The Nomads’ Guide To Pick-Up Basketball: Hemenway Gymnasium, Cambridge (MA)

Photo by Noah Perkins

Address: 1515 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, MA 02138


I fucking hate Luis.

Scratch that. From the deepest pit in my stomach I loathe Luis – I’m talking David and Puck; POTUS and Rosie O’Donnell; Kyrie Irving and Isaac Newton level dislike.

I’m pretty sure Luis hates me too.

When he talks to me in between games his voice elevates, taking on an almost Mickey Mouse-like quality. He smiles, but his eyes crease at the corners, as if he is fighting the urge to bounce the basketball off my head.

Luis is a stout man, in the early stages of middle age. His black hair is greying on the sides, and he is a professor of some sort. He doesn’t run so much as stomp up and down the court – as if each time his foot pounds against the floor he is releasing the frustrations of his personal life. Though he is a decent spot up three-point shooter, I’d hardly call him a good basketball player.

In fact, he is the single biggest reason why the run at Harvard University’s Hemenway Gym (the Law school gym) is such hot garbage.

Luis thinks he’s the mayor of the gym. He takes it upon himself to divide teams, taking an already watered down talent pool and tilting it in his favor. He rarely chastises the court’s few halfway decent regulars, but offers unsolicited criticism to the gyms less talented. On defense he bear hugs, scratches, flails, and rams his hardened ‘dad-bod’ into the opposition.

Luis is the biggest hack I have ever played with.

I hate calling fouls – nothing ruins the flow of a pickup game like too many fouls called. Luis gives me no choice. Every time I get the ball in the post Luis is assaulting me. On baby hooks he hugs me; on fadeaways he slaps my elbow, shoulder, or wrist; on drop steps he slams his shoulder into my side. The game becomes a war of attrition.

When Luis wins, relief washes over his face. The creases in the corners of his eyes lessen and his speech accelerates with excitement. There is something sinister underneath — basketball isn’t catharsis for Luis, it’s an escape.

Luis isn’t the only problem at the Hemenway. The court is tiny and for some reason games are played 5’s instead of 4s. A sun glare on one side of the court can make passing into the lane problematic. The players are an eclectic mix of:

  • Obnoxious, over privileged undergrads;
  • Harvard football players – football players are universally the worst people to play ball with: they don’t know how to play and think the solution to everything is physicality.
  • Foreign students, many of who are from China.
  • Employees of the university.
  • Local high school students sneaking into the gym.
  • And law students (they are mostly pretty cool).

The common trait among all of them is none of them are very good at ball.

The best description of a typical Hemenway game is headless chickens – a lot of pushing the ball up the court and not a lot of point guards or shooters.

What I like about the Hemenway is the gym itself: it’s a million years old, creaky in that bandbox, Hoosiers kind of way and has an interesting history.

From 1879 until 1919, cookie-duster faced Mainer Dudley Sargent was the gym’s director. Sargent is an interesting character from American history as both the Godfather of physical education and perhaps the first real personal trainer. As a young man, Sargent opened a private gym in New York City, took on clients and tailor-made workouts for their individual levels of fitness. Sargent’s foray into phys-ed came as a teenager when he became taken with gymnastics. After nailing a horizontal bar up, he earned the reputation as a rumbumptious sauce box – because of course back then gymnasts were of the devil.

Bottom Line:

Don’t do it to yourself. The run is good enough to get you to come back, but not good enough to fulfill your Hoop Jones – it’s a spiders web for hoopers. The lone exception is the Friday afternoon run which attracts some decent Boston locals, and a higher caliber of player from Harvard.