What I love and miss about playing pick-up team sports
Last week I saw one friend throw an eraser across the room to another friend (they were arting at the time). With the eraser menacingly in the air, and with the fear and anticipation of one actually having to catch an object flying toward them, one of the friends yelled, “Agh Sports!” implying hilariously that even the slightest test of physical acumen is a great burden.
These are my friends – actors, artists, writers, musicians, nerds. They’re all active and coordinated – they can ski, kayak, dance, swing from contraptions, walk on stilts, whathaveyou. But when it comes to Sports! or, shall I say, traditional American Sports! (team and otherwise), I find I am all alone in Durango. A friendly game of pickup basketball? Who does that? A breezy, non-competitive, let’s-just-get-out-there-and-run-around game of touch football? Where did everyone go? Hit some balls on the tennis court – we don’t even have to keep score? Anyone?
Every time I bring up playing Sports!, people treat me like a madman shouting on a street corner. Yes, they cross the street and act like they don’t see me.
Ever since my mother allowed me to walk outside alone, I’ve been trying to get people to play sports with me. If it wasn’t a game of street football, it was the invented neighborhood version of rugby we played in someone’s yard that we hyperbolically called “Kill the guy with the ball.” If it wasn’t that it was a game of kickball or Pickle (aka Hot Box – a baseball-based game that recreates the phenomena of baserunners being caught in a rundown between bases), or the legendary basketball-derived game 21, or hide-n-seek. I firmly believed that any skills I have in leadership, organization, and persuasion were jump-started between the ages of 6 and 12 corralling neighborhood kids into a game. It’s not easy convincing kids that the couch isn’t really that comfortable, that video games aren’t that fun, and that the Disney Channel will still exist after it gets dark.
The practice of rounding up a group of friends for a game continued well into my 30s. However, it wasn’t necessarily scraping people off couches that was the challenge in getting a game going as an adult. It was the negative attitudes about such pick-up games that people carried over from childhood, which I had to take into account and counter when trying to convince non-Sports! people to play Sports!
The concerns people had were usually the same: Will teams be picked in a way that everyone will invariably be picked last? (I would devise a way to divide the players in a haphazard way – like seemingly arbitrarily dividing the circle in half – that usually made each team competitive. After all, in football, all each team needs is one person who can throw and then an equal amount of fast and slow players). Would the game be overly competitive and rowdy? (I refused to even keep score). Yeah, but there’s always that one guy who takes things so seriously and gets mad at everyone. What about him? (He’s not invited). But I have no athletic skill (Yes you do, and I don’t care even if you didn’t. It’s not about that).
There are a number of things I miss about playing pick-up Sports!, things that we don’t often run into elsewhere as adults: Camaraderie, being part of a team, and developing and understanding your role on that team, to start. Are you the person with surprising athletic acumen? Are you the shifty, speedy one who everyone underestimates? Are you the take-control leader? Are you the trickster devising sneaky plays and other feats of gamesmanship? Are you the ultra-competitive one who operates at a 10 and we need you down at a 6?
As an organizer of pick-up team Sports!, I had very few expectations for what happened on the court or field. Were people laughing and having fun? Was the environment safe and welcoming and entirely free of negativity? That’s what mattered to me. If people were having fun and getting some exercise, that’s all I cared about. And beyond that, when non-Sports! people walked away saying that they actually had fun playing football, I knew it was a success.