Disorder on the Court Are the long-standing rules of D.C. playground hoops under threat?

Pickup Sticks: Make-it-take-it’s long been the only way to play half-court hoops in D.C.
Photograph by Charles Steck

I walked past Stead Park in Dupont Circle recently while a four-on-four half-court game was being played. As I watched, a player dribbled past his defender for an easy layup.

The scorer caught the ball as it fell through the net, handed it to the guy he had just driven past, and started barking defensive orders to his teammates as the new ball carrier set up at the top of the key.

Hold on, there: These people were playing loser’s outs?

On a D.C. playground?

I’d never come across a loser’s-outs game in my several decades of playing pickup ball (poorly) in this area, nor in more recent years of just watching. This is a make-it-take-it town. A bucket here earns you the right to take the ball to the top of the key and try to score again. Our half-courts have always been for winners only.

“When we played, you get the ball back when you scored, and you had to win by two. Those were the rules,” says Gary “One Armed Bandit” Mays, a playground legend during the glory days of D.C. pickup hoops in the ’50s.

Mays’ court heyday, glorious as it was, was a half-century ago. So, to see if the rules ever changed, I checked with renowned street baller Randy Gill. Nicknamed “White Chocolate,” the Silver Spring product won the top prize on MTV’s hoops-idol reality show Who’s Got Game? in 2003 and played this season with the ABA’s Maryland Nighthawks. He’s played pickup at every local hoops hotspot.

“In D.C., it’s make-it-take-it, absolutely,” says Gill.

I didn’t interrupt the loser’s-outs game. I only stuck around Stead Park to watch a couple more possessions, just long enough to confirm my fear. And in that time, a car going by honked and a passenger yelled at the court in friendly tones to “let the kid from Kentucky play,” which only enhanced the shock and awfulness I was feeling: These loser’s-outs lovers live here!

D.C. hoops has some quirks. The everyone-for-himself half-court game, for example, is called 21 in the suburbs and in the city’s white neighborhoods—in this version, the first player to 21 points wins. However, this game is called 33, and played to 33 points, in D.C.’s blackest and best basketball neighborhoods.

Yet 21 and 33 are essentially equals, so vive la différence.

Not so winner’s and loser’s. Along with being the local standard, make-it-take-it is a superior game. The mandated possession change in loser’s outs mitigates the momentum a bucket brings to the scoring squad. Worse, it eliminates the opportunity for the megalomaniacal high—the in-the-zone sensation—that even mediocre playground players can occasionally get by knocking down multiple shots within a matter of moments.

Loser’s outs is tolerable for intramural leagues or charity tournaments—places where administrators, not players, make rules. Magic Johnson and Gilbert Arenas are hosting a fundraising tournament in town this week, for example, and loser’s outs is in place. That’s probably because organizers don’t want to risk getting refund requests from teams that got skunked and sent home before they even touch a ball. It’s OK for Hollywood, too: Robby Benson played loser’s-outs hoops in his 1977 basketball-centric feature, One on One.

But on the playground or gyms or in any sort of pickup setting around here, loser’s outs is just the wrong way to go.

I’ve tried not to rail too hard against any gentrification-related changes this city has undergone in my 21 years of living in town, mostly because I was born and reared outside the border, in Northern Virginia, and figure the indigenous population could probably make a good case that I’m to blame for most ills.

But this was too serious to ignore. I’d have rather learned that a Costco or a Chili’s had opened up on my front porch than find out that loser’s outs is being played on a local playground.

When I got home, feeling guilty about not having asked the players to justify playing loser’s outs in this town, I contacted America’s preeminent basketball anthropologists, Alex Wolff and Chuck Wielgus.

Wolff and Wielgus co-wrote the book on playground ball in America. Books, actually. For several years beginning in the late ’70s, they toured the country looking to find regional differences in the game and detailed their findings in 1980’s The In-Your-Face Basketball Book and its sequel, 1986’s The Back-in-Your-Face Guide to Pick-Up Basketball.

I ask Wolff and Wielgus if I had indeed witnessed something odd and nefarious at Stead Park. Both seem as appalled as me to find out loser’s outs was being played in this town.

“Loser’s outs in D.C., that’s not right. That’s not the Chocolate City I know,” says Wolff, who is now the top basketball writer at Sports Illustrated and the owner of the 2007 ABA champion Vermont Frost Heaves. “[Loser’s outs] is a very white way to play, at least it was back in 1979.”

“It’s almost anti-urban!” says Wielgus, who now runs USA Swimming, the governing body for swimming in this country.

The way Wolff remembers it, in all their travels they found only two spots in the country where loser’s outs was the lay of the land: “Utah and some small town in Indiana, wherever Jerry Sichting came from,” says Wolff. “That’s it.”

Sichting, the 6-foot-1 former Celtic guard best remembered for brawling with 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson in the 1986 NBA finals, grew up in Martinsville, Ind. According to the 2000 Census, Martinsville’s population was 11,698, and 99.1 percent of that was non–African American. All the players in the loser’s-outs game at Stead Park were, in fact, white. And Martinsville, it turns out, is also only about 100 miles from the Kentucky border, so maybe the “kid from Kentucky” on the Stead Park court was responsible for importing the game here.

I may never know for sure. I went back to Stead Park over the weekend to see if the loser’s-outs crowd was holding court, but the games were back to winner’s.

I’m still not confident that the scourge was a temporary one. Wolff, however, counsels me to stop worrying about a loser’s-outs takeover of the nation’s capital.

“I think what you saw,” Wolff says, “must have been a game between Evan Bayh and Orrin Hatch staffers.”

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