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Friendships And Fractures: 30 Years Of Pickup Basketball
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Friendships And Fractures: 30 Years Of Pickup Basketball

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Friendships And Fractures: 30 Years Of Pickup Basketball

Friendships And Fractures: 30 Years Of Pickup Basketball
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Peter Breslow stretches in between pickup basketball games at Jelleff Community Center in Washington, D.C. He's been playing the same weekly basketball game since 1982. i

Peter Breslow stretches in between pickup basketball games at Jelleff Community Center in Washington, D.C. He's been playing the same weekly basketball game since 1982. Niki Walker/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Niki Walker/NPR
Peter Breslow stretches in between pickup basketball games at Jelleff Community Center in Washington, D.C. He's been playing the same weekly basketball game since 1982.

Peter Breslow stretches in between pickup basketball games at Jelleff Community Center in Washington, D.C. He's been playing the same weekly basketball game since 1982.

Niki Walker/NPR

In 1982, when I washed up on NPR's doorstep looking for a job, I started a pickup basketball game. It endures to this day. That's right, we are in our 33rd season, which makes me too old to still be playing ... and yet, somehow, I still am.

Every Wednesday night over the decades, a group of guys — including an array of NPR staffers — has come together to run full court in a rented gym. We've had journalists, carpenters, doctors, locksmiths, IT guys, military guys, lawyers, and at least one top White House staffer ... this is D.C. after all. Often, we know little about each other's personal lives and would never recognize each other with long pants on.

One of the almost-originals is Bernard Ohanian, who characterizes the game this way:

"When it's really clicking, it's like a jazz symphony," he says. "And most of the time, it's like a bad garage band."

Breslow (left) and Bernard Ohanian suit up for their pickup basketball game. Breslow has been playing basketball since he was 9 years old. i

Breslow (left) and Bernard Ohanian suit up for their pickup basketball game. Breslow has been playing basketball since he was 9 years old. Niki Walker/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Niki Walker/NPR
Breslow (left) and Bernard Ohanian suit up for their pickup basketball game. Breslow has been playing basketball since he was 9 years old.

Breslow (left) and Bernard Ohanian suit up for their pickup basketball game. Breslow has been playing basketball since he was 9 years old.

Niki Walker/NPR

Bernard says the game endures because everyone's friendly and plays hard.

"There's no jerks in the game," he says. "Anyone who's ever played pickup basketball knows that's not always the case. And the friendships and relationships you build up over a number of years, it just feels right, it feels part of my life."

NPR economics correspondent John Ydstie was an all-state player in high school and is one of the last original members of the group still playing. He has been part of my on-court life for a long, long time.

"I know your every move," he tells me — including the fact that I can't go left. John is a consistent threat from the outside and along the baseline. And it's these moves that keep him coming back week after week.

"Every now and then, I do something that feels like it felt when I was 20 years old and it just feels so great. And you realize you were once really good at this thing. And I'm not very good at it anymore, but it's still fun. It's just great fun."

Ben Stutz (left) dribbles during a weekly pickup game at Jelleff Community Center in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. The players' ages span generations. i

Ben Stutz (left) dribbles during a weekly pickup game at Jelleff Community Center in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. The players' ages span generations. Niki Walker/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Niki Walker/NPR
Ben Stutz (left) dribbles during a weekly pickup game at Jelleff Community Center in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. The players' ages span generations.

Ben Stutz (left) dribbles during a weekly pickup game at Jelleff Community Center in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. The players' ages span generations.

Niki Walker/NPR

For Ohanian, long running games run in the family. His dad played with a bunch of friends from the time they were 15 until well into their golden years. According to Bernard, one of the regulars was a guy named Bob who had been fouling everyone since World War II. But he would never admit it. Well, during one game in the mid-1980s, Bernard was playing with the group when Bob hacked another old timer named Joe one time too many.

"And Joe says, 'foul,' " says Bernard. "And Bob just looks incredulous and he says, 'Joe, I didn't foul you.' And you could see this stuff simmering in Joe like you're holding it in all these years. And he slams the ball down on the floor and he says, 'Damn it, Bob, it was a foul in 1945 and it's a foul today!' "

When we first started playing, almost everybody was in their early 30s, but over the years, the original cast of characters dwindled. Some left town. Some were felled by torn ligaments. Others were pulled away by marriage and kids, and yet others just got too old and creaky.

Over 33 years of playing pickup basketball, Breslow has broken his nose, cracked ribs, torn muscles and sprained ankles. i

Over 33 years of playing pickup basketball, Breslow has broken his nose, cracked ribs, torn muscles and sprained ankles. Niki Walker/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Niki Walker/NPR
Over 33 years of playing pickup basketball, Breslow has broken his nose, cracked ribs, torn muscles and sprained ankles.

Over 33 years of playing pickup basketball, Breslow has broken his nose, cracked ribs, torn muscles and sprained ankles.

Niki Walker/NPR

And most often, young guys, like newcomer Dan Blank, have taken their place. He was born in 1983, the year after the game started. I'm pretty sure I'm older than his parents. But Dan says that the silver-sneakered guys can keep up.

"A lot of guys out here have some very sneaky speed. Every now and then I think I can just jog down and keep pace and then they zoom right past me, so I don't take anything for granted the way I did the first game," he says.

Dan is likely just being nice. And Bernard Ohanian says that's one of the hallmarks of this game ... especially when one of the seniors hits the deck.

"When any of us really older guys dives for a ball and we're on the ground or we fall, the young guys are standing over us, 'You all right, you all right, you all right?' I think they're afraid we're going to die on the court."

I guess that would be one of those, "At least he died doing what he loved" moments.

Ohanian and Breslow rest between basketball games at the Jelleff Community Center. Both have played in the same weekly pickup games for over 23 years. i

Ohanian and Breslow rest between basketball games at the Jelleff Community Center. Both have played in the same weekly pickup games for over 23 years. Niki Walker/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Niki Walker/NPR
Ohanian and Breslow rest between basketball games at the Jelleff Community Center. Both have played in the same weekly pickup games for over 23 years.

Ohanian and Breslow rest between basketball games at the Jelleff Community Center. Both have played in the same weekly pickup games for over 23 years.

Niki Walker/NPR

When talk turns to finally retiring from the game, John says, not yet.

"You know I keep thinking, I suppose there's a time will come we have to hang it up. But it's not next week. And I don't think it's next year. Yeah I don't know. Just keep going until I can't go anymore."

Over the years, I've broken my nose, cracked my ribs, torn muscles and sprained my ankles. My jump shot percentage is approaching that of low-fat milk, and my reflexes have gone from catlike to semi-catatonic. And yet, I keep playing because the game I've practiced since I was 9 years old keeps toying with me.

Just when it seems like I can't raise the embarrassment bar any higher, I'll have a great night. Or a least a great game. I'll hit most of my shots, and maybe even a game-winner. And then I know, I'll be back next Wednesday night.

Breslow and Dave McGloin have been playing basketball together since 1989. McGloin took a hiatus from the weekly pickup game but rejoined 10 years ago and has been playing ever since. i

Breslow and Dave McGloin have been playing basketball together since 1989. McGloin took a hiatus from the weekly pickup game but rejoined 10 years ago and has been playing ever since. Niki Walker/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Niki Walker/NPR
Breslow and Dave McGloin have been playing basketball together since 1989. McGloin took a hiatus from the weekly pickup game but rejoined 10 years ago and has been playing ever since.

Breslow and Dave McGloin have been playing basketball together since 1989. McGloin took a hiatus from the weekly pickup game but rejoined 10 years ago and has been playing ever since.

Niki Walker/NPR

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