Pickup basketball bounces back from the pandemic

Students play pickup basketball in the Rush Gymnasium at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Oct. 2, 2021. Leo Blain/The Occidental

The Occidental pickup basketball scene, an ever-evolving community at the college, was shut down entirely during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and early 2021. As widespread vaccination began in Spring 2021, the community found ways to adapt to the conditions of the pandemic and served as a much-needed outlet for many students. With students back on campus, members of that community such as David Foley ’12, assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for Occidental track & field, hope that the pickup basketball culture will continue to grow.

Foley said he started playing pickup while he was a student at Occidental from 2008 to 2012. Along with some fellow players, Foley said he created a Facebook group for pickup basketball players that exists to this day. As a staff member at Occidental, Foley continued to facilitate that group, organizing pickup basketball games with students, faculty, staff members and alumni. Foley said he has sometimes been jokingly addressed as “The Czar of Pickup.”

“Basketball — there’s so much good it does you,” Foley said. “Of course getting in shape [and] being active. [Then] there’s the social interaction, getting to know folks, getting to build friendships.”

According to Foley, who has extensive experience with pickup basketball in LA, the games at Occidental are some of the most enjoyable in the area. Leo Connelly ’19, an alumnus who still plays pickup at Occidental, said he loves the environment of Occidental pickup games.

“It’s a great place to be really competitive, and have a good time while you’re doing it,” Connelly said.

Students play pickup basketball in the Rush Gymnasium at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Oct. 2, 2021. Leo Blain/The Occidental

However, when students moved off campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic in Spring 2020, it became difficult to continue organizing games, according to Foley. Foley said the Facebook group was essentially shut down during that time.

Theo Ackermann (junior), who usually plays pickup two to four days a week, said that he played very little during the pandemic last year. Living in Portland, Ackermann said he was concerned about COVID-19 and when he did go out to play, which was only once or twice a month, he would usually wear a mask.

“When I was back in Portland I was playing every now and then,” Ackermann said. “It was always scary.”

Ackermann said that after moving into an off-campus apartment in LA in January 2021, he started to seek out pickup basketball games again, and by March he was playing more frequently. With many people beginning to get vaccinated, he said he felt more comfortable going out to play. He and several other Occidental students began to play at Rio de Los Angeles State Park, a couple of miles from the college. After feeling locked up and isolated during the pandemic, Ackermann said playing pickup basketball once more was exhilarating.

“It was such a release,” Ackermann said. “I didn’t realize how much I missed it.”

Ackermann said he was not the only one who missed the competition and community of pickup basketball. According to Ackermann, there were about a hundred people from the local community playing daily at Rio De Los Angeles State Park in the spring, and the wait times between games could be up to an hour.

According to Connelly, the pandemic also shifted the way that pickup at Occidental is organized. He said with Foley’s Facebook group fairly quiet, a Snapchat group chat has become the primary platform for organizing pickup games. According to Connelly, it started as a small group of friends and has since expanded to almost 60 people. With this group, students began to return to campus in the summer of 2021 to play on the outdoor courts.

“It was really popping in the summer,” Connelly said. “We were playing four times a week. Toward the end, it was crazy to see how good people would get. When the environment gets competitive, [people] rise to the occasion.”

Despite the success of the summer pickup games, Foley said he does not want to move too fast in bringing the entire pickup basketball community back to playing indoors.

“I’ve not been pushing the envelope too far yet,” Foley said. I want to give the appropriate space and make sure that we’re doing things the right way. But equally, I want to play pickup every night.”

Students play pickup basketball in the Rush Gymnasium at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Oct. 2, 2021. Leo Blain/The Occidental

With two classes of students who are new to campus this year, Foley also said he wants to bring in the underclassmen he does not know yet into the pickup basketball scene.

“In many ways the pickup group has to be cared for like a college sports team. As people graduate, you have to find [the] freshman and sophomore people that are able to play good levels of basketball,” Foley said.

Foley said he is glad that people can start getting back out on the court and playing pickup after the difficulties of the pandemic.

“Just being on the court again helped make things feel normal,” Foley said. “And honestly, after everything we’ve gone through with COVID, I think the sense of normality is so, so important to people. Having that outlet, to run around, to sweat, and to feel like things are back to the way they were before — it means everything. Having that back in your life makes things feel like Oxy.”