Hoops Communication

In addition to watching and reading about college basketball, I play a fair amount of pick-up basketball these days-- I try to play three days a week at lunchtime, and most weeks I manage two. Often, the noon hoops game is the highlight of the day, and I suspect I don't want to think too deeply about what that means... Given that I'm currently spending a lot of time thinking about other people playing basketball, it's inevitable that I end up thinking about weird stuff that goes on when playing. Since I have a blog, this means that you're treated to some scattered thoughts on things that get said during pick-up games.

I get a moderate amount of grief from the guys I play with over a couple of things that I do when I play, chief among them my habit of yelling "Piece!" when I touch the ball on defense. This is an ingrained habit from I don't remember how far back, and basically serves to alert my teammates to the fact that I got a piece of the ball as it went past me, and if it's headed out of bounds, they should get it.

Of course, I automatically yell it as soon as I touch the ball at all, which means that about once or twice a day, I yell "Piece!" prior to swatting a shot out of bounds. Inevitably, somebody remarks "No, I think you got the whole thing..."

I don't remember where I picked that up-- it's not that common, and new players occasionally think I'm admitting to a foul when I say that. It's deeply ingrained now, though, and I'm not sure I could stop doing it, even if I wanted to.

Another thing I do almost all the time is to yell "Hey!" when a guy is shooting. This is intended to serve two purposes: alerting my teammates that the guy I'm guarding just put up a shot, and they should look for the rebound, and also hopefully possibly distracting the shooter a little bit, to cover for the fact that I'm sometimes a little lazy about getting out to guard jump shots.

(It doesn't work that well, for the record. I'm not all that intimidating.)

"Pick!" is another common one, intended to warn a teammate that somebody is setting a screen on them (standing in the path that they will have to follow on defense). Usually, it's my man setting the screen, but some of the guys I play with are absolutely terrible about calling screens, so I call them out for other people from time to time. If things aren't moving too quickly, I try to provide more information-- "Pick left!" or "Pick right!"-- but when the pace gets a little faster, I frequently lose the words for "left" and "right," and the defender needs to make do with the knowledge that someone, somewhere is planning to knock them over.

"Right up" means "Shoot the damn ball!" and is frequently said to guys who get rebounds two feet from the basket, and decide to dribble the ball back out to the free-throw line. Or, even worse, try to pass the ball to me by rolling it along the floor or some such. The odds of me getting the ball would be much higher if they just took the shot, and let me go for the rebound, rather than attempting to pass the ball through the middle of a crowd. This seems to be hard to grasp, for some reason.

By far the oddest thing I've heard used on a regular basis was "Squeeze!" which one guy who used to play with us would say about a hundred times a game. It appeared to mean "Catch the ball!" and was thus not all that useful as a call, but he yelled it all the time. I have no idea where that comes from, and I've never played with anyone else who did that.

The terms used to communicate different messages tend to be fairly uniform within a regular game, but they also vary from game to game. I always tend to say "Pick!," but I've played in places where "Screen!" was the norm. If you get a random mix of guys who learned to play in different places, they'll all have slightly different sets of words for the same things, but the set of things you might want to communicate on the court is not that large, and it's usually clear from context.

I'm not sure quite how these phrases get established, but I think it must be like the score thing-- I've played pick-up basketball in lots of different places, and you always play to a set number of points (like tennis or volleyball). The default at Union is games to fifteen, but we'll play to seven or eleven if we're trying to squeeze in one last game (the traditional "one game too many"). Back home, it was always eleven (win by two), and at Yale it was twenty-one (playing by twos and threes), but there's always a default score that games are played to, and if you go to a place where they play to fifteen and suggest playing to eleven, you'll get strange looks. Also, it's always an odd number-- I've never played anywhere where the winning score was ten or fourteen, and I have no idea why.


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Pick is a useful call. Annoying someone whilst shooting would get you shot in the neighborhood I grew up in :-)

So do you you touch the floor when you go back on defense? Ya might as well play for Duke......

You forgot my favorite, the ubiquitous "Help", when someone gets by their man (me) and is driving the lane.

Another one of my favorites: "I'm okay, I'm okay," after getting knocked over, stomped on, twisted knee, leg cramp, and/or hit in the head... usually not all on the same play.

The odd number thing? Not sure, but I think it comes from tie-breaking.

Pick is a useful call. Annoying someone whilst shooting would get you shot in the neighborhood I grew up in :-)

Most of the players in this game are academics. We're not likely to shoot anybody, though there's a fair chance of being talked to death...

There are only a couple of times that I've faced real violence in pick-up games. A couple years ago (the day after the 2004 election, in fact), an assistant football coach took offense at something I did (I have no idea what), and threw a crazy shoulder block at me on a fast break. That was kind of ugly. And there was one time playing at Maryland when a guy who looked like Laurence Fishburne rabbit punched me because he objected to my putting an arm on his back when he was posting me up.

I'm a peaceful sort of guy, though, so I've mostly avoided violence in pick-up games.

So do you you touch the floor when you go back on defense? Ya might as well play for Duke......

No. I can't reach down that far.

You forgot my favorite, the ubiquitous "Help", when someone gets by their man (me) and is driving the lane.

There's also "Help [side]" to indicate that you're willing to help a teammate out, if he can force the guy he's guarding to go in the right direction. Which is kind of dangerous, actually, since some guys will take that as justification to take the rest of the play off...

One of my favorites was the guy who used to confidently say "buckets" whenever he put up a shot. Naturally we called him Buckets. Buckets was a terrible shooter.

I tend to yell "stay" after a teammate switches to my man on a screen if I want him to stay with the switch. This of course causes problems because they always think I mean "don't switch" but I can't stop myself from saying it that way.

Buckets? Is that the cousin of HIBACHI!

I've only heard piece in ultimate. It's one of the few chances you get to taunt in a sport dedicated to good sportsmanship.