Because the Floor Is Smooth and the Ball Is Round

San Diego pick-up basketball - heroes, courts, legends

Up. Up. Tap the No Parking sign, your necktie flapping over your shoulder. Or that awning down on Fourth Avenue. The one that must be close to 11 feet up? No one looking? Leap to touch it. So close, weren’t you?

Thousands of San Diego basketball players still Got It. Long after their high school, college, or even pro careers, they can’t give it up. The game is as good as sex. Hell, it’s even a little bit like sex. Inside gyms around the city, one of them built when only two-handed set shots were being fired up, the obeisant, half-naked cultists come to kiss that round, orange ring: The Hoop.

On the outdoor pickup courts, the Run is usually three-on-three, game to 11, “by ones” (baskets count as one, three-pointers count as two), winners’-ins (whoever scored the last basket takes the ball out again). Some courts are democratic, and players run (challenge the winning team) in the order in which they show up. At others, a single player who has “winners” chooses the guys he wants on his team, even if they’ve just stepped off the court as losers. Unless you have a reputation on that court, you’ll be the one waiting a long, long time.

San Diego, like L.A. and Laguna Beach, is one of the only basketball meccas in the world where beach sand tracked onto the court is part of the game. At South Mission or Crown Point or in North County at Pillbox or Glen Park up in Cardiff, sand is blown or tracked onto the court from nearby beaches. Get it under your Airs, and you’ll go down when you stop too quickly in the Paint, down hard. The concrete doesn’t have much spring.

It’s one more reason why old men should quit. Take up golf or tennis; two sports that basketball players, because of the eye-hand coordination thing, are usually so good at. Sports that don’t have “incidental contact” every 30 seconds.

So I talk to my friends, hoping, I suppose, for approval. They’ll confirm my inevitable turn to good sense. Instead, they launch into reminiscences about their own placing days.

Imagine 200 lawyers, after sitting in their offices or court all day, being unleashed on the refs of the world. The arguments were epic. The language atrocious. The sportsmanship nonexistent,” said H., my attorney friend who’s played in San Diego’s law leagues since 1974. “Just don’t attribute any of this to me,” he said, fearful, a priori, of judicial retribution.

“When I first started, it was mainly guys my own age. The whole league was under 30. The raging debate back then was whether you could play if you were a law student. When the baby boomers grew up, they wanted to maintain their teams rather than fold their tents with dignity, so they started bringing the students in as ringers.

“Around ’78 we moved the league over to Uni (University of San Diego High School] but were kicked out three years later because our behavior was not appropriate for a Catholic facility. A priest came in one night to complain about us parking in all the wrong spaces, and a guy got in a screaming match with him.

I think that had a lot to do with it. There were ten times more technical fouls than when I played in the leagues at La Jolla or Muni. On another night a judge — a judge! — spit in the ref’s face.

“Many of the teams are made up of players from the same firm. If you’re a member of that firm, you must play on their team. It may be one of the reasons you were hired. Even though you’re an A player, you may find yourself playing in a C league. I’ve seen partners in big firms show up just to watch. We don’t play for money, though. No side betting. I’ve played a couple of games for a case of beer, and people almost got killed. You can’t play for money.

“We had a legendary team,” he continued, and you could hear the nostalgia for a time of higher jumping, quicker cuts, faster hands. “We won the league for seven straight years from ’76 on. Then we won again three years ago with a couple of ringers. We were the last civilians to play on the floor with the Clippers. Played our finals game before the Clippers’ last game, then the lights went out.”

Even this nightmarish description was recounted with a fair amount of fondness. Amid the insanity, there were friends to be made, legends to pass on. You build reputations in this city that are hard to shake, however, and the law league had — and still has — one of the worst.

The law league may be the only league in San Diego that still carries on what was once a hallowed tradition — team sponsorships by firms willing to exchange the cost of league and ref fees for a little publicity. In 1942 the Consair “Americans” played the legendary Phillips 66 Oilers when they came to town with Angelo “Hank” Luisetti, the Stanford All-American who popularized the one-handed jump shot. Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft (later known as Convair) had dozens of great teams over the years, dating back to the days of Tommy Johnson, the “best all-around athlete San Diego has ever produced,” according to several news clips of the day. Other early teams in San Diego were Bridgeford Meats and Baranov Jewelers. Players usually came from the San Diego State Aztecs.

When I searched for the story of San Diego basketball in Balboa Park’s Hall of Champions, I circled the room twice. Nothing. Finally, in one corner near the exit and a display called Stars of the Year, I spotted a poster-size blowup of a 1900 San Diego women’s team. Three of their sweater jerseys were emblazoned with “RUSS,” the Russ School, which became San Diego High School. Faces, almost life-size, in black and white, had that impassive serenity so often seen on athletes asked to stare into the camera. Eyes accustomed to moving...were still.

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