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Guestwords: In Praise of Pickup Games

Wed, 08/11/2021 - 17:42

I started playing basketball in earnest here at about the age of 15, during the summer when my family vacationed in Wainscott (where my father was born). The “game” I frequented was on a court next to the one-room schoolhouse about a mile from our house. The backdrop was a cemetery, and across the road was a sweeping field and a freshwater pond and after that the vast Atlantic.

It was marvelous scenery, but I cared more about the sun-bleached cement full court, the two metal backboards shaped like clamshells, and rims sporting just the right amount of rust to make the new white nets hung at the beginning of each season stand out.

It was a great place to play, and for many years many people played. The most attended games were on the weekends, right after 5 p.m., after people had their fill of the beach or other recreational fun. And more often than not, we played until dark.

I can’t tell you how much that game meant to me, something to look forward to and a way for me to develop my skills. And after graduating from college and starting to age, it helped keep me in shape — physically and mentally. But most important, I made friends, lasting relationships born from bouncing a ball together.

And there were many memorable highlights, including having Julius Erving show up one evening (with his agent), and my getting the chance to play on the Doctor’s team. (By the way, he had the largest hands I have ever seen, making my own look like a toddler’s when he enveloped it in a friendly shake after we were finished.)

But as I got older, the game started to fade, and then, sadly, it was over entirely when the court was removed with the addition of a second building to accommodate an increase in students.

One evening, missing the action and longing to shoot, I ventured to Sagaponack, with its own one-room schoolhouse and on its grounds a half court. The basket was very low, a shade under nine feet, allowing me the chance to dunk the ball (now, I would need a ladder and a boost to slam it at that height).

So I was shooting by myself and squeezing in some uninspiring jams when a car pulled up and a nice-looking gentleman in hoops gear got out. He walked over, introduced himself, and asked if I wanted to play one on one. I didn’t see why not, and we played two or three games, with him hitting almost all of his shots.

After we were done, he told me about a game he had on Sunday mornings at a full court he owned on his property, and invited me to play. It was then I realized that he had seen me while driving by and had challenged me to play as a way to “size me up,” to see if I was right for his game. And I guess I passed.

Since then, I have been a regular at this great game whenever I find myself out for a weekend. Derek Schuster, the man who had invited me to play, is without a doubt the most determined and diligent “commissioner” of pickup runs on the East End — or anywhere for that matter. In fact, the game has been ongoing each summer since 1976, with the only break being last year because of Covid.

Keeping a game going for four decades requires skill and charisma and a great love of the game. Derek has that and more (he also has an amazing fall-away jump shot). He is a kindhearted man, a social justice warrior, and a philanthropist.

Add to that a writer, as he recently completed a new parenting book (he is shopping for an agent and publisher) titled “Youth in Jeopardy: Keeping Kids Out of Trouble.” The book offers an alternative to others dealing with juvenile misbehavior. Instead of presenting dry academic studies, the text draws on his 20 years of violence prevention work as associate executive director and program director at SCAN-Harbor in the Bronx and East Harlem.

But back to hoops. The other day, after a Sunday pickup game, I asked Derek the following questions about the game and his involvement, thinking it might be useful to others who might want to consider starting up a run of their own.

Why did you start the game?

Derek: For exercise, competition, and camaraderie.

What is the greatest challenge in keeping the game going?

Derek: The need to keep recruiting younger players to keep the level of play consistent. Age of players goes from teenagers on up.

What are some of the most memorable highlights?

Derek: One Sunday, the art dealer Vito Schnabel said, “Next week I’m going to bring Steve Nash.” He was still at the time an N.B.A. player, having come off two M.V.P. seasons. (He’s now head coach of the Brooklyn Nets.) Not believing this, one of the players shot back, “Make sure Kobe comes along too.” But the next Sunday, Vito came and with him was, indeed, Steve Nash. He won every game he played, but, being a gentleman, always by one point.

Another time, he said, the actress Lori Singer came and practiced her “jump hook.” She was about to appear in Robert Altman’s film “Short Cuts.”

This summer, gratefully, the game is back in business and we’ve already had some spirited contests. It feels good to be back competing, and while my joints are not as loose as they once were (more like locked in place), my soul is happy to be back with friends in a friendly game. Of course, I still like to win. But hey, just having a ball in hand, a defender in front of me, and a hoop to shoot is a victory in itself.

Thank you, Derek.


John McCaffrey is a director at a nonprofit in the mental health field in New York City. His last book was a story collection, “What’s Wrong With This Picture?”


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