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Sport The Best Pickup-Basketball Player in America

Photograph by Sylvia Plachy

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

by Timothy Harper

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

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.

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Related links:

Hoops Nation
A comprehensive site for pickup-basketball devotees. Offers information and anecdotes about pickup-basketball courts and games across the country, recommended reading, related links, and more. Hosted by a group that toured the country playing pickup-basketball for a 1998 book, Hoops Nation.

Pickup Basketball
A guide to the general principles of pickup-basketball. Posted at h2g2, "an all-purpose guide" offering information and discussion on a wide array of subjects.

Never Too Late Basketball
A program that offers week-long basketball camps at sites around the country for adults ranging in skill level from beginner to advanced.

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?"


(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

Timothy Harper has covered and played pickup basketball worldwide.

Photograph by Sylvia Plachy.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 2000; The Best Pickup-Basketball Player in America - 00.04; Volume 285, No. 4; page 110-114.