Sports as Metaphor: How Pickup Basketball Changed Along With Washington

By Jack Limpert

Ruben Castaneda has a nice story in Sunday’s Washington Post Magazine about the closing of DC’s downtown YMCA and how a diverse group of basketball players will miss the camaraderie of the noontime games. Here’s how Castaneda, a former Washington Post reporter and a player from 1989 to 1998, describes the games:

It’s no revelation that sports can bring people of disparate backgrounds together, but the Y’s courts became something of a public square, where a diverse community formed across racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, generational and political lines.

Lawyers and government workers, doctors and personal consultants, federal agents and blue-collar workers, police and ex-offenders — even former pro athletes and politicians — showed up daily or several times a week to break a sweat. They also found, in small and big ways, that they had much more in common than the love of the game.

The idea of losing the ritual and the relationships — the Y said declining membership and upscale gyms were forcing its closure — landed like an elbow to the gut.

In the 1960s, I played basketball at what we called “the old Y” and then starting in 1978 at “the new Y”—the one now closing. The old Y was at 18th and G streets, near the White House; it closed when the new Y opened at 17th Street and Rhode Island Avenue.

The old Y—a sign said it was the Young Men’s Christian Association—was small; it had a basketball court and swimming pool but not much else. The new Y was a big city fitness center, with upscale locker rooms, and it was much more expensive to join.

What I remember most was how much the basketball changed when we moved to the new Y. At the old Y most the players were African-American men in their 20s. To start a pickup game, two of the guys alternated picking players for each team. I often was the last player picked: “Okay, I’ll take the white guy.”
I had played basketball in high school, and some in college, and thought of myself as pretty smart on the court, good at drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line. After college, I moved around a lot and didn’t play much but when I got to Washington in 1967 I discovered the pickup games at the old Y. A good lunch was an hour of basketball, then a carryout sandwich at my desk.

At a pickup game, players call the fouls. If you drive to the basket and get knocked to the floor while shooting, you can call a foul and your team keeps the ball. But that’s about it. The first time I tried to call a charging foul—”I had position and he ran over me”—they laughed. Not many fouls were called, everyone played hard.

At the new Y, there were some black players but a lot more white guys, many in their 30s and 40s. I’m not sure all the white guys were lawyers but it seemed like it. You’d play for 15 seconds and someone would call a foul. That’d be followed by 30 seconds of arguments—I had all ball, you bumped me, it’s our ball, no, it’s our ball.

After a few years of this, I mostly skipped the basketball and just ran on the track high above the court. You could look down and hear all the noise.
It’s good to hear that the games got better by the time Castaneda starting playing in 1989. Maybe some of the basketball lawyers joined one of the upscale health clubs that were moving into DC from Los Angeles and New York.

Thinking back, the changes 30 years ago in the pickup basketball games—you fouled me, no I didn’t, that’s not fair, stop arguing—were an early indication of how Washington was changing. Federal spending was exploding, the law business was booming, politics was becoming less collegial, everything was becoming more expensive. Basketball at the Y had changed along with the city.
At games at the old Y, the players never talked much about who we were or what we did. Once I did run into one of the regulars at a social event and we talked about how much we enjoyed playing. His name was Bill Pryor, and it turned out he was a DC Superior Court judge. On the basketball court, he was just a good guy and good player.


  1. A note from a fellow journalist:

    “Nice piece. I joined the Y on Rhode Island Avenue in September for that very reason, to play basketball. I played in my first lunch hour game and encountered some older men in their 40s/50s who didn’t like the new kid playing so much defense. One of them drove to the hoop and slammed his shoulder into my rib, nearly breaking it. The evening games were less contentious but not all that enjoyable. Mostly high school kids showboating, not much actual basketball. Overall my three months playing there wasn’t really a pleasant experience.”

    The most fun I had playing basketball in Washington was a group of guys, most of them graduates of Ohio University, that included an editor I worked with. We played on Sunday mornings at a school gym and it was a friendly game and a good game. If I was looking for a game, I’d first see if I could find a group like that—alums of a school who are pals and are playing to have fun.

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