We are bound together by informal rules. They are usually so subtle and structured we don’t notice them – until somebody butts ahead in line or lets a door slam in your face.
Pickup basketball has all kinds of rules. You learn the basics as a kid on the playground: the player with the ball gets to call a foul; the defender has to accept it. You can argue all you want, but in the end, you have to honor the rule or there’s no game. From there, rules pile up to meet all kinds of local traditions.
My athletic club in Sacramento has rules for the efficient working of afternoon pickup games. Yesterday, one got broken, and what an uproar ensued. It was a marvel to witness, like the first step toward a societal breakdown. Egypt, here we come.
The basic rule is that players sign up on a white board and rotate into games in numerical order, usually five at a time. Teams are allowed two games and then must leave the court. If players want more games, they put their names at the end of the list and wait. No one likes waiting, particularly older players, whose bodies stiffen up like the onset of rigor mortis. On busy days, you can wait 45 minutes to get back into action. On slow days, maybe you sit out a 12-minute game. If you re-up fast, you might even get right back into action.
That’s why the trouble started yesterday at the staid Capital Athletic Club, the kind of upscale club where former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger could work out without attracting much attention. Just one of the boys, only bigger. About three minutes were left in the full-court game. A player about 30 loped past the sign-up board adjacent to the court. Suddenly, he detoured and wrote his name at the bottom of the short list, meaning he was likely to be the fifth player on the next team. His four current teammates would have to wait a game.
Kaboom! The game came to a crashing halt. Shouts and cries erupted. Fingers were pointed at the enemy. The RULES were under attack. The nine players on the court united like a band of brothers. One 60-ish player strode across the floor, grabbed an eraser and wiped the illicitly placed name off the board. A few players stood with hands locked on their hips, daring the offender to say a word. He lowered his head and meekly returned to finish the game.
The lesson was clear: blatant violation of cardinal rules would not be tolerated. We need orderly signups to keep our game going.
On the other hand, we’re all adults who are no strangers to competition. Who among us hasn’t delivered a subtle elbow, nudged an opponent’s shooting hand or taken a questionable call? And who among us hasn’t left the court a second or two before the buzzer and run for the sign-up board?
In the competitive game, there’s a fine line between anarchy and getting the edge.