Religion, Religions, Religious: Pickup Basketball as Ritual and Communitas

Paul Harvey

Indulge me, please, it's a hot and stressful summer here in Colorado, my housing renovation is going . .. oh, never mind, not even going to go there right now, and I have just become Department Chair and realize that, as a result, my life is basically over. Been nice knowing ya'll.

But like some people will always have Paris, I'll always (knees willing) have basketball, here an especially pleasant experience in beautiful Monument Valley Park in Colorado Springs, a great landmark bequeathed to us by our town founder General William Palmer. Although a highly successful capitalist, visionary, educator (he helped to found Colorado College, the oldest liberal arts college west of the Mississippi, and a place that gave me my first academic employment in 1991), and builder, he understood the value of free communal open space. That was when "conservatives" were environmentalists since they believed in "conserving" stuff, like they are supposed to believe. Those were the days, my friend.

Anyway, after a vigorous outing yesterday (Thursday), I avidly read a wonderful set of reflections, courtesy of the New York Times, on pick-up outdoor basketball, which I will here translate into the terms of religious studies -- full of rituals and ritual bonding, struggle, forgiveness, angst, tenderness, implied violence, overt commerce, inclusionary communitas and exclusionary boundary-drawing, crossing (the passing lanes) and dwelling (in the paint), more than a few hustlers and narcissists, trash talking against the enemy, and, at its best points, kairos moments of a community. (If you can't get the link for the New York Times piece, send me an email and I'll send it.)

It's full of embodied rituals which express a relationship both to materiality (no blood, no foul) and to immaterial power ("the zone," "he's on fire," and so on),
to paraphrase the talented  Ms. Lofton, the newly named Sarai Ribicoff Chair at Yale!  (click on the link for more; and my warmest congratulations to the esteemed Prof. Lofton).

More on the article and spontaneous community after the jump.

My reaction is a perhaps overwrought but nonetheless heartfelt reading of today's New York Times piece by Isaac Egger, " 'I Got Next': Exploring New York through Pickup Basketball." Yes, I read that first, before the Business section's explanation of LIBOR, or the still-unread Tuesday Science piece on something or other called the Higgs Boson, aka God Particle, which keeps us all from flying apart at the speed of light. 

As a bad basketball player par excellence (short, slow of foot not to mention mind, absurdly small hands that can't grip a ball, no shot, no D, no hustle, propensity for turnovers), I could not identify with everything in this piece by a self-described pretty decent pickup player; and, moreover, the piece is intended as a travel guide to some real parts of untouristed New York, not as an essay that would appear in the journal Religion. I wouldn't dare show up on the courts discussed in this piece; out of my league, not to mention the fact that on those East Coast urban playgrounds there's an awful lot of waiting around just for one game, and a lot of piddly "21" games on the adjacent courts while waiting. The local Old Man game here is a little (ok, a lot) more my speed. Ironically, New Yorker Lou Reed expressed this best: some people, they like to go out dancing/other peoples, they have to work.

Nonetheless, the piece picks up, here and there, on some themes I've long wanted to write some kind of essay about (and others have): the kinds of spontaneous religious communities that spring up on courts, and the ways the rituals of those communities take such similar shape, texture, and language everywhere from New York to Colorado Springs to Indonesia to Italy (to name four of my pickup locations). There is a familiarity in pickup games anywhere that Anglicans would recognize in the Book of Prayer, or Catholics must have experience pre-Vatican II (not that I know that; just saying). You know, more or less, what to do, without anyone having to tell you; and yet there are infinite local variations that take time and observation of a community in action to understand. The communities everywhere are the same, but different. The personalities involved are recognizable, to the point of being archetypical, and yet locally unique.

Yes, I understand this is true of soccer worldwide as well, but basketball is just a better sport because, you know, you get to use all four limbs instead of just two. So no insult to you futbol and baseball lovers, but at its best b-ball is the most beautiful sport of all, even though for some reason futbol and baseball generally draw the most religious analogies/metaphors in writings about them. That must end -- now.

During the course of my pickup basketball career (not counting intramurals -- an entirely separate, and far less interesting, category) -- a career of futility that makes Sisyphus look like he just had an undefeated season successfully rolling that rock up the hill -- I've played on four continents, learned a few words of more languages than I can count on the court, and experienced a variety of humanity that makes my historical research look a little lame by comparison. (In Yogyakarta, Indonesia, "jam tiga" -- 3 o'clock -- is basketball time, and it's good form to applaud your opponent's good shot. I don't know why, it just is. In Italy, true to stereotype, if you get fouled you must exclaim your pain as if you just got hit by an RPG).

The New York Times essay, very regrettably stuck in the very back of the sports page, rather than on the front page where it should be, explores the constituents of informal communities on the playgrounds, and much of what he says here can be applied globally (in my experience--except in France, where, at least in an earlier era, you could sip wine while you sat on the bench of the indoor gym, awaiting your turn; priorities, and all. Cheap wine but good, at least back the early 1980s. Victor Turner would have a field day with this:

Another thing that struck me, between jumpers, was how unregulated by institutional authority these parks are. No one holds a piece of paper that tells people how things ought to be (though such pieces of paper do exist). Instead, these parks are governed by something else.
A park’s rules are unwritten but are adhered to and change from playground to playground. What makes this more interesting is that these parks are products of tax dollars and mild socialist ideals. It is noteworthy that indoor, private, free-market courts are more heavily policed. There are things that one cannot bring. You cannot take off your shirt. You have to have proper shoes and attire. You cannot drink. You cannot smoke. New York parks and playgrounds, then, appear governed by the most egalitarian morality going.
The only fault with the piece -- and maybe not a fault but just not something the writer experienced -- is the lack of analysis of bodily rituals of communion in the games -- saving your opponent from an injury by catching someone about to crash headlong into a post, low-fiving an opponent who just hit an amazing shot, showing up unannounced to a strange gym or playground and already knowing at least part of the language (from "you got next?" to "who ball?"), hard fouling some dude who you just don't like, negotiating rules and rule changes, adjusting the intensity of play when children or players of lesser capacities join the game, affectionate (or less so) racialized jokes, the moment when your team finds its rhythm or a player hits a Zen zone, the skilled player who educates the relatively unskilled (that would be me) in where to be on the court, and so on and on. There's a whole gender dimension too, way too complex to be deconstructed here (shorthand: women who show up for these games are invariably excellent outside shooters, usually better than most of the men, so you quickly learn to stick to your opponent and not "help" inside).
 There's the other side, too -- fits of rage and ill temper about some foul call or another, players stomping off over some minor theological dispute about the game rules, players "stacking" a team in their favor (as described in the article linked above), tiresomely selfish players who are like preachers who drone on too long (we have a local one here known unaffectionately as "Mr No Pass," although I just refer to him as "Carmelo"), and so on and on. 
Much of the writing about religion and sports has to do with big mass rituals, as in college football or Major League Baseball. Nothing wrong with that, but I've always found more interesting the micro-religious communities that form in places like the pickup basketball court (others would say the same thing about pickup soccer, no doubt; just not my thing). As pickup ball has gotten more professionalized, and in many places a little more vicious and unfriendly, over the years, I've waited for someone to write the definitive essay or short book on this. There used to be a great blog on this, but I can't seem to find it now. Anyone know of it? 
And now the next post is open. Who got next? 

Update: Actually, Matt Bowman already got next. See his previous posts here and here for some great theological and sociological analysis of Jimmer Fredette and of the meaning of how we read the Utah Jazz.


Edward J. Blum said…
neat piece, Paul. And congratulations to Professor Lofton. What great news.
Paul Harvey said…
Chris Jones has reminded me of this short work of Matt Bowman's which is pure genius, on a slightly different and yet closely related topic: "How Thomas Aquinas’s Theory Of Scripture Explains Why Jimmer Fredette Is The Hinge On Which Modern Mormonism Pivots":

You don't get academic basketball analysis that is any better than this.
Paul Harvey said…
To wit: one quotation from Matt's article that employs the American Religious Studies genre to tremendous effect: "If one were to examine only the numbers, Jimmer Fredette largely seems the same player this year as he was last year. Yet suddenly he has moved up the draft boards. Why is this? A literal reading seems insufficient to explain the resonance Jimmer has attained. Jimmer may be a better basketball player than he was in 2010, but he is also a more ambiguous, and hence more powerful, metaphysical force. He has gathered symbolic meaning to himself. We see here the spiritual senses at work. His name, for instance, has become a verb and a participle adjective, which fact has inspired enthusiastic, if not entirely cohesive, ruminating on the part of noted Deseret News sports curmudgeon Dick Harmon about what a funny name “Jimmer” is and mildly alarming, if weirdly cheery, facebook bombing of dissenters – particularly, the sort which seems to confirm her protest that Jimmer-time has come to resemble the quasi-religious iteration of Maoism particularly popular in the seventies."
rjc said…
Paul, may I ask how you see this as an example of American Religious Studies?
Paul Harvey said…
Chip, this was meant mostly in jest, as befits an article that is a little bit serious and a lot arch humor. And yet, the reference to the "more powerful, metaphysical force" and other phrases in Matt's piece, and the use of an icon from outside of what is conventionally defined as "religion" in order to explain something about a religion -- seems characteristic of the genre, or am I missing the point entirely (a serious question -- I am honestly trying to absorb and learn from the discussion you all had in the journal articles and other pieces elsewhere).
rjc said…
Paul, I'm traveling and can't give your question the time that it deserves, but in short: no, I don't think it's characteristic, nor do I think any of the articles in that journal issue suggested that it is or should be. Further, I don't see the academic study of religion in America (or "ARS" as people seem to be calling it lately) as a genre. There are many ways, many methods, many perspectives, to approach the study of religion (a point Jason made eloquently: "ARS is always ars").

If anything, that journal issue was suggesting that those undertaking the study of "religion" ought to have some critical, analytical awareness of their use of the term "religion." People who study, say, the history of Protestantism in the U.S. don't necessarily have to wrestle with the the question of "what is religion," because they aren't studying religion; they're studying Protestantism in the U.S. That's a contained, identifiable group. Actually, it isn't, but examining what constitutes that particular group, and according to what and whose criteria, need not necessarily ever intersect with questions relating to whether that particular group constitutes something called "religion" (and how and why and according to what and whose criteria, etc.). As soon as historians of Protestantism in the U.S. start calling themselves historians of religion, though, then they need to start talking about the category of religion more consciously, discussing why they are using that category--rather than just the name of the particular group of folks they study, Protestants or whatever--to define their subject matter. If there is anything to "American religious studies" at all, it is at the very least about engaging the data of American history in relation to the academic study of religion.
rjc said…
Quick note: in my haste posting that last one I was a bit more strident than I meant to be. I dont mean to suggest that Bowman's good and interesting article isn't good and interesting. Just curious about how you you saw it as an example of the "ARS genre."
Jon Pahl said…
Paul Harvey is a bit too modest about his hoops skills: I've seen worse. . . and as I recall when he's "in the zone," when he's "en fuego," when he's "unconscious" (which is, admittedly, rare--but I have seen it happen), his unorthodox J becomes a thing of beauty as the ball (somehow) swishes (again--'you've got to be kidding!') through the net. Such improbable ritual outcomes lend the pickup game far more of gospel improvisation (jamming for Jesus takes on a whole different meaning--something to which some of us can only aspire) than Episcopalian liturgy, but Paul is correct that once you know the basic changes, you can play anywhere, yes. . . . My furthest continental stretch for a pickup game was Nairobi, Kenya, and I can add to what Paul says here by noting that you can definitely recognize trash talk in Luo, even if you don't know a word. . .

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