You can hear it before you can see it. The squeaking of sneakers, the bouncing of balls and the cadence of competitive language fills the air the moment one steps off of the elevator onto the third floor of the Lerner Health and Wellness Center.
On the hardwood is a GW athletic match that never receives cheers from loyal fans or the bright lights of the Smith Center. This is pick-up basketball.
Two basketball courts on the third floor, and occasionally two more on the fourth when available, provide students with a less-common workout routine. Instead of the habitual norm of running on the treadmill or lifting weights while listening to an iPod, pick-up basketball offers a more intense and social experience. And with that comes a unique culture that only frequent participants understand.
Some of the regulars include GW basketball players. In years past, Colonial stars such as Carl Elliott, Danilo (J.R.) Pinnock, Regis Koundjia, Pops Mensah-Bonsu and Mike Hall have all graced the court. Now, Travis King is getting his shot.
“I’m here every day,” said King, a freshman on the GW men’s squad. Sporting GW basketball shorts and no shirt, the guard said he takes advantage of the facilities to work on his game.
“I work on everything: shooting, driving. I play hard,” King said.
Occasionally on Saturday afternoons before the season starts, a number of varsity men’s and women’s players will join King on the third floor courts and play hoops with campus commoners. The line to play in a game that features varsity players grows much longer than most, not including the casual spectators on the sidelines.
“There’s a lot of gym talking, arguing up here – verbal abuse,” King said. Many echoed that assessment. Typically, people argue over close calls and become more physical after hard fouls, players said.
“Just play the game and play it right,” freshman Brian Longo said last week. Longo, who calls himself a tenured pick-up player, plays frequently in HellWell.
What Longo means by “play the game right” is that players should follow pick-up basketball’s unwritten rules: play hard, play clean, try to be unselfish with the ball, don’t show off and maybe most importantly, play to win.
“You don’t want to embarrass yourself,” said Gurpreet Sodhi, a second-year medical school student. “Once you’re in the game, you lose yourself in the game. Everyone is trying to prove themselves.”
To add insult to injury, if you lose, you have to vacate the court and allow a new group of five players to take their shot at beating the team you couldn’t.
Students line the sides of the court, anticipating their turn to play. While waiting, players form five-person teams and compromise on an order that the teams will play in, usually based on which group of five called “next” first. HellWell staff does not supervise the games, so players are trusted to cooperate.
“We have five men’s basketballs and they are all checked out from the (equipment depot between 3 and 11 p.m.),” said Valdez Williams, HellWell’s operations and facilities manager. “I think the (number of students who participate) has gradually picked up since last year’s successful (varsity basketball seasons). And as winter draws closer, even more students will be playing.”
“I’ve been here since before the gym opened up,” Sodhi said. “Ever since Health and Wellness opened, the turnout has been pretty consistent. Some of the same guys come here at night. I’ve seen them here for six years.”
Williams estimates that there are, on average, 30 people on the courts between 3 and 11 p.m. Only on Sundays is it less likely to see the normal turnout. The turnout is primarily male, with an occasional female gracing the floor. Students playing on the third floor of HellWell said they turn to pick-up basketball after leaving their high school teams behind. Some recommend it as a fun workout. Still, others love the competition and want to meet students with similar interests.
Most regulars recognize 5 to 7 p.m. as the busiest time on the court. Around 9 p.m., the turnout picks up again and continues almost unabated until the gym closes, which is usually after midnight. Students come alone and join any team seeking a fifth player or they’ll come with groups of friends, willing to wait longer to play as long as they can play together.
“We usually come together,” said freshman Paul Ghayad, referring to himself and Longo. “An up-tempo style of play dominates up here. People are always trying to run (the floor) … it’s more of a fast-paced offense.” The two agree that playing with friends builds team chemistry, an element of a winning squad.
Competitiveness aside, there is one qualm students seem to have. They want more.
Sodhi added: “I wish the gym stayed open till (11 or 12 p.m.) on Saturday nights instead of (8 p.m.).”