Game On: Basketball life from here to 26th Street

By the

September 6, 2001

They come from everywhere: lawyer’s offices, classrooms, straight off the streets. They are a collection of men and women from different political leanings, different incomes, different upbringings, different interests. But one thing brings them all together: the love of the game. They are the pickup basketball players of the greater Georgetown community.

“This is the only place where it all comes together,” says Kenny Davis (NUR ‘95), a Yates regular.

Pickup basketball, the game of ever-changing teams, as opposed to organized basketball, where teams are designed by general managers or coaches, brings together eclectic fivesomes who meet on the sidelines of gyms and parks nationwide. Never having seen each other before and not knowing the style of play of their teammates, they are thrown into an intensely competitive battle. Lines to play at courts grow long, and when you lose, you sit.

“There’s no rivalries out here. Your rival one game becomes your backcourt partner the next. It’s always changing,” says Henry Prempeh (CAS ‘03), known as Pup on the courts of Newark, N.J.

Nothing ever stays the same. As a result, pickup basketball has developed a reputation for more transition play, flashier basketball and an overall tougher game that includes more trash talking. The games are played without referees, leaving the players to decide the foul calls. Pickup basketball, while dismissed by some NBAers as juvenile and lacking true athleticism, has groomed future superstars such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Stephon Marbury, both of whom got their starts on the streets of New York City.

While New York is considered to have the best pickup basketball culture in the nation, its equivalent in the Georgetown area is also thriving. Yates Memorial Fieldhouse is best known to students, but Volta Park and Rose Park, both short walks from campus, are also local meccas of balling.

One element of the pickup basketball culture stands out on all of these courts: the ballers are a bunch of working man’s philosophers, and studying them?watching them play, hearing them talk on lazy late summer afternoons?can yield as much insight about life as it can about the game of basketball.

Shoes screech on blacktop and hardwood, Iverson crossovers come out, and the same familiar echoes are heard from spring through fall in the Georgetown area. Games begin simply, with a “You wanna run?” or maybe a “You got five?” and it progresses into “Watch back” and “Switch.” The trash talk comes out, too, about all aspects of a player’s game and perhaps even his parental unit.

Above the din of balls bouncing through legs, nets swishing backward and obscenities being spewed for both personal victories and defeats, one statement can always be heard: “Ball in.”

Frustration, Pup and Yates Fieldhouse

“I get frustrated a lot up in here,” Jordan Hale (CAS ‘04) says.

It’s Saturday afternoon, and the football team is upstairs, reeling from a 34-7 deficit to Lehigh at the half. Jordan doesn’t care about that game. He’s been inside Yates for almost two hours now, running court one, where the good ballers play, and now he’s sweaty and resting back on his arms watching the new game on his court develop. He only cares about getting back on the court.

“You gotta play hard if you wanna stay on,” he says, eyeing one of his conquerors haul in a rebound.

It’s easy for anyone to become frustrated at Yates. It gets crowded, the machines get sweaty, and the A.C. never seems to work. But playing pickup basketball is an entirely different level of frustration.

“There are lots of people out here every day,” Hale says, “and they all got one goal. Keep winning, stay on. You gotta come out here and play hard against whoever you play against.”

Hale is a regular at Yates, estimating that he comes five to six times a week to ball and that he stays about two hours each time. He tries to keep running on court one, which is the epicenter of Yates pickup basketball, the first one off the stairs.

“From Monday to Friday, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., you got the best players out there on that court,” says Davis, a decade-long Yates veteran. “Those are like the high school varsity, junior varsity kids, the kids with the slick moves. Sometimes those kids start playing at 2 p.m., go to dinner at 6, and come back and play 8 to 11.”

If Yates has a grizzled veteran, Davis is it. Sitting down, muscles bulging from his Grant Hill Dream Team jersey, he reflects on the history of Yates, noting that six years ago, all the courts used to have lines of three or four teams willing to “get next.”

“Every year, the line seems to go down a little bit,” Davis notes.

What never changes, though, is the presence of Georgetown Hoya basketball players at Yates. Davis recalls several years ago, that when Allen Iverson was still a student, he used to come to Yates during the early fall and participate in a few pickup games with teammates such as Victor Page.

“These guys used to come down here and basically whip up on everyone,” Davis says. “But there was one time, it must have been 1996 or 1997, when they came down, and I just had a really good game against them. Of course they still won, but I had a good game and I was proud of that.”

Not everyone has the same success against the NCAA athletes. “A couple of guys from last year’s team came out to play some of the kids from my floor last year,” Tim O’ Shaugnessey (CAS ‘04) says. “My friends got their asses whipped.”

Still, the question remains: When faced with even competition, how does pickup basketball work? How can five players, never having been together before, come together to vanquish a foe and retain the court?

“At Yates,” Davis says, “you see all skill levels. I think that as the game progresses, by the third play or so, everyone starts to fall into their roles and find their roles. Everyone on the floor can’t score, so some guys end up passing or going for rebounds.”

“Still, it’s a magical thing when people who didn’t come over here together, when people who’ve never seen each other before, come together to win a game.”

Davis says that he himself looked to score in his younger days. As he has aged, he claims, he became a more versatile and all-around player.

“You can always tell the freshmen when they walk in here,” Davis says. “All they want to do is get the ball and score; they shoot all the time. I think when these seniors leave here, they are much more complete basketball players. Pickup basketball develops your entire game if you’re out here learning enough.”

One man in the middle of that journey is Prempeh, or “Pup.”

“When I was in seventh grade, there was this big 12th-grade kid named Dan Dog, and I was always following him around. He thought I was real cool, so they started calling me Pup,” Prempeh says, “and it just stuck. I had administrators calling me that at the end of high school.”

Pup plays on the Yates courts about six or seven times a week. He normally comes out with his roommates, one of whom, Thomas Williams (CAS ‘03), is Pup’s main on-court rival. Today, though, he’s alone, furiously dribbling a basketball around and between his legs, wearing a GPB “Back in the Day” T-shirt from last year’s SpringFest. This is ironic, because Pup’s game is straight out of 2001, replete with trash-talking and flash.

“I can’t even remember some of my best ones,” Pup says about his motor mouth. “I just get up on the guy screaming ‘You know you can’t D me,’ then I try to blow by him, and when I do, I just laugh. The sickest thing I ever saw here was some guy just blew by his defender and left the court, like he didn’t even need to play anymore. It was awesome.”

Pup played varsity basketball at his high school in New Jersey, but he manned the point there, and when he plays here at Yates, he’s more concerned about his shot. If his teammates for a game are sub par, he has to take over, because he cannot bear to sit for half an hour or longer waiting to get in the next game.

“If I can take my man off the dribble, I’ll take him to the rack, like Stack,” Pup says, referring to Detroit Pistons forward Jerry Stackhouse, another former pickup artist.

Pup is more than just a baller, though. He’s one of the unofficial social chairs of Yates. As he stands there dribbling, virtually everyone that comes onto the courts extends their palms to him, asking him about his life and his plans for the evening. He holds court on the court.

While most pickup artists lack influence, instead learning from their ever-changing peers, Pup has a guiding light.

“I love ‘Skip to My Loo,’ he says, skipping up and down court two, laughing. “Skip to My Loo” is the nickname of Milwaukee Bucks guard Rafer Alston, a certified pickup basketball legend who is currently having problems fitting into an organized basketball system.

As Pup dribbles about, laughing and discussing the subtle points of the pickup game, hyped first-year Hoyas forward Harvey Thomas (CAS ‘05) shows up. He’s not here to play, he just needs Pup’s services.

”’Sup ‘sup Harv?”

“Yo Pup, where the party at tonight?”

“Bulldog Alley, you better be there.”

“True, I will,” Thomas replies.

“Gettin’ their freak on” at Rose Park

A father and his young son are sitting on a stone wall by the basketball court at Rose Park. Despite the curse words and idle threats coming from some of the players, the dad lets his son see it all. It’s one of those sunny Saturday afternoons, when it just seems right for father and son to sit in silence and watch.

“I used to play pick-up,” the father says. He reveals that he used to go to Georgetown in the ‘60s, when the courts outside of McDonough were packed with amateur ballers trying to prove their manhood.

“I played with Pat Buchanan, and let me tell you, he was dirty. Ask anyone. He tries to hurt you, throwing elbows and stuff. Just like the way he is on TV.”

But the days of McDonough have long past. Nowadays, some locals have chosen to come here, Rose Park, located at 26th and O streets. It’s a straight shot down O, past Wisconsin, and about a 12 minute walk from campus. There’s just one court, and the wait can get up to 30 minutes. The players here are all local, but no Georgetown students are in sight. There’s a group of 10 guys who’ve been there for a few hours, running it back over and over again. It’s not shirts and skins, and the games are running to 15 points, unlike the usual 11 up at Yates.

One kid, a 15-year-old named “Z,” is rocking a Grant Hill Pistons jersey and some Cincinnati Bearcats shorts. He dribbles on the sidelines while the game progresses. Z lives nearby but goes to a boarding school in Massachusetts, where he starts every so often for their jayvee squad. He describes himself as an “average” player with “some good moves,” and he comes out every day during the summer, usually for two to three hours. Z seems quiet, and the attention turns to the game at hand.

A bald-headed, Gary Payton look-alike is running the show, usually driving hard to draw some defense and then dishing off to his teammate for a layup. A wiry, dredlocked guy the players call “Slim” has the height and some skills, and he’s guarding the Payton knockoff. He yells “Ah shit!” often, both for his successes?a dunk or a block?and his failures?an errant pass or a missed turnaround. The game is clustered in the paint; with unfriendly rims, this isn’t a shooter’s court. Players try to break down the defender with the dribble and take it in inside for a lay-in or a pull-up jumper. Rebounding is key at Rose Park.

In the end, Payton and his boys win. They break for some water, but only one player leaves.

A new guy rolls up out of the woods. He’s old, mustached, and his skin looks like worn leather. Wearing a doo-rag tied off like a headband, he mopes along in sweatpants dribbling his ball between his legs. His name is Joe, and he comes out just to watch.

“This is where these cats get their freak on,” he explains. “This is the only thing they have to look forward to, and they love every minute of it. Goddamn street ball players,” he says, trailing off.

He continues to dribble, just out for some sun and some exercise.

A new game has started, with a new add-in who just showed up. Short and fearless, but not heroic in the least, he scores the first two points. He drops a running bomb off the backboard for one, and one-ups that with an improbable scoop shot from the right baseline. He doesn’t score again. The same guys, Slim and Payton included, are all back for this one.

This game is much more intense, and the trash-talking is audible.

“Y’all ain’t winning after talking all that shit earlier,” Payton yells. But the yells aren’t all negative: There’s “Look around, baby!” and “Get back on D” too. Slim gets the ball in the post, double-teamed. He turns, jumps and throws down a rim-rocker on the two defenders. Ah shit. Slim’s team wins this one.

After the game, “Slim,” whose real name turns out to be Chris, reflects on his victory and similar ones here at Rose Park.

“I try to average one dunk an evening. That dunk was fairly memorable,” he says while guzzling down what’s left of two gallon jug of water. Chris is 32-years-old and lives nearby. He never played organized ball, even though his dunk conjured images of Shaq. “I just like the game here. There’s more freedom, and it’s fairly competitive. You learn patience, though. That’s what I take away from it.”

As the sun begins to set and everyone leaves, a squirrely old guy in a red jumpsuit rides in on a shopping cart. He bounds onto the court and picks up a ball from the grass. Setting himself for a free throw, he defiantly yells out to no one in particular: “You can’t stop me! You can’t stop me!” The man was missing a few teeth, but the courts don’t discriminate.

Ballin’ with a slice of American history

“Who do you wanna know?” says Brisco, a Budweiser-clutching Volta Park legend. “Because I know ‘em all.”

Rarely does pickup history coincide with history and a sense of community, but at Volta Park, located at 33rd and Volta and a five-minute walk from Georgetown, it certainly does. It’s a Sunday afternoon and another veteran named Lloyd is stretched out on a picnic table, 7-Eleven Double Gulp in front of him, staring at the courts. He’s been playing here since 1972. Behind him and to the right are a bunch of older folk, sitting around a picnic table drinking a case of Budweiser. Brisco is one of these. He’s clearly begun to feel the beer, he’s lacking some teeth, and he’s skeptical of our motives. But he knows Volta Park. He’s been playing ball here for 35 years.

“This is one of the guys who gets drunk before he plays,” Lloyd says. “Most of us do it after.” The bench laughs heartily.

The scene at Volta, especially on the weekends, is for the most part older players, usually well into their 40s. At the center of all this is Brisco, the common thread in the lives of all the men clustered around the table. He served as a night watchman at Volta Park in the 1970s and has no shortage of stories from that era.

“I tell you, when the lights go down, anything can happen,” he says, cracking a wide grin.

Brisco claims to “know ‘em all,” and he certainly comes close. He has met Dan Rather, the Kennedys (including balling with Patrick Kennedy), Dave Bing and Donald Rumsfeld. He has met all the great Georgetown centers of the 1980s and played ball against them.

More than simply a well-met person, Brisco is a champion of the Volta Park basketball community. The day before we met, he saw Larry Clarke for the first time in 15 years. Clarke now runs a business in Louisiana who used to play at Volta in the early 1980s.

“He knows, whenever he comes to town in the summer, he can come here, and I’ll be here,” Brisco says. “I’m kinda hoping he comes back today. Haven’t seen the fool for 15 years.”

Despite the majority of older players at Volta, it’s still student-friendly.

“Our whole deal over here is the more, the merrier,” Lloyd says. “These guys come off the streets, all ages, all skill levels, we let them play. Some of the guys here play basketball like God. Most of these guys are working stiffs, but kids are playing here all the time.”

The games at Volta run to 11, and due to the older generation who resides primarily on these courts, they tend to focus more on the paint.

“The best shot in basketball is the layup,” Lloyd says. “And my objective is to get a basket at this stage of my life. I don’t have any lift or quickness anymore. Most of us try to play as close to the basket as possible.”

Lloyd is a benevolent old man, noting that Peter is a Biblical name when introduced to one of the reporters. This may seem out of place at a pickup basketball court, where competition is the name of the game, and those who can’t compete must sit. But at Volta Park, it seems natural. There is a sense of community here which you don’t often find at other courts.

“We all just agree that no one here is better than anyone else,” Brisco says. “There’s no best player here.”

On one court, a father tutors his young son on the fine points of basketball. As he instructs him to use his left hand and manage his pivot foot in the paint, Lloyd and the table look over. One baller jogs off, ending with “Y’all coming out tomorrow?” and a furious game of 21, carried on by a trio of Georgetown students, continues on another court. The young son just lost his dribble. The father throws him the ball again.

“Try again. Go left.”

Brisco stares at the entire scene, surveying the vast kingdom that is Volta Park. His kingdom. He wipes sweat from his forehead, takes another drink from his longneck (Lloyd calls it his “energy drink”), and turns to his associates around the cooler.

“Ya know, over time, we became a family here.”

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