Pickup basketball players share communion on the court

As 10 a.m. approaches, the men stroll onto the basketball court in Joslyn Park, Santa Monica, ready for a pickup game. Or three or four.

They stretch and put on protective clothing. Kirkland Lynch has a protector on his left knee and an orthosis on his right ankle. There are no illusions here. Not only are their high school and college teams a memory, but COVID-19 has kept them off the pitch for most of a year.

They are sluggish and take careful jump shots as they warm up. But on this sunny Saturday in June it just doesn’t matter. Basketballs hit the back wall. The rhythm gets louder and faster with the minutes.

They are finally back in Joslyn Park. Together. And that’s just as important as the game itself.

“Everyone is always looking for a good run, especially as young black professionals,” said Jermaine McMihelk, a Compton wealth manager and one of the OGs who started at Joslyn Park about five years ago.

Players compete against each other during a weekly pickup basketball game in Joslyn Park in Santa Monica.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

“You want to play with people who you feel have something to lose,” he said, “who are not trying to fight because of the foul, who just came to have a good time.”

For this group of men, the basketball court in Joslyn Park is a haven – a place that offers undisturbed fellowship, sometimes networking opportunities, and a healthy outlet for the week’s frustration.

They have gathered in the quiet courtyard for years – their best-kept secret – and built a community on the side. Although their pickup games have been put on hold by the pandemic and lockdown, they have finally returned to their Saturday routine.

And they have their sanctuary back.

Two players sit and watch a basketball game

Two players wait their turn at a weekly pickup basketball game in Joslyn Park, Santa Monica.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

The main attractions in Joslyn Park are the playground, a small field where groups of women train, and the dog park, where people gather near benches and chat while their dogs run around. It’s a sleepy neighborhood attraction – except on Saturdays when this small group of guys from all over Los Angeles gather in the only square.

The gameplay is fast, intense and physical. A kind of muscle memory sets in with a hint, and the teams suddenly whiz up and down the pitch. They jostle, push and grab and grab each other to get to the basket.

There is shouting while plays are called. There are curses from the more passionate players. But they try to keep things gentlemanly. After all, a playground is only a few meters away.

The Joslyn Park course is a great run, said McMihelk. It is quiet. It is equally accessible to people from South LA, but also to other areas such as Hollywood, Los Feliz, and Silver Lake, where some of them live. But most of all, he says it’s the camaraderie that makes the run special. They exchange ideas between games, exchange news and discuss business. At the moment, the hot topic on the side is cryptocurrency.

“I’m so busy during the week that I don’t have time to do a lot. But I want to do that every Saturday. That could be the highlight of my week, ”said McMihelk.

“This is our golf course,” says Lynch, a lawyer who has also played on the course for years. “We go out and talk shop – from investments to politics to sports or just to joke. These are our Saturday sessions where we debate and talk and gather. “

A pickup basketball game seen through a chain link fence

Stefon Walters participates in a weekly pickup basketball game in Joslyn Park in Santa Monica.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

It was all good until COVID hit.

The LA County Department of Parks and Recreation has 92 public basketball courts. The hall facilities were closed in mid-March 2020. All other sports recreation areas, including basketball courts, were closed weeks later. Santa Monica had a coordinated response and closed its nine courts, including the court in Joslyn Park on March 12th.

Still, even the threat of COVID couldn’t keep some people from the courtroom. Park workers had enough cases of people being chased away from enclosed courts and playgrounds that the department eventually decided to take the rims down.

Micah Akerson is the primary person responsible for Santa Monica Community Services. Overseeing sports operations at facilities across town, he says the closure took a lot of work and was surprisingly emotional.

“It felt so weird,” said Akerson. “We don’t like to do that. We like to fill the facilities, but in this case we had to do the opposite to protect everyone. “

A player holds a basketball on the court

Jonathan Wall, center, waits for the next seat at a weekly pickup basketball game that helped coordinate in Santa Monica.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

The response to COVID has been mixed among the guys who played in Joslyn Park. McMihelk and Lynch just stopped playing and decided it was best to wait until the pandemic was over. Others persevered.

A few courts were open during the shutdown, but their vibe wasn’t the same as the Joslyn Park run – their locations didn’t work for everyone, or the people who played on them already had their own games and systems.

Jonathan Wall moved to Los Angeles during the pandemic and struggled to find a safe, open court. Then one day in December while he was having his car checked in East LA, he accidentally discovered a dish. For a couple of weeks, Wall just went out alone and shot. Eventually he wanted to invite friends, including McMihelk, whom he knew from college, and Lynch, whom he had met while studying law.

Wall is tall and wiry, with a full beard and a ready smile. He’s a North Carolina transplant and a basketball fan. A friend he brought to the game was Jordan Lindsay, another freshman who moved to Los Angeles in May 2019.

Over the years, Lindsay’s job has got him pinging between Los Angeles, Atlanta, and New York City. On the way, he could never find a uniform basketball court, one of the few places he feels at home.

“Since I’ve been out here, I’ve only felt very comfortable playing basketball,” said Lindsay. “I’ve always been someone who’s scared in larger social settings, but basketball is different; I don’t really have to say much or go too deep.

“The place simply brings peace and quiet and you can easily find your place on it. When Jon spoke to me, I thought, ‘Okay, perfect.’ “

Wall kept everyone connected and motivated to play during the long months of the shutdown. He took people from Santa Monica to East LA, then to another dish in Highland Park. He tried to keep the spirit of the sidelines alive through group chats.

The friends mostly stayed with individual games, small games or they shot baskets alone to find the safest way. Meanwhile, vaccines were being introduced in California. They had to discuss who would get vaccinated, who was socially distant in the world, who would play in a mask.

Asking for vaccination cards was apparently bad court etiquette, so they ultimately opted for an honor system. This meant that everyone acted responsibly in their everyday life and did not go to court if they had symptoms. Today most of them are vaccinated.

On April 16, the outdoor courts finally reopened, and the boys – the original Santa Monica crew, Wall and his group – have been playing at Joslyn Park since the first Saturday after. That they already have a few Saturdays on their schedule shows their commitment to the ritual, their eagerness to resume it, and how much they benefit from playing the game.

“Not long ago I went to Ocean View Park and saw a guy in the square shooting. I said something to him how nice it was to have the dishes back and I think he was yelling something like “freedom”. We were both very happy, ”said Akerson of Santa Monica City.

It took a lot of patience and careful coordination of all the pieces to get back into the game. The result of that hard work is the perfect Saturday morning, win or lose.

The boys are rusty after a year without constant play. They have less energy at first and it takes a little longer to find their individual and collective grooves. Nevertheless, they play with intensity and tear their way through four games before noon. By then, you will be sweaty and difficult to breathe.

“It all came back together so quickly,” said McMihelk. “It was from this huge void, when the vaccine came out and everyone was feeling good, we took off like we’d never left.”

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