Summer’s favorite sounds play out in different ways to the good folks of the Merrimack Valley. For some, it’s the unmistakable splash of waves on rocks or sand. For others, it’s hamburgers sizzling on a grill. But for a small and dedicated Valley cult, there is only one warm-weather sound that really matters: the thump-thump-thump of a basketball on asphalt.
We are all about public service here at Merrimack Valley Magazine. So what follows is a basic guide to the rules of outdoor pickup basketball based on decades of frantic games throughout the Valley.
Never guard a woman or a little kid. There is nothing prejudicial here. It’s just a simple fact that you will never come out of this looking good. You’ll either look like a complete bully or … well … you won’t. I’m not sure which is worse.
Never guard anyone who can put up a good hook shot with either hand. Anyone with a nice ambidextrous hook shot could have their throat slashed and still burn you for four quick hoops before they slump to the ground.
Always put brothers on opposite teams. They will beat the ever-living daylights out of each other and leave everyone else alone.
Never play a game with people who have been warming up while enjoying a keg of beer. They really won’t wind up playing basketball. Instead, they’ll play a hybrid sport that’s equal parts basketball, lacrosse and rugby that they invented half a keg ago. Compared with their new creation, Rollerball has all the potential danger of Candy Land.
Always pay close attention to nicknames. You want someone on your team called “Hawk,” “Mr. Boards” or “Swoop.” You don’t want someone called “Peewee,” “Sloth” or “Lumpy.”
Never bring your own basketball to a strange court unless your name is on it in indelible ink. Or you will go home empty-handed or with someone else’s watermelon-shaped ball.
Never attempt a driving layup if the next basket wins the game. Oh, you might end up a local hero. But the odds of that happening are roughly the same as Lawrence hosting the Winter Olympics. More likely: Someone will rip off the top of your head, stuff your brains into your neck, and then call a charging foul on you.
Always try to pick your teammates. Because if you don’t, more often than not your team will include a couple of guys who look like Disney characters and someone who thinks an offensive player is someone who sweats a lot.
Never play against anyone who asks, “Now what exactly is considered a foul?” These people will do terrible, accidental things to your groin and spleen. But at least they are impartial, and will make eunuchs out of their own teammates as easily as they disembowel the competition. One of these guys showed up from time to time for our pickup games. We gave him an Old Testament moniker: “Dan, Giver of Pain.”
Always toss a basketball at potential teammates before you pick any of them. This is essential in our brave new multiethnic world. If they try to “catch” it with their feet, then they’re really soccer players at heart and you don’t want ’em.
Never play against anyone who asks if you are going to call goaltending violations. Life is depressing enough. Why add to the misery by watching someone yell, “Tap time!” and then block your shot by catching it in the crook of his elbow?
Always make sure a lefty is really a lefty. Far too many jocks have tried to make a few easy bucks against an apparent turkey, only to find out that the “turkey” going home with their beer money, basketball and car keys could shoot with both hands and was a former second-team All-American. Though I never bet on games, I once played one-on-one with a Division I starter, a lefty like me, and barely squeaked out a win. I savored my victory like a fine filet. Only later did I learn that he was working out to keep in shape until his other arm—his shooting arm—healed fully from recent surgery.