The Best Pickup-Basketball Player in America

The man any true basketball devotee wants to play with or against
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Allan Dalton was a schoolboy star at Hyde Park High School, in Boston, and averaged twenty-six points a game as a senior in 1970-1971 for Suffolk University, a Division II team in Boston. He was incredibly quick, and could drive past almost anyone back then. One of his teammates in club games during the 1970s was Jim O'Brien, a former Boston College star who played in the American Basketball Association and is now the head basketball coach at Ohio State. "Allan was your prototypical gym rat," O'Brien says. "I always called him the poor man's Pete Maravich. Great shooter, great moves ... an unerring ability to pass the ball."

In the spring of 1971 Dalton was drafted by the Boston Celtics, but he didn't make the team that started Dave Cowens, John Havlicek, Don Nelson, Jo Jo White, and Don Chaney, and went 56-26 in 1971-1972. He played one season professionally in Greece, as Alexos Daltos, and another with a touring Lithuanian-American team, under the name Janus Ambrosius. He played club basketball for several years, and when Celtics officials told him he might still earn a spot with the NBA team, he spent a year as a player-coach for the Quincy Chiefs in the old Eastern League, the precursor of today's Continental Basketball Association.

Leo Papile, then the Quincy Chiefs' coach and now the Celtics' director of scouting, remembers Dalton from those days. "Explosive off the dribble," he recalls. "Tremendous speed." Papile says that playing at a small school hurt Dalton's chances of making the pros, as did the fact that he was a slender six feet two at a time when NBA teams were featuring bigger, stronger guards to match up with Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. The Celtics who played guard most often—White, Chaney, and Havlicek—were all taller and heavier than Dalton, and he wasn't strong enough to keep them from posting him down low. "If he came out of college today, he'd make it in the NBA for sure," Papile says. This is true for two reasons. First, the NBA expansion to twenty-nine teams has created many more jobs for players. Second, the three-point rule has opened up the game, spread the floor, and created a demand for two kinds of players: the smaller, speedy, slashing guard, and the long-range shooter. Dalton was that rare blend of the two.

Unlike many frustrated would-be pros, Dalton had little trouble putting his hoop dreams behind him. "I wanted to start a life, a family, a career," he says. By the late 1970s he was working in an office and was married, with three daughters. Basketball became a hobby that had to fit around family and career in evening, weekend, and occasional lunchtime pickup games. Over the past quarter of a century Dalton has played pickup basketball an average of three or four times a week, usually for at least two hours a session and sometimes for as long as six hours.

When he is not on the court, Dalton is a senior vice-president of National Realty Trust, an umbrella corporation that operates more than 700 Coldwell Banker, ERA, and Century 21 residential-real-estate offices throughout the United States. A specialist in marketing services, recruiting, training, and management, he travels up to twenty-five weeks a year, giving speeches and running seminars. When he checks in at a conference, he sometimes scours the leisure-time handouts for warnings against straying into certain parts of town—and then heads in that direction, knowing that he is likely to find the best pickup games there. When he asks hotel personnel or conference organizers where he can find a game, they inevitably say, "You play basketball? Still?" Yet few of Dalton's business associates know how well he plays, or how much. "He does? Really?" Robert Moles, the president and CEO of Century 21 Real Estate Corporation, said to me recently. "I've known Allan fifteen years, and this is a surprise. I didn't know he played basketball, and I didn't know he was so passionate about it. I've only known him as a world-class motivator and trainer, a genius at creating cutting-edge residential-real-estate marketing programs."

Dalton has played in all fifty states and in eight foreign countries. When his family wanted to vacation in Hawaii, Dalton would not book a resort until he found a nearby court. He reluctantly agreed to a vacation in the woods of Maine last summer, knowing he'd have difficulty finding a game. But he took a basketball along anyway, and one day walked and jogged twenty miles into the nearest town, dribbling all the way. "I wanted to work on my left hand," he told his wife.

All this pickup basketball seems not to have interfered with Dalton's family life. "I think the reason we've been married for twenty-seven years is that the game of basketball has kept my wife from having to spend more time with me," he says. "I think if more people had a basketball obsession, the divorce rate would be lower." His wife, Carol, groans and rolls her eyes at the joke she has obviously heard many times. Carol Dalton has never had any complaints about the time that her husband spends playing basketball. "He's a workaholic, and basketball is the only thing he does away from work or the family," she says. "He doesn't drink, smoke, gamble, garden, work on cars, or build things in the basement. He plays basketball."

A former college athlete herself (volleyball and swimming), Carol Dalton credits her husband's devotion to basketball with inspiring their daughters to excel in sports. Over the years, he has coached and watched them play soccer in particular. "I was fanatical, but I never yelled at them," he says. "It was great the way athletics let me bond with my three daughters." When they were playing soccer, he sometimes drove the girls to the field the night before a game, even an away game, to kick a ball around and visualize what the game would be like the next day. The two older girls played varsity soccer at their respective Ivy League universities, and the youngest daughter, now in college, was a budding high school track star until she was sidelined by a knee injury.

Here's a classic Dalton moment from a Ridgewood YMCA pickup game: Dalton is leading a fast break, and a smaller, slower teammate is trying to keep up. Dalton drives hell-bent to the basket with an opponent on each side. He goes up for a lay-up, and the defenders do too. All three come down under the basket, and their momentum carries them out-of-bounds. But Dalton hasn't put the ball up. Instead he has left it bouncing softly in the lane, waist high, for the trailing teammate to lay into the basket all by himself. The other players and the guys waiting on the sideline erupt with cheers and whoops. "Lovely," the teammate murmurs to Dalton as they run back upcourt. Dalton doesn't hear. He is calling out a pick for another teammate.

Moments of perfect teamwork like that are sweet for committed pickup players, especially older ones. Some 7.8 million Americans thirty-five and over play basketball regularly, according to sporting-goods-industry sources. Aging players, knowing their days on the court are numbered, tend to be philosophical about what the game has given them. They recognize pickup basketball's unique and in many ways still-pure niche in the increasingly crass and cynical world of organized sports.

Dalton is confident that in almost any city in the world he or anyone else can follow the sound of a bouncing ball and get into a pickup game with strangers. For four decades, in countless gyms and on innumerable playgrounds, he has reveled in the common culture and language of pickup basketball. Local rules and customs vary, he says, but pickup has a universal spirit of acceptance and an emphasis on teamwork. "In no other social endeavor I know in life, no business endeavor, no family endeavor, can you walk into something already in progress socially and take a spot," he says. Dalton believes that basketball is a "highly interactive" sport, and that the lessons he has learned from playing pickup have helped him immeasurably in his career—particularly as a consultant, when he comes into a real-estate office with new ideas about how it should be run. The challenge is not unlike that of trying to create a sense of teamwork among strangers on a playground. "Pickup basketball is my sociology, it's my anthropology, it's my geography, and it's also my psychology," Dalton says. "To me, once you get tired of basketball, you're tired of life."

Is he proud of his basketball ability? "No," Dalton says. "I'm proud that I've been the best man at eight weddings." In many ways, he says, his basketball career has been a failure, because he never made the NBA. Maybe, he muses, that's why he keeps playing—to prove himself. "I'm not impressed with myself as a basketball player," he says. "I'm more impressed with my good fortune in business." He is flattered to be called "the best" pickup-basketball player as long as the reference is to his love of the game rather than to his ability to play it. "I've yet to meet a person more dedicated to playing the game," he says. "I'm into basketball as much as anybody, but I'm not even the best over-fifty player around."

The end of his basketball career, or at least his career as a force on the playground, is looming. "It's not natural to be limping across the country seeking to play strenuous games with people thirty years younger," he concedes. "But basketball keeps me competitive. The day I stop playing basketball is probably the day I retire." He has vague thoughts of retiring to an inner-city coaching job. But he has also started contemplating the gloomy possibility that basketball, which he plays in part for health reasons, could end up killing him. Three times he has been on the court when a player has died, twice in the past year; one was a friend who passed away as Dalton administered CPR. Sometimes on Saturday evenings, back in his hotel room after a day proving himself yet again, on yet another playground, against yet another group of springy young legs, too tired to take off his sneakers, his head pounding from an exertion headache, he wonders whether he should have accepted one of those invitations to go out to dinner. But the next morning he's up early again, looking out the hotel window, hoping for sunshine so that he can play basketball, checking the breeze to see if he and his teammates can shoot from the outside.

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