Pickup Artists

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Published by: Analytical Psychology Club of San Francisco, Incorporates
Release Date: 08/28/1999
Pages: 203
ISBN13: 9781859842430


It is one of the grandest theaters in American culture, a place possessed by tragedy, heroism and fate. Bob Cousy, Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and Lebron James are all descendants of the playground game which was forged on the asphalt in New York City, Detroit and Chicago in the early 1900s. Forget the peach baskets, the YMCA and Springfield, Mass. Visit the playground today and you’ll see that James Naismith’s original concept has as much to do with today’s game of hoops as Ford’s Model T has to do with the Ferrari.

The playground game, once a drama acted out anonymously in America’s ghettos, has become a multi-million dollar business. Tournaments today are sponsored by shoemakers and record companies, and these contests have branched out from the inner-city into the suburbs and onto the farms. Pickup Artists examines how the game has developed since it’s earliest incarnation at the beginning of the 20th century, and profiles the best street players in the country—from New York to L.A.; from the farms in Indiana to the women’s leagues in Philly. All these players are bound by a common thread: They shine brightest and burn hottest on the playgrounds.


“Engaging and fast-paced,”
— The Chicago Tribune

“Meticulously researched, richly written look at a vital part of American pop culture.”
— The Philadelphia Inquirer

“You want hoops from asphalt to hardwood, from countryside to city, from street lights to bright lights? Here it is. Come and get it.”
— Rick Telander, author of Heaven Is A Playground and Chicago Sun-Times Columnist.

“Riveting … A long overdue history of basketball’s most elemental version.”
— Alexander Wolff, Senior Writer, Sports Illustrated

“An unusually well written and astute picture of the ways that basketball has evolved in this country … An exemplary piece of reporting and writing, transcending sports.”
— Kirkus Reviews

“Anderson and Millman obviously know their subject and have done a wonderful job.”
— Minneapolis Star-Tribune

The Idea

Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, my sportswriting idol was Rick Telander, a former Sports Illustrated senior writer (now a Chicago Sun-Times columnist) who lived nearby. In the mid and late 1980s Telander wrote groundbreaking stories about corruption in college football. But, to me, his best work was a book he wrote in the early 1970s called Heaven is a Playground. He had spent a summer living in Brooklyn, the one white guy in an all-black neighborhood, and became the coach of a playground basketball team. The book was elegant and fresh and funny, and it sent basketball junkies all over the country scrambling to the nearest playground to watch some hardcore pick-up hoops.

When I moved to New York after college and began working at Sports Illustrated, I spent a lot of time watching the games at The Cage on West 4th Street in Greenwich Village. There were plenty of other hoops junkies at SI, and we often sat around talking about the most talented players, wondering what had kept them from playing 30 blocks north at Madison Square Garden. One of my colleagues, Lars Anderson, had an idea: discover the best players all over the country at the time (this was 1996-97), and write about why they never got their shot. We profiled players from New York, L.A. and Chicago, a woman from Philly, a guy in jail, a shooter from Indiana and player on an Indian reservation. We wrapped the profiles in decade-by-decade accounts of how the playground game developed, from the early 1900s on New York’s lower east side ghettos, to today in every suburb across the country.