A Portrait of WashU Sumers Rec: A Home Created
The rules are unspoken, but any regular can probably list them aloud if asked: games played to 16 — two points for a three, one for a jump shot. Tell everyone you’re in line to play fives. Don’t cut that line. Slap hands after the game. Shit talk is permitted. Welcome to Washington University Gary M. Sumers Recreation Center basketball.
Josh Bryant, a 23-year-old from University City, has been coming to “the Rec” for a couple of years. He doesn’t remember anyone telling him how the games work. He isn’t a student at WashU, but he’s at the gym just as much as any freshmen college kid hoping to gain 20 pounds of muscle in a year. However, Bryant doesn’t touch the weight racks, only the polished wood floors of the basketball court. He’ll make the ten-minute-by-car commute about three times a week, and stay for four or five hours each time. Though players cycle through, the game has stayed the same.
There’s countless works of literature dedicated to the romance of pickup basketball. A quick Google search will lead to strangers-that-become-friends narratives and musings about the unwritten rules. Diving deeper, one can even dredge up multiple scientific theories on how pickup culture illustrates the social nature of humans, or whatever. One study concluded that participants played pickup basketball because it reminded them “of a time when life was simpler.”
At the Rec, pickup basketball can feel like a secret club, a circus, or a high-stakes pros game, depending on the day, time, and cycle of the moon, probably. WashU Barstool Instagram (a spin-off of the Barstool Sports account, which is dedicated to sports, pop culture, and crude jokes) posted about the Rec pickup culture on Sept. 5. “The NBA” was written in black block letters next to a photo of little kids with baggy uniforms. Below it “Sumers Rec Pickup Basketball” was written next to a photo of Lebron James and Dwyane Wade in Miami Heat uniforms. The comments are full of “you right,” “facts” and tagged usernames, presumably Rec pickup big-shots.
The Rec will celebrate its sixth birthday this October. In 2012, Gary M. Sumers donated 12 million dollars for an athletic complex in his name. After four years, the 36,000-square-foot interior rejuvenation of the previously-known-as-Francis Gymnasium was complete. In the WashU Source’s coverage of the project, phrases include “state of the art,” “revitalized corner of campus,” and “exceeding the quality of those of our peer institutions.”
Inside the Rec, phrases tossed around include: “Yo, he can’t shoot!” “this game is ass,” and the most common, said alternately in frustration and admiration: “c’mon man.”
Junior Christina Walker is a point guard on the WashU varsity women’s team. She’s only been coming to the Rec since the spring of her sophomore year, but she’s already got the “Sumers Rec pickup handbook,” as she jokingly calls it, down pat. Unlike Bryant, perhaps, Walker learned the rules recently enough to recall step-by-step the way you get on the court:
“I walk in. If there’s people on the sideline, I’d find the person that looks the most into the game that’s going on right then — someone who’s standing up with a ball or who’s shooting at the basket,” she recites over the phone. Though I can’t see her, I’m picturing her eyes rolled up towards the ceiling, the way people do when they’re remembering what they had for dinner the night before.
“I ask them, ‘Who has next?” If they don’t want you on their team, okay, I’ll take next. I’d also recommend saying that to everyone else on the sideline.” Without this process, Walker knows that she may never get into the game. “Communication is really important. Especially as a woman,” she said. “If you don’t say anything or are passive, you will probably get looked over.” Walker quickly added that everyone has to be assertive to get on the court — men, women nonbinary people. On a typical weekend afternoon, however, Walker is often the only woman in the gym. She’s aware of it, and feels a little more pressure not to miss shots or fumble the ball.
“I know I’m always perceived a certain way before I even do anything with the ball…just because I’m a woman,” she said. Walker grew up playing on an all-boys team in a suburb of Atlanta. Once she aged out of the team, she started going to her local gym and jumping into pickup games there. The Rec reminds her of home — maybe even “of simpler times.”
“It’s usually just guys in there, and honestly, it just [feels] like a familiar space,” Walker said.
On a recent Saturday, sweat, testosterone, and trash talk flew through the air. Sophomore Drake Kindsvater, a player on the WashU varsity basketball team, also flew through the air. He’s 6’6”, and dunks with the ease of a middle schooler on a nerf-ball hoop.
“Windmill!” a spectator yelled from the sideline, half-joking. Without even a glance over to see who it is, Kindsvater complies. As he rises up towards the hoop, his lanky arms swing wildly, 360º degrees, before he slams the ball through the netting again.
Trailing behind him were a typical crew of Rec players: a skinny guy wearing running shoes and a tie-dye shirt, a 6’9” center who played Division II ball at Michigan Tech, a handful of WashU undergrads, one middle-aged man who speaks very little English and has a perpetual grin on his face.
Two boys sat on the sideline, knees bent up towards their chests. William Zheng is a grad student studying engineering management. He and his friend had been playing 3v3, but once there were enough players for full-court, or “fives,” they stepped off.
Upon prompting, Zheng explains that most Chinese international students like to play half court, not full. “Less running,” the boy sitting next to him said. Zheng also likes playing with other kids who speak Mandarin, like him. “No offense,” he added quickly. “Because it will be easier to communicate.”
When Zheng came to WashU last January — he did his undergrad at a Chinese university — he was added to a WeChat for international Chinese students who like to play basketball, or at the very least, are looking for friends. The chat is massive; Zheng is one of over a hundred people in the group. Perhaps as a result, there’s almost always a few international students shooting around at one of the Rec’s four hoops at any given hour, sometimes playing half-court pickup. Often, they speak in Mandarin. In one half-court game there were so many screens (one player intentionally getting in front of another) that defenders looked dizzy. Passes were often underhand, unlike the chest-high lobs common in full-court games. After they play, Zheng said, he and his friends will get milk tea — almost always at ShareSweet, on Olive Boulevard. For him, the Rec is a place for exercise, socializing, and somewhere that Zheng knows he can always find someone that speaks the language of home, over 6,000 miles away.
When Bryant finally gets on the court, he has one of the odder-looking shots seen in the Rec. He brings the ball straight up over his head, bends his elbows, and slingshots the ball with his left hand. Most of the time, it goes in.
“I know it’s a weird release but I just feel confident. I’ve been doing it for years,” he said.
Bryant is confident about more than just his shot. He’s confident about his chance of winning on the court. He’s confident about his intelligence, and he’s sure that he’s going to get out of St. Louis one day.
“I really like being around people at WashU because they got the same mind as me,” Bryant said.
Bryant said that St. Louis is “breaking him down.” He’s a manager at his job, at a retail store, but he’s looking ahead to bigger things — namely a move to Florida, to be by the beach and to be far away from the place he grew up. He speaks often in slightly cryptic generalities, on the cusp of revealing his life, but always stops at the last second.
“Honestly, WashU is one of the best places right now in my life to go and play ball. Other than that, besides me working and doing my job right now…” Bryant trailed off. “It’s just the best place.”
On the court, Bryant doesn’t move around much. Instead, he mainly directs traffic with one hand, yells tips and encouragement, and slings up shots from a few steps back from the three-point line.
Off the court, he’s a little quieter. But he says he likes talking to WashU people, and feels like he’s among peers.
“It’s just a hesitation factor, that I might be judged. But I can connect with people [here]. It makes me feel warm,” Bryant said. Then he scoffed. “I mean, I don’t want to sound all cheesy.”
Five minutes before close — either 8:55 p.m. or 10:55 p.m., depending on the day — a Rec employee, looking like an exasperated babysitter in a gray polo and name tag, will come in to give a five-minute warning. Falling into the role of the babysat kids, players grumble for a second, and then amend the game:
“One more point!”
Finally, the hoops are raised, accompanied by the mechanical hum of electrical pulleys. The game is over, and all-star players head home to face the world again: homework, jobs, expectations. Lights click off, and the day of pickup officially comes to an end.