got to get a good shot or you’re going to lose,” Ganon said. “So you’re forced to take a good shot, you’re forced to execute, you’re forced to set up a two-man game or play off the post and defensively, you know you can’t give up anything easy.
“(When you do those things) there’s your sense of pride, that’s where you’re glorified.
“Kids have lost a sense of competing,” he added. “Now it’s more, let me show you what I’ve got.”
Current New Jersey Net and former Orlando Magic player Rafer “Skip to my Lou” Alston is the most notable and the most current pure streetball player to make the jump to the NBA. While streetballers’ talent can’t be denied, the individualized way in which their game is played doesn’t translate well onto the college or pro courts.
“(Rafer) Alston didn’t do AND1 mix tape highlights against Kobe (Bryant in the NBA Finals),” said East Hall boys basketball coach Joe Dix. “Fundamentally, those things can get you in trouble in the real organized games.”
Pick-up with a purpose
Dix wants his East Hall players to play as much pick-up basketball as possible, under certain conditions.
“I tell them to play against guys that are tougher than them,” Dix said. “Former players who play regularly and are out there to compete, not show each other up.
“I want them to play to win because then that mentality is instilled,” he added. “Our pick-up games are serious business.”
What is a recreational endeavor for most serves a greater purpose for high school and college players, or those hoping to become either or both.
It’s a chance to, without a coach watching and dissecting or a region championship hanging in the balance, work on the aspects of the game that will better prepare a player for real-game situations.
“Coaches’ systems aren’t built around the way streetballers play,” Baker said. “So it’s imperative that coaches make sure their kids are playing in an environment where people know how to play. An environment that will foster skill growth.”
“I’ve got a couple of guys I’ve talked to about learning to put the ball on the floor and create for themselves,” Dix said. “There are a couple other players who need to learn to push the tempo and the ball up the floor.
“Playing pick-up in the summer or offseason is where they should learn these type things, in game situations, so that they can then be applied when the real season starts.”