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We wore out the bottoms of our Cons over the past eight years, trying to get a fix on the essence of the culture of pickup basketball. Ultimately we were heartened by how often a basketball broke the ice, especially in neighborhoods that seemed strange to us, and where we no doubt seemed stranger still. Here are three excerpts from our journal.
To eat or not to eat, that is the question. Whether 'tis wiser to catch a quick bite before heading to the gym (at the risk of cramps) or to hold off (at the risk of anemia) in accordance with that adage about a hungry dog hunting best.... Every type from Shakespearean scholars to school janitors has faced that 11:30 a.m. dilemma. That's about when games get under way at college gyms around the country, where noontime hoops can be as hallowed an institution as Old Siwash itself.
At Brigham Young, faculty and staff have the right to bump any student off the courts between noon and 1 p.m. At Navy the regulars hew to the 85� rule: If the temperature is above 85�, the skins are considered to be at an advantage, so the shirts get first outs; below 85�, it's vice versa. The heating at North Carolina- Greensboro's Coleman Gym (now closed for renovation) was erratic, so winter games weren't run shirts versus skins, but more like sweatshirts versus parkas. Across town, the Guilford College lunch bunch calls its thrice-weekly noontime sessions "committee meetings," the better to get out of any conflicting commitments that arise. And beware the three-on-three games at Princeton's Jadwin Gym, where Tiger coach Pete Carril can put his antiquated set shot—along with his stogie—in your face.
Similar diurnal rituals are enacted at countless Y's and municipal rec centers. You undress on the run, forgo warmups, play and hustle back to work. Hey, there isn't any time to eat.
So long as heaven is a playground, does it matter? You get your manna from heaven.
This isn't a game you'll necessarily want to get into. Then again, while the food's worse than what you'll find on the outside, and the social life is worse, and as life expectancy is worse, too, the ball—dare we say it?—just may be better,
Prison-yard culture spawns nicknames, just like schoolyard society. Ask the Trotters about the bundle of buckets they surrendered at Attica to Kind John, so named because he didn't off a fellow inmate who welshed on a cigarette bet after a one-on-one game. Moses Malone banged with the prison crowd in Richmond, particularly with The Milkman, so-called " 'cause he killed one, man."
The last word belongs to an inmate at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a sky-rise clink in Chi-town, where prisoners while away as much of their sentences as possible at the outdoor slab on the 27th floor.