On my way home from Central Park, I walked past a series of local league basketball games. I stayed and watched and got a fascinating dose of neighborhood game culture. I stayed for something like an hour, in part because the games were quite good but more because this was a pure instance of a natural community of play and it was amazing to see. If you can forgive my amateur anthropology, details within.
So I live like two blocks from Central Park and I often work or do phone calls there. On my way back today, I passed by the playground of a school about a block away from my apartment. There are normally people playing pick-up games of basketball, but today there were people in uniform and refs and everything. I decide to stay and watch for a while, and I ended up watching through the end of one game and the first half of a second. I was standing on the street in the midst of a group of women hanging out in folding beach chairs and watching the game. The crowd of about 40 (and the players, for that matter) were a pretty rich mix: mostly African-American with a minority of Latino and white people, all aged 16-early 30s. I was the only thing anywhere near the nerd side of the spectrum though.
The first game was a younger group of players, although it looked like there were definitely people in their early 20s in the mix. The blue team was home; the black team was away. The play itself was different between the two teams: the blue team was immature and its players hogged the ball and mad a lot of stupid selfish shots, where the black team was a little more mature and had practiced a bit more teamwork, and thus was a quite superior team. (They won something like 68-52). The blue was the home team, but the crowd was pretty sedate with only few cheers and shouts. The game was never really in doubt; despite the fact that blue was playing hard and had a giant center, black just passed and hustled better and that was that.
When that game finished, the court immediately filled up when a variety of kids and men shooting baskets. The two teams quite graciously thanked each other, and the referees swapped out. There was play chaos on the court for about 20 minutes, and then random people flowed out as two new teams (purple and red) started practicing. These teams were all adult, mid-20 to mid-30s, and their practices were serious, clearly regular things. The red team was the home team. After about 15 minutes warm-up while team members rolled in, that game started.
The character of the adult game was very different. The teams had an ambivalent relationship to each other; sometimes they joked around or slapped each other in solidarity, while other times they taunted or glared at each other. The crowds were much more animated. There were about equal fans on both sides and they were very vocal about their celebration of victories, their disappointment in ref calls, and how badly they would beat the other side. The home team fans (in which I stood) were particularly vocal; they regularly tried to distract the away team with noise and insults and were literally screaming at the refs at several points.
The game itself was also more aggressive with a ton more offensive fouls, so many in fact that I ran out of time and had to leave at about the half. The teams were basically evenly matched with both teams not as elegant as the younger players, but more experienced and practiced with better teamwork and higher scores. The most interesting exchange involved the captain of the red team. Early in the game, he collided with a purple guard and got a cut on his nose. He went back in and about 20 minutes later, he slammed into another player and got a cut just over his eye. (The other player had been knocked down hard earlier, and took a moment to recover from this hit too.) The game stopped for like 10 minutes as his teammates checked on him and they determined whether or not he needed stitches. Eventually, one of the spectators bought peroxide and bandages (she was very professional, so I bet she was a nurse or studying to be one) and fixed him up. He sat out a bit longer angry, and his team started falling apart without him. He stayed out a few minutes more, but then got fed up and came roaring back in with some hardcore driving play and nice shots. The game was even when I left.
The nursing moment was not unique in the game, and that’s actually why I stayed for so long. I spent the game in a group of mostly women watching the game. That was maybe the most fascinating part of the experience to me. There was a very strong culture between the spectators and players, a very established kind of community that was wonderful to see. Here are some highlights:
- Everyone in the crowd knew each other. One of them mentioned that they knew someone from school, which means either high school or college, I think high school from the way they were talking about how they might know another person.
- The women had families (there were kids running around), but it wasn’t entirely clear if they had any familial relationships with the players. They were there rooting for the home teams.
- They were all drinking these Spiked Juices — they looked like Capri-Sun packages but they were alcoholic. They were getting pretty drunk. I tried to ask one woman about who the teams were and she had trouble giving me a clear answer. These women were having a GOOD time.
- The players, refs, and spectators were constantly interacting. When someone was injured, the spectators gave the players ice through the fence. The refs and crowd would joke occasionally.
- The guys who were spectating were also well-known to everyone, and they had a very warm rapport with the players and coaches (for the younger game) as well as the women spectators.
- The sidelines of the game were a mixed of alternate players and fans. The game was carefully maintained, but right at the border the rules broke down.
- The spectators I was with very much felt they were participating in the game. They timed shouts to throw off the away team’s drives. They taunted away team free throw shooters to try to distract them. The players and spectators had a quite tight relationship.
- This was pure entertainment. People were not there out of obligation. They were there because it was FUN. Fun to hang out and fun to have a game to bond around.
I know there’s nothing particularly unusual about this game. I imagine league play generally has these features. But given how sports (outside of CO&P and other such events) has become so big and national, it was wonderful to see organized competitive play in a more local way. It just shows how game culture can be a beautiful center for neighborhood bonds, gatherings, and rivalries. Social play lives on!