The Best Pickup-Basketball Player in America

The man any true basketball devotee wants to play with or against

Photograph by Sylvia Plachy

Late on a Saturday afternoon the best pickup-basketball player in America is ready to look for a game. He is wearing battered low-cut sneakers, sagging mismatched socks that may once have been white, a logo-free T-shirt that is fraying at the seams, plain cotton shorts that are unfashionably unbaggy and several inches above the knee, and a brace on his left leg. He is fifty-one years old, and his name is Allan Dalton.

Other husbands and fathers of his age in the leafy suburb of Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, are kicking back, stowing golf bags, putting away garden tools, firing up gas grills. Dalton climbs into his BMW and weaves along the winding lanes, past lawns tended by gardeners better dressed than he is, toward the spare, hard playgrounds of New York City: Harlem, Riverside Park, West Fourth Street, Chinatown, Battery Park, Brooklyn. He will keep driving until he finds a good pickup game. He may be the only white person on the court, and he will almost certainly be the oldest, by twenty or thirty years. The other players may argue over who has to play with this old guy. At first no one will pass Dalton the ball. Within an hour, however, the other players will be touching knuckles with Dalton and hoping to play on his team in the next game.

Dalton is living the hoop dreams of many aging pickup players who refuse to give up the game of basketball. "You still play?" they are asked, often skeptically, sometimes incredulously. At some point they were told, or they recognized on their own, that they were not good enough to play with a certain team, in a certain league, or at a certain level. But they keep playing, sometimes with old friends, sometimes with strangers—with whoever shows up on the court. They no longer dream of playing for the high school team, or for a major college, or in the NBA. They dream of doing what Dalton does: getting in pickup games anywhere and everywhere they can, playing good team basketball within their limitations, and winning not just games but also the respect of the other players.

Allan Dalton is not always the most skilled player on the court, although he was good enough to rate a mention in a 1995 Boston Sunday Herald article about Boston's best playground players ever (Dalton is a Bostonian born and raised). He can't dunk anymore, and every year he encounters more young guys he can't beat off the dribble. But he's the player—or at least the kind of player—that any true pickup-basketball devotee wants to play with or against. Physically he's not intimidating: six feet two, about 185 pounds, with a weakened left knee that probably should have surgery someday, if he ever quits playing. He has broken his foot, his arm, some ribs, and his nose playing basketball. He once had a herniated disk that kept him off the courts for six months, and he still gets occasional backaches. His vision is fading, and he is talking about getting contacts or having laser surgery on his eyes. He still plays any position, depending on what talent is on the court with him, but he usually takes over as point guard. He controls games.

He will play with anyone. At the end of a grueling two-hour session in August heat he'll put his shoes back on to go one-on-one against a sixty-seven-year-old who can't find anyone else to play. He will play with disabled guys and with young girls. "Dalton would shovel off a court at three a.m. in a snowstorm and then bang on the door of a convent till he got three nuns to come out and go two-on-two" is the admiring comment of a regular at the YMCA in Ridgewood, New Jersey, one of Dalton's frequent pickup haunts.

He's good enough to play at almost every level of competition. He more than holds his own in games with college players. Despite his age and declining skills, he's a good individual talent and still usually the best player on the floor. He doesn't hog the ball or show off. His most spectacular plays and moves are often passes, but he can score one-on-one with a variety of moves: a drive with either hand, a bump-and-turnaround, a little stepback pop, a deadly jumper from twenty-two feet, a running bank high off the glass, even a hook shot. He takes over on offense only rarely—usually late in a game, when his efforts represent the only way his team can win. His teams win a majority of their games, but win or lose, his emphasis is on team play. He gets everybody involved. The more his teammates run the floor, the harder they work to get rebounds or play defense or get open, the more often he'll get them the ball—if they want it. If a teammate sets a pick for him, he'll set a pick for that teammate later.

Teammates quickly learn that Dalton will make them look good. After his first couple of no-look passes bounce off a teammate's head, he'll stop throwing passes the player can't catch. When he sees that a teammate likes a certain spot on the low block for turnarounds, even against bigger guys, he'll wait for the player to get into position and then give him the ball where and when he wants it. Teammates know he trusts them, and they trust him. At game point he'll motion for a teammate who shoots well from the outside to set a pick for him at the top of the key. Both Dalton's man and the teammate's defender will go with Dalton, naturally. Double-teamed, Dalton will flip the ball back to the all-alone teammate, who has set his feet and is waiting to shoot the jumper that will win the game.

Dalton not only makes his team better, he makes the game better. If he knows the players, he tries to make sure the sides are fair, or maybe slightly in favor of the other team. He doesn't get too high or too low. He's there to win every game, but not if winning means yelling at his teammates. He is happy to lend his considerable credibility to a teammate's argument with opponents, but only briefly, and as long as the discussion doesn't slow down the game. No argument is worth slowing down the game. If an opponent calls cheap fouls or makes other bad calls, Dalton clamps down on him on defense or embarrasses him on offense or both.

He himself rarely calls fouls; the infraction has to be something that he believes might cost his team the game. Instead, if his opponents play too aggressively against him, he will play them exactly the same way at the other end of the court. Nor does he make calls that cheapen a game: charging, palming, traveling, three seconds, moving picks, or the out-of-bounds that is seen only by the guy who calls it. If the calls are obvious enough, someone else will make them. If Dalton is called for a foul or some other infraction, such as traveling (he travels very rarely, and he is more likely to call it on himself than to have someone call it on him), he will never argue. He turns the ball over without comment.

Dalton is not especially friendly or sociable. His pickup relationships are cordial, more like business than pleasure. Some players go out for beers or a bite to eat after pickup sessions, or get together for dinner with their wives. Dalton never joins them. He will chat before and after games, or while waiting to play, but the talk is always basketball.

A Ridgewood Y regular describes having seen Dalton get into a trash-talking dunkfest on a tough playground in Miami. When Dalton finally touched the ball, several minutes into the game, he got his teammates' attention with his signature move, a behind-the-back feint. From the top of the key he faked left with a jab step and then drove past his defender down the right side of the lane. As the opposing center stepped up to cover him, Dalton cupped his right-handed dribble behind his hip and looked left, as if he was going to pass behind his back. The opposing center, and everyone else on the court, looked and leaned in the direction of the seemingly inevitable behind-the-back pass. But Dalton pulled the ball back in and swept past the center for an unmolested lay-up. The next time down the court his teammates gave him the ball. He brushed off his defender on a pick and went up for a three-pointer, but instead of shooting he zipped a bullet pass to a teammate alone beneath the basket for another lay-up. Within minutes the game was transformed. Dalton was at the point, and the play had gone from undisciplined one-on-one to what could have been a Princeton instructional video, complete with pick-and-rolls, screens off the ball, and back-door cuts and passes. Dalton's team won four straight games, and his teammates were certain he was a former NBA player. "What's your name, man?" they asked. "Who'd you play for?"

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.