Pickup Basketball, Ethical Fabrics, and the “Larry Bird” Moment

Pickup Basketball, Ethical Fabrics, and the “Larry Bird” Moment March 23, 2009

My erstwhile blog partner Stanley Fish has just written a post called “My Life on the Court” for the NYT on how much he loves basketball.  I found it quite enjoyable, and you might too, especially if you enjoy pickup basketball.

Fish’s love affair with basketball:

“I have been playing basketball since I was seven years old. That’s more than 60 years, and as March Madness moves into full swing, I find myself thinking about the game and my addiction to it.

It isn’t skill. I can do two things — shoot from the outside and run. (I don’t get tired.) I dribble as little as possible. I drive to the basket once a decade; I’ve blocked two shots in my entire life, and if white men can’t jump, this white Jewish man really can’t jump. Maybe twice a year my shot is on and I feel I can’t miss. On days like that I think that I’ve finally arrived and can’t wait for the next game. But when game day rolls around again and I get out on the court, I find that I have regressed to my usual level, which is several degrees south of mediocre.”

Fish’s “Larry Bird” moment:

“In all these years I have had two triumphs. Once when I was playing on the beach-side courts in Laguna Beach, every shot went in. The other players, black and Latino, started to yell, “Larry Bird, Larry Bird.” I knew it was a joke, but I savored the moment anyway.”

The “ethical fabric” of pickup basketball:

“Why continue to do something I wasn’t any good at nine times out of ten? Well for one thing basketball players are by and large generous. (There are exceptions.) If you’re not very skilled, if you’re old and slow, they will make a place for you in the game. In his recent book “Give and Go: Basketball as a Cultural Practice,” Thomas McLaughlin speaks of the ethical practices that emerge in the course of a game even though no rules have imposed them: “Every time one of the players in our game says to a weak player as he is taking an open shot that he will likely miss ‘Good shot,’ he is weaving the ethical fabric of the game.”

I have often been the beneficiary of that ethical fabric, even when those weaving me into it are perfect strangers. For one of the great things about being a basketball player (or pretending to be one) is that no court is closed to you which is why I always have a basketball in the trunk of my car. You can just show up wherever there is a hoop and a game and you will be included. (This holds also in foreign countries where there may be a language barrier, but never a basketball barrier.)”


I resonated deeply with Fish’s basketball experience, though I would add that there are a good number of difficult moments one can have on the court.  It is nonetheless fascinating to think on a sociological level about the ethics of pickup basketball, or any other sport.  Man is an ethical creature, and anyone who plays sports will find that though it seems full of creativity, it is in fact bounded by all kinds of written and unwritten ethical and logistical rules.

With that said, it’s not the rules of the game one necessarily celebrates–it’s the “Larry Bird” moments, few and fleeting as they are.

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  • Good stuff Owen. I’m loving anything that finds a way to combine Larry Bird and theology. I’ve learned so much about life through hoops and it continues to be something God uses in great ways in my life.

  • owenstrachan

    Larry Bird and theology–it doesn’t get any better than that. Amen to your words about basketball.