Address: 1800 Ocean Front Walk Venice, CA 90291

J says he was shot two months ago after a prostitute conspired to have him robbed.

“For a piece a pussy,” J says, pointing to a scar under his shoulder. “Two .38’s, long nose. Bitch set me up. I don’t gangbang! I’m a man of God.”

A small cross is tattooed between his eyebrows.

Pickin up a bitch in your wife’s car…you’re breaking every L.A. rule out here.” A muscular bald dude, waiting for next, chimes in from the bleachers under the hoop.

I risked everything for a piece a pussy.”

The pungency of gin accompanies every droplet of sweat.

In his first game, he sat down after the first basket; dizzy and dehydrated from a breakfast of Tanqueray.

J took a second, gathered himself, got back onto the court and proceeded to score damn near every point.

“You blowing my vibe. You’re young but you got to learn,” J says to a 12-year-old whose rattling off gang names like their professional athletes.

As he waits for his next opportunity on the court, he delicately takes apart a cigar, placing a bag of weed in the lap of his 1990s-style swishy pants.  

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink,” he says, not taking his eyes off the blunt.

Most days after his shift ends in the cafeteria of a local mobile app company, J comes to run at the Venice Beach Courts.

He says he started playing basketball over a four-year stint in a Florida prison, but that he ran track in high school.

It shows.

I’ve never played with someone who can go coast to coast as fast as J. Taking an outlet pass or grabbing a board, as soon as the ball is in his hands he’s gone.

At his speed a cynical man might have a hard time believing he was shot two months ago; then again, he does have the bullet wounds to back up the claim.

I wouldn’t necessarily call him a good player, but he certainly is effective at getting to the rim and finishing.

The mid-day blunt roll. Photo by Noah Perkins
The mid-day blunt roll. Photo by Noah Perkins

There’s a healthy mix of junked out loons and tourists wandering the Venice boardwalk, shuffling between chatchkie shops, weed doctors and street artists.

The array of humanity making up the strange atmosphere of the boardwalk doesn’t spill over onto the four full courts of Venice Beach. Though onlookers watch games on the main court en masse from the concrete stands – a neutral zone between ball and crazy-town.

“We’re here to entertain people,” J boasts during a break in the action.

I’m nervous my first time on the main court.

One of the three most recognizable outdoor courts in the world, Venice Beach became the West Coast equivalent of Rucker Park after White Men Can’t Jump and American History X were filmed on location. The court was further lionized in the EA video game series NBA Street.

I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of a crowd so I shied away from my Luis Scola post moves – the hallmark of my game – instead, I fought for rebounds and scored a few times on put backs.

I would have given myself a C+. J who had next felt differently: we need a baller. You control the paint.

So it was decided. J, myself, a 6’5” blond beach bum who could dunk but do little else, my guy Birdman – a lanky Brooklynite with a herky-jerk Eurostep – and a surprisingly good 12 year-old took the court.

Our opponents: an athletic group of African-Americans in their early 20s.

Teenagers set off firecrackers during transition opportunities under the other team’s basket.

We keep it close, but in the end, the other team is too athletic. I play my man decently, but he has access to a level of athleticism I just don’t possess – an extra gear if you will.

We are about the same size but he is so much faster than me going from one end of the court to other. He wreaks havoc on passing lanes and scores fast break buckets by virtue of forcing me out of my back-to-the-basket game.

Afterwards, J rolled another blunt. His ability to put points on the board despite the cross-fade is truly remarkable.

Bottom Line:

I didn’t really respect the L.A. pickup scene until I played at Venice Beach.

I thought it to finesse and showy – dudes on the main court at Venice Beach can straight up play. Despite the courts’ reputation few fouls were called, and there was very little on court arguing. The game flowed nicely and the trash talk was minimal – though later in the day someone gave me a mouse in the house chant.

Often the downfall of good courts is an audience. At Green Lake in Seattle for example, spectators bring out showmanship, taking away from ball movement and defense, creating bad iso-ball.

Not so at Venice Beach. This is high caliber pick-up run. If you are a scrub, maybe avoid the main court.

Either way the Venice Beach courts are a must play for hoop junkies.

Venice Beach Represented in NBA Street.
Venice Beach Represented in NBA Street.
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.