Make no mistake: Pickup basketball is an exercise in masochism. At some point, every pickup player has rolled an ankle or buckled a knee. Nor are chipped teeth and broken bones uncommon. Those who have escaped serious injury just haven't been playing long enough or have negotiated a deal with the devil. So why do countless deranged b-ballers keep coming back for more? Bravado. Fun. Exercise.
Unlike many other forms of exercise, basketball offers a fix for those who need instant gratification while breaking a sweat. In contrast, take jogging and weightlifting. Both require you to always keep in mind a distant goal (e.g., losing weight or toning muscles) that justifies the current stressful, boring activity (e.g., pounding the pavement or torturing your arms). In basketball, though, there's always something to keep you occupied: passing, shooting, rebounding, setting picks. And there's a group of people to impress while you're doing it.
But before you can do all that, you must find a pickup game that suits your playing ability and demeanor. That can be the trickiest thing of all. Each court has its own undemocratic rules, traditions, and egos. Below are a few places pickup addicts should check out. The courts vary in talent level, but they all share one thing in common: They're free.
Best Place to Dunk on Future NBA Stars
Broadway at MacArthur, Oakland
In summer, college players and pro-ballers have been known to drop by Mosswood for a game or two with local pickup legends like Demetrius "Hook" Mitchell. Through the years, the likes of Gary Payton and Jason Kidd have hooped it up at Mosswood before they made it to the NBA. The 1998 book Hoops Nation, which rated pickup games throughout the country, ranked Mosswood as the 22nd best pickup game in the US. In fact, the game here is so famous that there's even a video-game version. Check out Sega's NBA2K2 and see for yourself ... but it doesn't hold a candle to actually being there.
Best Pickup Game Under the Lights
San Ramon Central Park
12501 Acosta, San Ramon
You wouldn't expect one of the area's most competitive pickup games to be in sleepy suburban San Ramon. But it is. And the game, which regularly attracts ballers from as far away as Oakland, goes on into the late evening hours.
Central Park, located near Bollinger Canyon Road, used to be a favorite of former Stanford star Mark Madsen. That is, until someone reportedly threatened to kill his pickup teammate after their squad won a bunch of games in a row.
Best Half-Court Pickup Game
Live Oak Park
Shattuck at Berryman, Berkeley
Live Oak does have full-court capability. But don't bother trying to get a full-court game going. Court regulars will quickly inform you that this is a three-on-three thang, a'ight? The players range all the way from pimple-faced teenagers with decent handles to crafty jump-shooting grayhairs. Overall, Live Oak offers a fun, no-frills place to break a sweat.
Friendliest Full-Court Pickup Game
Marin Elementary School
1001 Santa Fe, Albany
After all the schoolkids go home, the ballers start arriving at Marin Elementary. Anyone who watches the action for a couple of minutes can surmise that there will not be a video-game version of the Marin game anytime soon. No dunk contests here, but there is a reliable game that attracts decent players. The court is short, meaning fewer fastbreaks and cherrypickers. It also means that those of us with reduced wind-capacity can keep up with the younger generation.