The Nomads’ Guide To Pick-Up Basketball: Trees Hall, Pittsburgh

Photo by Noah Perkins

Address: 140 Allequippa St, Pittsburgh, PA 15261


Adulthood sucks.

People die.

Most days feel like you are being dangled upside down by your ankles until every bit is in someone else’s pocket. You shuffle back and forth between Ikea and Target running errands.

And maybe the worst: how boring — dreadfully boring — people become.

The same people who were regurgitating Tanqueray down the tub-drain a few short years ago, now can’t hold a conversation that doesn’t include: the benefits of renting versus buying; Wholefoods versus Trader Joes; and baby names (ugh white people are the worst).

It’s not like I want to go to a club either – I’m too married, they’re too noisy, and I’m too old to endure a hangover. I mostly want to play Bananagrams, but with interesting people who can have a conversation about more than just what society expects of them and how they are achieving their life map.

Spending 40 hours a week in a sterile, sunless, cube, changes people.

Basketball helps me cope.

Is there anything more meditative than an empty gym, a worn-ball and the ease in which you fall into rhythm shooting?

When Maslow talked about peak experiences, surely, he had #ballislife in mind.

 If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.

And then there’s the physical catharsis.

Whenever I worry about bills, or the possibility of a nuclear scorched earth following a twitter beef between our President-elect and any of the 974 million active twitter users, I run fives.

There are few, if any, teammates I’d rather play alongside when life has me feeling like curb-stomping some lemons until they taste like cider, than my childhood pickup squad:

George: The Garbage Man;

Bobby: The Shooter;

Joe: The Belligerent Penetrator;

And myself: The Post Player.

I’ve said it often enough: “we can win games with a well-placed barrel as our fifth” – though a point guard never hurt anyone.

Recently, the four of us, now in the last stage of our 20s, perhaps in desperate need of creating cider, took a trip to Pittsburgh – home to The Belligerent Penetrator.

On paper, Pittsburgh is not the ideal vacation destination. I mean, if we are being completely honest, we are talking about a city culturally known for lesser dumplings and sandwiches with the added ingredient French fries — or as they are known elsewhere: California Burritos. It’s a city still defined by the production of cold, hard steel – 30 years after the industry left town.

I expected things to be bleak – Albuquerque, Syracuse, Phoenix bleak.

What I found instead was a city with understated character, a unique aesthetic, quality culinary options (any place that has a church turned brew-house is a-okay in my book) and a charming livability – further reinforced when considering the option of buying a decent home for a reasonable price. The city might not be New York or San Francisco, but what always comes with top-tier cities is housing options restricted to decrepit shoe box/squalid, urine soaked studio.

Of course, all the positives are just white noise without a solid pickup basketball scene.

There are two golden rules to follow when in a strange city looking for pickup run.

  • Consult Chris Ballard’s Hoop Nation
  • When in doubt go to the local universities.

Ballard, in a rare miss, led us nowhere.

We started in the athletic complex at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).

Given the schools undergraduate enrollment of less than 6,000 (50 percent male, 17 percent international) and the hallmarks of the university – robotics and computer science – the run was unsurprisingly spastic. Skinny arms flailed, awkward side-winding set-shots reminded us of how basketball was originally played.

On day two, looking for ball movement and African-Americans, we went to Trees Hall on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh. Built in the 1960s, Trees Hall is a cavernous, tank like facility and the recreational athletic hub of Pitt U. The building has the feel of exposed pipes and rust, but in a charming, old-world kind of way.

trees1

We were greeted by a David Blatt look-alike in a sheriff’s uniform that commanded more respect than his position of door-greeter should have.

– Can we come in to play basketball?

– No! Only if you are a student, or have school I.D.

– What if we are visiting a student?

– No

– What if a student lets us in?

– No

– Yea, Fuck me right?

No university gym in America is impregnable; they all have a boiler room or fire exit that lead to hoop. We went door to door around the building until one opened. It felt like that scene from the Breakfast Club when Paul Gleason tracks the gang through the school, before cornering John Bender on the basketball court.

To get to the court meant walking past Sheriff Blatt again.

Head held high (or slunk down low depending on how you look at it) we found ourselves on the basketball court. Quickly we fell into rhythm – recapturing or perhaps prolonging our youth one basket at a time.

Concerned that the sheriff might pop in (at Carnegie Mellon they give out wristbands to monitor who does and doesn’t belong in the gym) my nerves were calmed when person after person came into the gym by way of the emergency exit. The repeated alarm didn’t get Blatt out of his seat.

Triangular concrete rows line the ceiling at Trees Hall. The wood is old and beaten in.

Dead spots on a court are akin to wrinkled skin or grey hair – a sign of longevity and purpose.

After our third win in a row, I overheard one of the defeated:

Those guys can play.

In sharp contrast from the last time we all played together a few months before in a Gus Macker tournament in rural New York.

After winning our first (and only game) of the tournament, an incredulous, pear-shaped 21-year old said “you guys actually pretty good.” He continued, “we were surprised, I mean you’re a little older.”

I’d call the style of play we went up against at Trees Hall swag-less farm ball. It wasn’t the city game — flashy, loud, awe-inducing — but the competition was formidable.

George put it best when he said: “they look like they work at their craft.”

Probably to be expected when playing against a group of guys all wearing some piece of Indiana or Notre Dame apparel.  They shot well, played feisty D and moved the ball – Bobby Knight and Gene Hackman would have been proud.

On the day, we went 3-1.

The 21-year-olds who eventually knocked us off the court dug in and out worked us after losing twice. Prompting us to ask ourselves how would we stack up now in a pickup game against the 21-year-old versions of ourselves.

Bottom Line:

Diverse, high-quality run in a Hoosier-esque gym. Getting in is a hassle, but once you are in, nobody is going to kick you out.

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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.