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Pick-Up Basketball's Burning Questions

A Daily Babble Production

Time for the interactive portion of the program here at CelticsBlog's Daily Babble Central.  Well, the even-more-interactive-than-usual portion of the program (since we always encourage the sharing of thoughts from you, the reader).

Reading the forums over the past few months have shown me that if there is one subject besides the Celtics to which members of this community nearly universally relate, it is the actual playing of basketball.  Earlier this week, moderator Donoghus posed a question to all those on board who play any form of pick-up ball regarding the etiquette for calling offensive fouls.  It led to a wonderful discussion (one that we certainly recommend you read and in which we welcome you to participate) and to my considering the fact that my leisure time features two main priorities: following and writing about professional basketball (and sports at large), and playing pick-up for every second I can.  Which makes it no surprise that Donoghus' question to the community got me thinking about the burning questions of courtesy and convention in pick-up basketball at large. 

So in the interest of not hijacking a very enjoyable forum thread, we're taking today to pose a variety of inquiries about etiquette in pick-up ball with, of course, yours truly taking preliminary swings at answering these probing interrogatives along the way.  It's worth remembering, however, that these are just the opinions of one man with stone hands and a history of too many trips to neighborhood Chinese buffets playing major roles in his experience as a ball player.  I don't purport to have a wider, vaster or better set of experiences than anyone else around here, and I look forward to hearing from all of the different perspectives those here at CB have to offer.  With a wonderful community of individuals with diverse experiences across multiple generations, we extend a special invitation today to everyone here to join in the discussion and throw your two cents (or more) in the ring.  Off we go...

Offensive fouls

Dons brought this issue up in his original post, and there has been plenty of discussion on it in the forums, so we'll keep it as quick as possible here: The big problem is that it's nearly impossible to seriously call a charge in a pick-up game, but many players take this reality as carte blanche to do whatever they please on the offensive end and assume that they are always in the right.  Not the case. 

While staying away from calling offensive fouls should definitely be the goal, if your man is trucking you on a regular basis, I'm a big believer in stopping the play but allowing the team with the ball to retain possession.  This prevents the possibility of giving up a basket because of an illegal play by the offensive player and sends the message that he is doing something wrong but limits the possibility of confrontation by not stripping the offending team of the ball. 

Worth noting is that this is best not used for first-time offenders.  Weird stuff happens in pick-up basketball games.  Such is life.  Getting hit once is something we can all deal with.  Once it starts happening repeatedly, that's when it becomes worth stopping the play once to indicate that there is a problem.  Since most conceptualizations of offensive fouls in pick-up tend to deal with the guy who believes that it's acceptable to just put his head down and barrel to the basket regardless of what human obstacles may be present (or the guy who doesn't understand that he can't use his off-hand to stiff-arm you with every dribble), it seems worth risking a statement of the patently obvious to mention that this approach is also applicable to the issue of illegal screens (which are, of course, offensive fouls).

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The 'And-One' Rule

Perhaps my own observations have been the exception rather than the norm here, but this seems to be a generational gap more than anything else.  Older players tend to espouse the idea that any foul called by the offensive team should wave off a potential basket on the play, whereas the younger generation has embraced the concept of and-one, which involves the offense being able to call fouls with no ramifications on whether or not the basket counts.  Fouls called by the defense, of course, do not nullify baskets in either set-up.

There are worthy arguments on both sides of the coin here.  As good friend and mentor Kenny Rosenblatt states, "If you're playing and-one, and you have the lead late in the game, you can't lose.  Just call a foul right away every time, and sooner or later the shot will fall anyway.  What a joke."  Fair enough.  We've all played with folks who abuse the foul call and do it with particular egregiousness in the final moments of a game.  That said, playing without the and-one rule is very dependent on knowing the people involved in any particular game.  If you're playing with a group of friends who have a consensus understanding of the way the rules work and who will give you the ball if they hammer you (such that you don't have to call a foul on the most ridiculous of plays and risk nullifying your own basket), you'll be all right.  But it becomes fairly touch-and-go otherwise.  It's a lot easier for one hacker to ruin a game if there is no and-one rule, because it allows him to make going to the basket -- or sometimes shooting in general -- a completely worthless endeavor for his man, especially if said hacker is a) unaware of what he is doing or b) cognizant and intentionally not calling any fouls against himself.

In my book, one of the beauties of pick-up basketball is being able to go to any open gym or any park, find a game, call next and get on the floor to run, no matter if I know every person on the court or none of them.  So I'm naturally inclined to play with the and-one rule and trust that the folks on the floor aren't going to baby themselves because hopefully, hopefully -- I stress -- hopefully, you're going to have the pleasure of playing with people who understand that, yes, basketball is a contact sport.  And particularly in pick-up, contact does not equal foul.

Calling fouls against oneself

The first-cousin of the and-one issue.  As was implied above, this is an issue that carries far more weight in a game without the and-one rule, but even with it, nobody wants to be that guy who slows the game down by calling fouls every time down even though he is getting hit and hit hard on every play.  This more than perhaps any other issue in this discussion is a discretionary judgment best made based on the opponent and flow of the game, but generally speaking, I'm a believer that if I end up obliterating a guy, the least I can do is give him the ball back.  Prevents unneeded confrontation and generally establishes some measure of goodwill with the guy on the other side.  That said, this is an extremely adjustable trait depending on the attitude of the opponent.  If he's going to maul me every time down at the other end and not return the courtesy, he's on his own.  But if that isn't the case, it's hard to see a reason not to give a guy the ball back after clobbering him. 

One notable exception here: any play involving a reach or a hold on which your man beats you anyway.  Making a call to wipe out a potential lay-up or easy bucket around the rim isn't cool.  If he can't convert the opportunity, great for the fouler, who has gotten away with one.  In some regards, stopping plays likely to result in lay-ups for the opponent strikes me as just as cheap as hacking someone all game and not calling it.

Three seconds

Can't call it.  Ever.  Can't stop the play.  Certainly can't take the ball.  Ever.  It's a timing violation, and in an untimed and unofficiated game, it just isn't enforceable.  However, it is perfectly reasonable in to at least expect that the opponent will try to maintain some level of integrity and respect for the game by attempting to stay out of the lane.  There's no need to stand behind him with a stopwatch, but it's a simple formula: If he can post up, look for the ball and move around and re-post if he doesn't get it, there is no reason to complain.  But the guy who decides he is camping out in the lane at the outset of every possession and waiting until the ball arrives no matter how long it takes deserves the pleasure of you informally informing him after the first couple of times that he really needs to make an effort to not simply sit in the lane.  If that doesn't work, relaxing the standard used for calling fouls on yourself seems perfectly acceptable.


Best reserved for the particularly egregious.  We're talking NBA-level here.  It just isn't worth the constant complaining, because at this juncture, we're reaching a point where the likelihood is that more than 60 percent of the guys on the floor do what is technically considered walking with some regularity.  The same applies to carries and palming.  There's no real benefit to play the police role on this on any sort of normal basis.  It is a sad reality, but it is the reality.

The Wrap-Up

The question was best articulated in the forums as follows by member bdm860:

"It's game point for the other team.  They get a wide open fast break opportunity.  There's no way you can make a play on the ball, but you can foul the guy to avoid him from scoring and give your defense a chance to set up.  I was always one to foul the guy, if you want to beat my team you have to earn it, you're not going to beat us on a wide open layup.   Now I would never foul the guy hard, never do anything to hurt the other player, just a foul where the guy can't get off a shot.  I've seen this done several times with no problems, but I just remember one time where the guy on the other team got real upset, but it's like "Dude, it's game point, do you really expect us to give you a wide open layup to knock our team of the court?"  He didn't get it though.  Regardless, I don't think that's a bad move, but what do you guys think?  Not a hard foul, not a flagrant, just what would be considered a clear path foul in today's NBA game."

Count me in with the inquirer.  Undoubtedly, it's a fine line to walk between wrapping a guy up simply with the intention of not letting him get a shot off and doing something that might inadvertently cause injury.  But ultimately, if I'm on the floor, I want to win.  Maybe I'm a nut, maybe not, but as long as I play, the primary goal will be winning the basketball game.  I have no problem with the idea of doing everything possible toward making a play on the ball and then trying to prevent the shot from getting off as a last resort.  Important in the technique is not wrapping the guy up and then abruptly letting him go at the end in a way that results in effectively 'throwing' him to the floor, which seems to be what leads to the most threats of fighting on these sorts of plays.  If I'm the guy on the break in that situation, I fully expect my opponent to do everything in his power to stop me from finishing him, and by that standard, I have no problem returning the favor.  And yes, I'm nearly certain that I'll have my share of detractors on this one, perhaps more so than on just about any other point of contention on the board thus far.

The Hacker

In an ideal world, we would all play our tails off, play as cleanly as possible, accept that contact is part of the game and reserve foul-calling to the worst contact only, usually a result of inadvertence.

This world, however, is far from ideal.  The fact remains that for every few games a person plays, he (or she) is likely to run into at least one situation in which he is matched up with the person who just hammers and hammers away on and is either oblivious to his own behavior or disinterested in playing with any modicum of courtesy.  On either front, it's not any fun to be the guy who has to stop play every time.  Totally ruins the flow of the game.  Which means that responding in part generally tends to be the optimal solution here.  Completely dropping the bop on this individual will always be perfectly reasonable in my book.  Feel free to do it harder and to a greater extent, but understand that this course of behavior removes your entitlement to call the foul every time the other dude (or dudette) whacks you.

Winning, losing and sitting

No subs.  Ever.  That's just a mess.  Who with a pulse wants to be off the floor at the end of a close game?   Exactly.  If you've got the time to come play, you've got the time to wait for next.

Speaking of waiting for next, the one time you should never have to do this is after a victory.  Reading the forum thread was the first time I had ever heard of the idea of placing a cap on the number of games a team can win before it has to come off the floor.  Having a real tough time seeing that one.  Yes, some pick-up games involve groups of people splitting costs to rent gymnasiums and such, but inherent in playing competitive sports is the fact that winning and losing will have respective benefits and pitfalls.  Not everybody gets to be a winner all the time.  That isn't how sports work.  Winners earn the right to stay on, always.  Losers earn the right to wait for the next game.  Seems like an institutional risk undertaken upon agreeing both to put in money for the gym and to play.

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So there we have it.  Eight preliminary categories of unwritten pick-up basketball law are officially on the open market for discussion.  There are certainly plenty more (goal-tending, anyone?), and we once more invite each and every one of you to join us with your thoughts on these topics or any others we missed relating to the wonderful world that is pick-up ballin'.  Have at it!

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