Address: San Francisco, CA 94117, Between Fell and Oak Street


In his autobiography Chocolate Thunder, Daryl Dawkins said of Bill Walton “Bill was the biggest dope smoker… I don’t think he bathed regularly.”

Essentially, San Francisco is a city of mini-Bill Walton’s.

The city is absolutely filthy – like Mike Rice Rutgers University gross. It has the feel of the Armageddon; mutant rats and all. Despite this, it is an absolute cultural Mecca; the only city I have ever been to that could be described as a post-apocalyptic utopia. Museums, art, sport, music, unique neighborhoods, a former maximum security prison that can be toured, crab sandwiches on the wharf, chocolate from Ghirardelli Square – if it can be dreamed, San Fran’ most likely has it.

No matter what brought you to San Francisco, there is one universal experience those who journey through share: Dealing with really bizarre people. Many are oddly charming (like city icon The Bushman); others, not so much.

I mean, is it asking for too much to be able to go out to a nice Thai Restaurant without having to witness the male body in all of its nude glory? What am I talking about? Yeah, people in San Fran love getting naked in public, especially men! We are talking about enough free-flying dongs that the city passed a ban on public nudity – of course, all of the enraged nudists protested by streaking through city hall.

Street ball is a microcosm of the city it is played in: How people play as well as how they conduct themselves on the court is reflective of the underlying culture and systems of the area. Some places you have to dig a little deeper to see it, not so in San Francisco: From the moment I stepped onto the pavement at Panhandle Park I knew my experience would be unique to Frisco.

The first thing you need to know if you want to ball up at the Panhandle is just because you are playing basketball does not mean you will escape the eccentric weirdos of the city – you will not only be playing with them, but surrounded by them as they roam the park like a herd of buffalo. 20-somethings who live in San Francisco love spending their free time gathering at parks. Panhandle Park is much more than just a court; it is a beautiful outdoor area, which means hipsters and trendy folk will converge on it to do whatever hipsters and trendsetters do at parks (side note: if you’re a 20-something who lives in San Francisco, you’re a hipster, sorry).

In addition to the millennials meandering about, grimy undesirables are everywhere, adding to the courts backdrop. Yelp has some gems about this place:

– “Worn looking characters, one of whom invited me to have a swig of malt liquor with him. I politely declined the offer for the unknown cheer and wondered “where the heck am I?”

– “Saw a guy run barefoot I had to do a double take, and grossed me out to think about what his feet looked like after the run”.

– “*Frisbee*yoga*meditation*””pot lucks*pot smokers”*. *”public bathrooms*public nudity”*.

The best part about playing here is the cast of characters you play with. Some of my favorites included:

– 40-something Black guy: shot the daylights out of the ball. Smoked a blunt and drank a “40” in between games; sobriety had correlation with shooting percentage; did not like to pass.

– White guy, early 30’s: desperately seeking the approval of the blunt-smoking, 40-drinking Hun. Sounded a lot like the rapper Riff Raff when he spoke; quit after lightly jamming finger.

– White guy, early-mid 30’s: 5’10”, stocky, disgusting blond dread locks; liked to set hard screens and verbally assault teammates for not playing up to his standard.

– White Guy, early-mid 30’s: small in stature, long well-groomed hair. Dribbled a lot – didn’t do much else. After losing, loudly pontificated over why and how. Probably a bike messenger; wore shorts that were too short for 1982.

And then there was Lee, who put all these other clowns to shame; an oddball among oddballs, a Hooper in the truest sense.

– Lee: Black guy, late 20’s; pretty muscular, shows up at the court in grey flannel pajamas, no shirt, a t-shirt sleeve on his head keeping his Al Harris-esque braids out of his face. The kicker: He shows up carrying an enormous head of raw-broccoli, which he polishes off before playing – Popeye eats spinach before saving Olive Oyl; Lee eats giant portions of broccoli before putting the hammer down on opposing players. The man could straight up ball: He had a mid-range jumper that he would shove down your throat if you gave him an inch and if you press him on it he will get by you.

That’s right; the guy who looks like one of Dr. Seuss’s creations was the best player on the court.

Pan-Handle-Park2

These were the players whose overt San Francisco-ness stood out; their flamboyance, color, and oddness personified the stereotype. No one had a problem with any of these dudes’ antics, which speaks to the level of tolerance and acceptance in the city – I’ve been clowned before for wearing high tops that are too high, and no one said a word to the guy who came to hoop in pajamas and a shirt sleeve on his head.

The quirkiness was entertaining – from a people watching perspective, it was great. However, certain things that went on at this court rubbed me the wrong way: In between games, the winning team led by the previously mentioned Hun took a solid 15 minute break to smoke pot and drink 40’s. Nowhere I have ever played before has something like this been tolerated: When you have three teams waiting to play, you start the next game as quickly as possible. Amazingly, no one said anything, and everyone just begrudgingly accepted what was going on.

In my hometown of Boston, if teams were waiting and the winning team pulled this nonsense another five would have walked onto the court and play would have resumed. In a blog post that went viral back in 2009, Alex Payne lambasted San Franciscans for this type of passivity, saying “What sickens me most about San Francisco is not its dirt, or its large homeless population, or its questionable safety, but that locals and the city government seem to accept these circumstances.”

It was in this same vein that no one spoke up; people complained to each other, but no one had the cojones to say “you guys don’t want to run, we will.”

As irritating as people getting drunk and high between games was, the difficulty we had getting on a team was worse: Guys hanging around the court were turning us down like we were Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles. I understand if you roll up to the court with your buddies, you want play on their team, but if you’re their solo, well, beggars really can’t be choosers, right? Both the buddy I went to hoop with and I are tall guys – the tallest on the court that day – who have the ability to walk and clap at the same time, it shouldn’t have been that difficult to field a team (think St. John’s, 2004).

Luckily, Lee hopped on our team and suddenly we had become Jennifer Love Hewitt in Can’t Hardly Wait.

What’s the point? San Francisco has a vibrant neighborhood culture, which being an East Coaster, I appreciate. It’s the only city in California that has real neighborhoods. The downside of this is that people really insulate themselves in their neighborhoods; they become immersed in what’s safe and averse to what’s foreign.

Locals create a safe bubble and don’t like what threatens it. Many San Franciscans build their identity along the neighborhood they live in, leaving their neighborhood – or for example being teammates with strangers — causes some type of internal conflict.

Bottom Line:

The quality of ball played at the panhandle is surprisingly good; it’s not Philly or NY, but its solid – better than the LA and Chi-town courts I have played at. Guys have enough talent, go hard, the juices flow, and it gets competitive, especially in the post where there is a lot fighting for position. The basketball IQ of the majority of the players is pretty mediocre; I mean, there weren’t any off the ball screens being set and no one tried to break out the ever pesky pick up ball zone D. The style of play was mostly isolation one on one, but not to the extent that everyone wasn’t involved in some capacity.

The two biggest barometers I use to judge the quality of a court is how good the players are and how frequent ball is played there. In both regards, the Panhandle gets passing grades.

Noah Perkins
Noah has had articles published by a variety of publications including The Bangor Daily News; The NENPA Bulletin; and Monthly Basketball (Japan). His column ‘Heaven is a Playground’ has been featured on ESPN Radio. Noah was also called a "thirst troll" by Tom Arnold once.