“You got next,” Richard Rafferty tells me. I’m standing in his driveway with five other men, about to start the next round in a pickup basketball game that’s been going on since 2001—the year he installed a hoop on his extra-wide Circle C driveway. Rafferty, a lanky veterinarian with an accurate outside shot, explains the rules. Then somebody says “ball in,” and the game is on.
Pickup games in many different sport disciplines abound all over Austin, offering amateurs informal opportunities to be on a team without the cost and commitment of joining an organized league. With the Super Bowl over and March Madness settled down, a pickup game might be the perfect solution if you still have the urge to compete. All you need to know is when and where the game is taking place, and have enough self-confidence to show up and introduce yourself.
One of Austin’s longest-lived pickup basketball games has gone on at the Town Lake YMCA at lunchtime for—depending on who’s telling the story—either several years or several decades. Membership Director Laura Clarke says it’s been happening Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. for all four years she’s been working at the downtown location. “We have a full size court that normally runs two half court games,” said Clarke. “So we typically have anywhere from 40 to 70 players.” One downside: the pickup game is only open to Y members.
Zilker Park hosts multiple pickup soccer games on the weekends, including one organized a couple years ago on Meetup.com. Michelle Dunn, a University of Texas student who took over as organizer of the South Austin Soccer meetup last year, says 20 or so players of all ages and abilities meet at 9 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday just south of Barton Springs Road near the canoe rentals and play for about two hours. The game is free and open to all. “Even though it’s an informal meetup, people have been stepping up to make it more formal,” Dunn said. “One guy volunteered to buy about 20 penny jerseys to make the games more formal.”
While many Austin city parks sport beach volleyball courts, pickup games are nonetheless hard to find. “It’s hit or miss,” said Adam Johnson, the head professional at Austin Volleyball Academy. Johnson hopes to remedy that situation starting in May with an every other Friday series of beach volleyball junior games. The court location is still being worked out. Pickup volleyball games are good training—even for the serious players, Johnson, a Beach Volleyball Hall of Famer, said. “For juniors, it’s a good way to play with other girls or guys they might not have asked to play with before.”
Street hockey was something Dan Skemp seriously missed when he moved to Austin from Vancouver in 2001. After one or two pickup games he was involved in fizzled out, he organized his own group through a smartphone app and the AustinStreetHockey.com website. Between 15 and 20 players now meet twice a week at Tomlinson Park in Cedar Park to play the sport. The no-hitting game welcomes both men and women, as well as the merely curious. “We have lots of extra sticks and we have people come up and play for the night just to see if they like it,” Skemp said.
From softball to flag football, there are many other free pickup games going on around town. To find one, quiz like-minded friends, scan bulletin boards at sports retailers, and search Meetup, Facebook and other social media channels. Sports-specific web resources like InfiniteHoops.com often post pickup games. If you can’t find one, consider starting your own.
After playing two games with the Circle C group of basketball players, I’ve gotten a quick refresher in the sport’s requirements for stamina. And if there’s one thing I learned from my many years of playing pickup basketball, it’s the wisdom of calling it a day before you’re completely exhausted. So I say my goodbyes, slap a few hands, and promise to try to make it another time. Whether I am there or not, the game will go on.
Pickup may be informal, but that doesn’t mean it’s unreliable. Richard Rafferty says his driveway has been played on when the temperature skyrockets to 108 degrees in the shade as well as when the temperature dips into the 20s. “We’ve been playing for more than 10 years, and we’ve only missed playing on a weekend three or four times,” he said.