One thing sportswriters love to do is tell their stories about pickup basketball. Perhaps it’s an ego thing, or maybe the camaraderie fuels their words, or maybe we, as an audience, just enjoy reading about the human side of sports. Either way, I’ve read a number of good pickup stories over the years, but I have yet to find one that even closely resembles mine. So without further ado, here goes.
Some guys run pickup games with old-timers. Some run games with kids. Other run with work colleagues, or family members, or longtime friends. I run with stoners. Potheads, if you will.
To clarify my situation, these stoners aren’t the only people I run with, and I, myself, do not share their fondness for the reefer. But it just so happens that over much of the last decade, I’ve happened to cross paths time and again with this group of people who value marijuana and basketball equally, and at the very least it’s been entertaining.
It all started about six or seven years ago. My friends and I would go out on summer nights and run on the one local outdoor court we knew of that had lights. It’s a beautiful court, well kept and tucked away in a park aptly named Hidden Valley. We rarely started our first game before 8:00 p.m., and most evenings we’d be running until midnight neared. With many of us having summer jobs that kept us occupied at the mall until late in the evening, the night runs were the only time that worked for everybody.
At first, it seemed, nobody played on this court but us. Occasionally we’d run into a group of people finishing up a game just as we arrived, but random walk-ups never seemed to infiltrate our late-night battles. After about a year of hosting our own private showdowns, that all began to change.
The thing about a great run is that nobody can keep it a secret. If you have a good group of people you run with, as well as a nice place to run, chances are that even the most loyal ballers true to the clique are going to tell some outsiders about this wonderful thing you possess. So as expected, over time, friends of friends started showing up to compete with us. And then it was friends of friends of friends. And pretty soon we didn’t know half of the people out there at our mosquito-infested twilight get-togethers. All of which only fueled the legend of our court and our run.
Of the original group of people who comprised the Hidden Valley ballers, a handful enjoyed to smoke weed. Naturally, many of their close constituents also enjoyed smoking weed. And the friends of their close constituents? Also weed lovers. It has become apparent to me over the years that potheads share everything with other potheads. Hence, it should come as no surprise to anyone that the first outsiders who ever crashed our late-night runs were potheads. Over time, those potheads would multiply like bunny rabbits. And by present-day, the only people left on our court (now their court, I suppose) would be me and the potheads.
The transition from sober to stoned was neither smooth nor swift. For every stoner who excelled his natural athleticism by toking up before a game, there were always one or two guys who got crazy stupid every time they smoked. The crazy-stupids had the potential to ruin a ballgame from the get-go. They’d take ill-advised shots, turn the ball over, and lag on defense. Between games, they’d go take a hit in the parking lot before returning to action. It got to the point where anytime a team lost, you could almost guarantee that they’d spend their down time at a buddy’s car, smoking, before the next game got finished and they had the right to take on the winners.
Thanks to the addition of the potheads we were averaging 20 people a night at the court, which meant that a loss usually equated to a two-game wait. This gave Team Mary Jane ample time to get high before returning to action. In fact, the run itself was turning into more of a social event than actual sports. Guys brought their girlfriends to the park, people started coming just to watch, and it was almost a guarantee that there would be a scuffle by the end of the night. The runs were becoming less and less enjoyable, and as a result, people began to depart.
Many of the first people to stop coming out for games over the summers were guys like me, dudes who just wanted to ball, and couldn’t understand why the meet-and-greet aspect had taken over the court. They left in search of greener pastures, only returning on occasion to check in for a quick run.
As the non-smokers started disappearing, the abundance of chronic lovers rose to an all-time high. With few non-smokers left to dissent upon their doobie brethren, tension was eased and conflict diminished. While the transition, as I alluded to earlier, was neither smooth nor swift, it ultimately produced an environment of harmonic accord when finally complete. I mean, let’s face it, a group of potheads is about as dangerous as a room full of kittens. Most of these guys wouldn’t hurt a fly, and if they were to hurt a fly, chances are it would happen while they were sober. So in this instance, at least, marijuana equaled peace. Perhaps we can get this to a UN summit meeting.
Amidst this change in times, I endured. Standing 5’9″ and weighing 200 pounds, there were few courts in America where I could emerge and not get looked at funny, but this was one of them. I was better suited to be a running back than a point guard, and leaving now to a build a reputation elsewhere was not in my gameplan. The guys at this court, high or not, knew me. And I knew them. And we had the mutual respect that playgroun ballers develop for one another over time. This was my home.
So there I was last night, kicking off my eighth summer on this court with an epic run of (by my count) approximately 13 or 14 potheads and six or seven otherwise. The potheads all know each other, naturally, bonded by dopemen and dealers, and most importantly, united by cannabis. To them, I’m the outsider, but basketball brings us together.
And so we ran, under the lights, beneath the setting sun, talking smack between plays, draining threes, driving the lane, dropping dimes (no pun intended), and just generally enjoying life. It was fantastic. It was the purest form of the game left in existence. Where people call their own fouls, disputes are settled by making a three-pointer, and you don’t need to know anyone else’s name to know that for that moment in time, while you’re on the pavement together, these guys have your back.
The highlight of the evening came when one kid, still in high school, ran off the court mid-play, up a set of stairs and into the parking lot, frantically looking every which way for something that clearly didn’t exist. “He’s looking for his car,” said one bystander, “it’s gone.” Faced with the prospect of a stolen vehicle, we could understand the kid’s sense of urgency to track down his ride.
But then, before we even had the chance to sympathize with our fellow baller, his friend piped up: “Dude! I drove you here!” And that was it. Everyone lost it. And we paused for a moment to laugh together before resuming what other people all over this country were doing on this very same evening, playing basketball on some playground somewhere, in some city, some park, or some schoolyard.
We all have our runs. Anyone who has ever balled before. This is mine. It might be a little strange, but to me, it’s familiar, it’s special, and yes, it’s based on weed.