For many in the Bay Area, basketball is more than just a sport. It’s a way of life. On a typical summer afternoon, local parks are filled with players of all abilities, all shapes and all sizes. Games are played not just for an hour or two but all day long.
Opinions on the best spots to play pick-up basketball are as diverse as the locals that play the game. While some swear by the 5-on-5 games played at their neighborhood park, others take a more adventurous approach, travelling far and wide in search of top competition.
A look at five local spots, from Albany to Oakland, shows that the game that so many love to play has its own rules and its own flair from court to court.
Starting in the heart of Berkeley at People’s Park on a recent Saturday afternoon, dozens of ballers gathered for a day of competition. Just off of Telegraph Avenue, the park, with its bathroom walls covered by ‘60s-era murals and peace signs, is a living piece of Berkeley history. Games at the park are competitive though many complain that because of the park’s single court, not enough games can be played.
“People’s Park is pretty good as far as competition,” said Vishu Shuhakar, a UC Berkeley senior. “But sometimes it’s overcrowded and hard to get a pick-up game because there’s so many people there.”
Unique to the park is the number of spectators that gather for a glimpse of the fast-paced action.
“No other court pulls me like this one. There’s an energy and a camaraderie and a history. There’s lots of drama too, most of it good,” commented Jonathan Taylor, a Berkeley resident and photographer who frequently captures images at the park. According to Taylor, who has been interested in visual art since childhood, the park is an ideal location to shoot still photography.
Though the occasional fight does break out during a game at People’s, Ray Kuhn of East Oakland said the park is better and safer than most. Kuhn also said the park provides local kids with a positive activity to focus on.
“The atmosphere out here is pretty cool, pretty laid back. No one really bothers you or thinks you’re selling drugs when you come out here like at some parks,” Kuhn said. “It’s good because it keeps a lot of kids off the streets. If they had something like this in Oakland I wouldn’t have to come all the way out here.”
Cal Recreational Sports Facility
Fans of indoor basketball often opt for the clean and spacious facilities of the Recreational Sports Facility at UC Berkeley. Although players do have to compete with the occasional volleyball game or practice at the RSF courts, many feel the three gyms at the facility provide the surest bet for a pick-up game.
“You can’t always depend on a game at other spots like you
can here,” said UC Berkeley junior Greg Huynh.
Games at the RSF are generally faster, as the regulation-size courts are larger and wider than many of area’s outdoor courts. As such, the variations in the size of the court often dictate the style of play. Smaller parks, tending toward half-court games of 3-on-3 instead of 5-on-5, can be slower but are often more physical.
Adjustments must constantly be made not only when travelling from court to court, but from continent to continent as well, says Oscar Perea, who recently arrived from Spain and was playing at RSF on Monday. According to Perea, a UC Berkeley professor of medieval history, games in Europe are a bit slower but have more of a team emphasis.
“The games there are slower but we use the pass more. Sometimes we pass between four or five or six times. Here the games are all 1-on-1. The difference is the individual versus the team,” noted Perea.
One local spot that does believe in a team-oriented game is the court at Marin Elementary. Located on Marin and Santa Fe Avenues just over the Berkeley border in Albany, the court stands out from the rest with both its own rules and a uniquely friendly atmosphere. Because the courts at the elementary school are smaller than most, no game is played with more than four to a team. Also, all games go to 12 points except the last of the day which goes to 16.
“This is a really friendly court,” said Jason Stafford, an Albany native. “A lot of kids play here. Everybody’s welcome here. The best part about this place is we don’t care who plays here. The people here just want to be happy and have a good time.”
According to Stafford, who met his current roommates through pick-up games at the court, the spot is probably different than most because regulars at the court look out for the younger, elementary school-age kids.
“People argue here, the games get physical. But there are always regulars here to break it up. People don’t deal drugs here because they realize there are a lot of kids,” Stafford said.
Grove Street Park
Across town at Grove Street Park, locals gather for high-intensity games and a south Berkeley brand of basketball. Located at Russell Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Way (formerly Grove Street), the courts are often divided between players and spectators as many watch and provide commentary on games from a set of bleachers on the south end of the court.
For Berkeley High senior Dezz Grant, a small forward on the BHS basketball team, the courts are a distinct part of the neighborhood and provide a high-level of competition.
“There are usually pretty good games here. It’s always a challenge to come out here,” Grant said.
Female basketball players, a more common sight recently, often play at the courts on MLK, Jr. Way. According to locals at the park, there are some girls that have more game than the guys.
“A few of the girls shoot better than the guys,” said Tyree Shelton of West Oakland. “I’d like to see a girl make it to the men’s league. There’s some in the WNBA that the Warriors should take a look at.”
Danesha Wright, a sophomore on the varsity girl’s Berkeley High basketball team, says playing ball with the guys isn’t that strange. Asked about any changes she makes against guys, Wright said succinctly, “I just play.”
While competition at the south Berkeley courts can be fierce, Mosswood Playground, just over the Berkeley border in North Oakland, is widely considered the best spot in the area to play ball.
“It’s not even close,” said Shelton. “The competition is way higher there.”
Attracting players from all around the Bay Area, Mosswood is known as a legends court by many. Current and former NBA stars like Bill Russell, Gary Payton and Isaiah Rider have all stepped foot on the hallowed grounds.
“It’s history down here. They can’t compete with that,” said Phil Bluefield, an Oakland native.
Located on West MacArthur Boulevard and Webster Street, the playground is a step above other local spots not just because of history but also because of the talent the park attracts. In addition, many consider the history and level of competition at north Berkeley’s Live Oak Park to be among the best in the area.
Players at Mosswood Playground, however, place the north Oakland courts on par with storied Rucker Park, located in New York City’s Central Park.
“People have been talkin’ about the games at People’s Park. People’s Park is garbage compared to Mosswood. We’ll go to People’s and blow them out of the water,” Bluefield said.