Authors: Diane Ketelle1, Lucas Ketelle2

1School of Education, Mills College, Oakland, CA
2Professional freelance sports writer

Corresponding Author:
Diane Ketelle
395 Camelback Rd #22
Pleasant Hill, CA 94523

Diane Ketelle, D.P.A., is a Professor Emerita of Educational Leadership at Mills College.  Her research focuses on leadership studies and narrative inquiry. She has conducted many large scale story projects including a three year project at San Quentin State Prison that supported students in writing stories from their lives.

Lucas Ketelle, Ed.D., is a professional sports writer who covers primarily amateur and professional boxing.  He is the Editor in Chief of Inside the Ropes.

How They Play: A Study of a Pick-Up basketball Game


This two month study focused on a community pick-up basketball game that brought a group of strangers together weekly to play ball and recreate.  The game provided a safe place to create belonging and the group formed a sense of community and kinship through this activity.

Key Words: Sports, Recreation, Pick-up Basketball, Narrative Inquiry, Dialogic Understanding, sense of community


The idea for our study was planted years ago. The second author of this manuscript is an avid jogger and often goes for eight to ten mile jogs. One part of his jogging path takes him through a local park. For years he passed a pick-up basketball game on Sunday mornings. He did  more than just notice that game—on a few occasions, he stopped to play for an hour or more. As time passed, the second author became a regular player in the game and would recount his experiences to the first author.

As we began this study, both the first author and the second author became primary witnesses to the play by participating in the pick-up basketball games. Because of our involvement in the games both authors were able to directly report the physical, mental, social, emotional and psychological findings of this study.

 Our goal in studying pick-up basketball was that through this study we might learn a bit more about the importance of recreation to the human experience. One thing we have observed in work settings is that authentic interaction between colleagues can be limited.  We wondered how the people in this pick-up basketball game interacted, and even deeper, what they could teach us. The goal of our study was to stop and smell the roses and to better appreciate relationships of community that have existed around us for quite some time, but have been overlooked.

Literature Review

Hughes (1937) argues that amateur sports are part art and part religion, emphasizing that onlookers, both real and imagined, play a significant role in appreciating the skills and sportsmanship of those engaged in activity. Pushing the idea that sport is more than merely physical exertion, Bourdieu (1984) tries to link specific classes of persons or class fractions to particular orientations to the future (which he calls the habitus). These dispositions are related to a groups’ relation to their bodies and to the adoption of a specific lifestyle. In this way, Bourdieu creates the links between the locations of people in social spaces and their patterns of participation in and attention to different sports as a key aspect of the sociology of sports (Washington & Karen, 2001). Further, Bourdieu (1984) argues that class fractions not only engage in different sports, but even when they engage in the same sport, they often attach different intrinsic and extrinsic meaning to it. With this perspective in mind, it is possible to understand how Wacquant’s (1992) ethnographic study of a boxing gym on the South Side of Chicago allows us to be attracted to boxing as it creates a safe refuge from the violence of the city. By the same token, a pick-up basketball game can create a safe space for participants to return to on a regular basis.


Marshall (2002) notes that the term belonging is a kind of shorthand for bigger ideas composed of attraction, identification and cohesion. Membership in groups arises out of a combination of choice and chance, however human dependence and interdependence necessitates that some memberships be potent and secure, thus creating a sense of belonging. Durkheim ([1912]1995) noted that rituals play a role in the creation of belonging pointing to the need for a sense of unity as a desired outcome of rituals.

Brady (2000) argues that we should reflect on the role of sports in creating safe spaces. Although Brady is focused specifically on young women, her point can be generalized. This way of thinking helps us view sports as a tool in community regeneration and efforts to build social inclusion. Branscombe and Wann (1991) assert that playing sports with a group of people buffers feelings of depression and alienation and at the same time fosters feelings of belongingness and self-worth. Further, Walseth (2006) found that involvement in community-based sports contributed to increased expressivity. Walseth viewed increased expressivity as an increased capacity to engage with others or to initiate meaningful conversations while engaging in sports activity. Referring back to Wacquant’s (1992) study of a boxing gym, the idea of gym life being linked to the formation of a community begins to be clear. Many of the same participants appear each day in a ritual of exercise. However, as they exercise they also benefit from sharing in a sense of community that can take on a powerful role in the lives of athletes.

Pick-Up Basketball

Pick-up basketball has not been extensively studied, however Jimerson (1996, 1999) in his ethnography of two pick-up basketball games found that norms optimized game quality and playing time (unless they lacked the space or time necessary to play). Games quickly became games within games. People experimented with the norms while they played basketball. DeLand (2012) also examined pick-up basketball games by focusing on when games are suspended, finding that players resisted abandonment of the game.

Examples of famous pick-up basketball games can be found. For example, Rucker Park in Harlem is often referred to as “The Rucker” or “Ruck” for short.  The Rucker was known for having basketball players from all across the world come there to play. Greats such as Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Julius Erving and many more have played there, but that is not what is so magical about it. The Rucker is magic because it has brought together people of all races and cultures to watch basketball. This may not seem like a big thing, but the park was situated in Harlem and what went on there drew people to it, because of the fun that could be had (Reminick, 1995).


When we first designed this participatory action research project we intended to conduct one in-depth interview with four of the regular pick-up basketball players at the park. However, what actually happened was slightly different. When we planned this study we had not considered that basketball is a group activity and it would be hard to talk to just one player. As a result we did two thirty minute group interviews with all four players.  The interviews were recorded.

The first and second authors played pick-up basketball with the participants every Sunday morning for two months. After each game we wrote field notes to help us remember significant events and details of the game. In this way, we became participants in this study.

The interviews took place around a picnic table in the park and were recorded. After the interviews were completed,  we transcribed them in order to study the conversations more deeply. We then picked out conversational exchanges that interested me and  wrote those excerpts on index cards. We used the index cards to track a trajectory for our conversation.

In writing up this research we used dialogic principles. When dialogic principles are applied to research, the power of simple conversations can be made evident (Paget, 1990).

Our four participants are the regulars at the weekly pick-up basketball game. We use pseudonyms in this paper. Our participants were:

  1.  John – A white male who is thirty-four years old. He lives ten minutes by car from the court and is an insurance salesman. John is married, but he has no children. He is five foot eleven.
  2. Clark – A white male who is thirty-five years old. He lives twenty minutes from the court and works at a local bank in lower level management. Clark is not married and lives at home with his mom. He is five feet nine inches.
  3. Ben – A Latino male who is twenty-nine years old. He works as a mechanic and is also involved in the local low rider culture. He drives a cool 1963 Chevrolet Impala to the court. He is not married and lives in an apartment about a half hour away. He is six feet tall. He is not married, but he has a girlfriend.
  4.  Roger – An African-American male who is twenty-seven years old. He lives in a house that he rents in walking distance of the courts. He works as a public school teacher. He is six feet two inches tall. He is not married.


Valley Meadow Park is picturesque. It spans twenty-six acres and is nestled between Burtram Avenue and Juarez Street in Costa Mera, a suburb of a large urban city on the West Coast.  The park has two baseball fields, a basketball court, restrooms, two childrens’ play areas, sand volleyball courts, a multi-use field, a jogging track, concession building for local Little League games, trails into the hills and valleys of Valley Meadow, and a small lake. There is a large parking lot by the basketball courts. Parts of the park can be reserved for parties by calling the city Parks and Recreation Department, but the pick-up basketball players just use the court without reservations, expecting it to be free.

When the second author first approached the group about this project, they laughed. None of the players associated playing basketball with research. Although they thought my idea was a little funny, no one objected. All four of the players knew the second author a little before the project started because he had played in the pick-up game a few times over the years.

The basketball court is not fancy. It is made of asphalt pavement laid over gravel, the kind that makes a basketball sometimes shoot sideways, since the surface is uneven. The backboards look like they were made in the 1980s before the Jordan era of basketball, and according to all of the members of the group, the nets at the court leave as soon as they come. As a result, they play with hoops only.

In our first conversation we sit around a picnic table. The players are enjoying an agreed-upon break after forty-five minutes of fairly constant play. Large water bottles clutter the table as the sweat drips to the ground. The second author begins by asking, “How did your pick-up game get started?”

“Clark and I went to high school together and about five years ago we saw each other here at the park and Clark had a b ball,” John begins to tell the story in an excited way.

Clark laughs and continues, “We started playing H-O-R-S-E  and after a while we decided to play one-on-one.”

John picked up the story: “Some guys started watching and we asked if they wanted to play and the rest is history.”

“Is getting to court every Sunday a kind of ritual for you? What do you do?”

“I get coffee and walk over to the park. I aim to get here at 10:00 AM, but there is no stress about it. I know we play until noon,” Roger contributes.

Ben chimes in, “I get coffee and then drive over – same thing.” John and Clark nod that they do the same. John adds, “The key is no stress. We are out here for fun. Sometimes kids come and they are too competitive for our game and we ask them to go.”

That comment makes us very curious since we think of basketball as a very competitive game. The first author asks, “What do you mean? Are you guys not competitive?”

Roger pipes up and they all defer to him. “When I started coming to this game I really wanted the norms to focus on other things than competitiveness. I mean it is fun to win, but one of the unique things about our game is we don’t make guys wait to play in order to have even teams. If someone shows up, we’ll play three to two if necessary. It isn’t about the advantage, it is about what we are doing.”

The  second author had experienced this norm in his interactions with the group, but he was a little surprised that Roger would articulate this value so clearly.

Ben continued, “Some of these young dudes they come and just want to be cut throat and we say cool it – chill out – let’s have some fun together. Sometimes they stay and have fun and sometimes they leave.”

As we absorb what Ben said the second author asks, “So, what matters the most to you about your pick-up game?”

“Wow! That’s kind of a crazy question,” Ben says. “For me it is about our friendship, about showing up, about doing this every week.”

Roger adds, “I started coming because John invited me one time when I was walking through the park and I remember thinking that was so cool.”

Clark continues, “I look forward to our game all week. It matters to me. It helps me manage stress and stuff that’s going on.”            

“Do you guys see each other besides on the basketball court?” we ask.

“We all go to Ben’s mom’s house at Christmas time. She makes some awesome food and that has become a tradition, but we don’t get together regularly. I consider these guys my best friends,” says John.

“Why do you say that?” we ask.

“It’s about a feeling. About what it is really about. You know…spending time together. When we make time for each other it means we matter,” John continues.

Roger notes, “I love basketball. I’ve played all my life and I just like to come out and play. I don’t go to church, I come here.”

“So it is like a religion?” the second author asks.

Clark laughs, joking we should sing some hymns and then he adds, “I’d say we play religiously. We have a commitment to each other and unless we are sick or on vacation we show up.”

“My wife knows that for the rest of the day I’m all hers, but Sunday morning I have something to do,” John half laughs, but his tone is serious.

Then we get up and begin to play again. The activity is all elbows and arms. We yell, “Here, here, throw it here.” There is howling and laughing and swearing when baskets are missed. There is even a fair amount of name calling, but the play remains friendly.

In our second meeting Ben shares, “I just sort of showed up at the court. I was driving around and pulled into the parking lot and I saw the guys playing.”

Ben’s presence actually helped the group because he was the most athletic of the four and could get a high level game going. Ben set the pace with his Gregory Hines footwork. The other players are not really playing at Ben’s level, but he keeps coming back anyway.

“How does the game change over time?” we ask.

They all laughed, agreeing that they probably are not getting better at the game. “That’s not why we show up,” Roger reminded me. “We show up to have fun and to be here for each other. We don’t sit and talk. We process our week through the game.”


The weekly basketball game kept all four men active. Although they spoke indirectly about this, they referred to sports accomplishments in their youth while playing. They all recounted times in middle or high school they spent recesses playing basketball. The biggest impact came from a reflection from John in which he explained, “I’m not closer to death every day, I’m just living life.”  This comment seems to indicate that the basketball game renews John’s optimism.

What started out as a fun project for us became something of necessity for us to turn up on Sunday mornings. In a life filled with obligations, it seems the formation of community filled a void for all of us. Joining in a simple pick-up basketball game was what each of us needed.  This weekly ritual created a safe space for exploration, free of obligation. This weekly game is so simple that it seems insane to call it leadership or community building, or even important, but from our research lens it is hard not to do so.

We are reminded of Roger’s firm stance about playing for fun. In his view, the teams did not have to have equal numbers of players. Instead, everyone was required (by Roger) to buy-in to the idea that there is more to the game than winning. This is a subversive idea that is promoted through their weekly encounters.


Each one of our participants plays basketball at the park because it reminds him of a time when life was simpler, with fewer obligations.  In a way, playing sports defined who they were in their youth.  On a deeper level, the enticing nature of learning the stories of these four men was just as much about our wonder as it was about recreation. Safe space is a term that is thrown around in educational environments. This weekly basketball game seems to give new meaning to this term and to help demonstrate how a safe space fosters a sense of belonging. A pick-up basketball game is formed from a simple idea. None of these men is trying to change the community, but somehow they are.

The sense of belonging these players created out of their recreational activity seems important to consider, especially now, during the global pandemic. We try to imagine what our post covid 19 world will be like. Will we be able to get back to our weekly game? Or, will these kinds of interactions become too dangerous? We hope that as communities pull together and we eventually emerge from the global pandemic, manifestations of recreation will appear in many ways in our communities.


Activity matters to the  health and well being of us all. In this study we found that four indivuals became connected through the game of basketball. Their connectedness caused them to repeat this activity weekly so they could have a positive experience that involved physical activty and friendship. This underscores the importance of community sports programs and all community based activites (no matter how simple they may seem) that bring people together with a shared goal.


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