The unseen, unspoken ethics in NYC pickup basketball.

A feature in yesterday’s NY Times charts the tale of an amateur baller who found his way to Brooklyn from Florida via Portland, seeking “the city’s mythical ownership of pickup basketball.” Intent on discovering the “city’s truths” in basketball, Isaac Eger found out how to take a hit, dance around the playful threat of another opponent’s “poker,” and stand his ground. Then Eger has a moment of clarity when he observes how the potential violence, aggression, and grace all hangs in the delicate balance of the city and its citizens, the game and its players.

Another thing that struck me, between jumpers, was how unregulated by institutional authority these parks are. No one holds a piece of paper that tells people how things ought to be (though such pieces of paper do exist). Instead, these parks are governed by something else.

A park’s rules are unwritten but are adhered to and change from playground to playground. What makes this more interesting is that these parks are products of tax dollars and mild socialist ideals. It is noteworthy that indoor, private, free-market courts are more heavily policed. There are things that one cannot bring. You cannot take off your shirt. You have to have proper shoes and attire. You cannot drink. You cannot smoke. New York parks and playgrounds, then, appear governed by the most egalitarian morality going.

Possibly, but to what or whom do we owe this egalitarian morality? The design of a game or of a park may indeed act as unspoken moral schematic. In theory, games are great equalizers, so when you condense one of the most competitive cities in the world in to a pickup basketball game, perhaps it’s the inherent respect of higher-design—or NYC’s smoldering socialist underpinnings—that bonds players together.