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MisFits: 20 years of pickup basketball and still bonding

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 21, 2010; 10:59 AM

The Sidwell gym is freezing cold, the floor a little slippery. A few guys grouse, but no one really minds. One of them grabs a janitor's dust mop and runs it quickly over the hardwood while the rest stretch, take warm-up laps or try to find the range on their jumpers.

"Let's go," someone says, and soon they are at it, five-on-five, full-court basketball, just like last Sunday morning, and the Sunday before that - two decades of Sundays for some of them.

It's the time of year for tradition and ritual, for cherished, enduring comforts. And if the Sunday 8 a.m. game at Sidwell Friends School isn't quite the same thing as racing downstairs with the kids at dawn to see what's under the tree, it is, for these guys, pretty close.

"I look forward to it all week," David Zinn, 46, of Chevy Chase says as he waits his turn on the floor. Undoubtedly risking trouble at home, he adds: "It is the highlight of the week."

There are few more certain things in recreational sport than pickup basketball. Any stranger can walk into a stuffy gym from San Diego to Boston and be confident of finding much the same thing: shirts vs. skins. Game to 11, one bucket at a time. Winners hold the court; losers retreat to the sideline to await their turn to try again. A little competition, a good workout.

That does not do justice to long-term, organized games like this one, weekly competitions among men united by the desire to keep playing a game of their youth, a sport they love. This game probably has lasted longer than most - 20 years or more on several courts, with an ever-evolving roster of old-timers and new blood - but it's impossible to know for sure. There are a lot of games out there.

"The longevity comes from a perfect storm of love for the game, competitiveness, chemistry and a consistently solid run," the game's "commissioner," Andrew Cohen, 46, a Disrict resident, told me in an e-mail when I asked how this one had survived so long. "We all love the game and are competitive at heart." Cohen has played with this group for 18 years.

Almost all these guys played high school ball. Some played small college ball, and one, Karl Racine, played for the University of Pennsylvania, a Division I program, where he once sank the game-winning free throws after he was fouled by Michelle Obama's brother, Craig Robinson, now the head basketball coach at Oregon State.

The oldest among them are turning 50. There is a healthy contingent of lawyers, government and private; an investment manager; a senior project manager; a business executive.

There are also knee braces and sore backs. The rims are somehow a few inches higher, the baselines a little farther apart than they used to be. It doesn't matter. The quality of the game is what matters. They have carefully cultivated and guarded that, watching over the mix of players, seeking the best experience out of each two-hour Sunday session and a second weekly game on Wednesday evenings.

Anyone who wants to join first plays as a visitor. The others scrutinize his skills and fitness to make sure he can compete. They may check him out a bit, ask where he played his high school ball.

Hey, I told you: They're a bunch of lawyers.

Nothing would kill the game more quickly than four guys having to carry a fifth. "A guy has got to be able to make an open shot," says Tom Marshall, 50, a D.C. resident and lawyer with the Environmental Protection Agency who has been part of the game from the beginning and serves as an informal screener of talent. "Because otherwise guys are gonna slough off him and it's four on five."

At the same time, they want unselfish players, so there will be ball movement, not just guys running the floor and throwing up shots. They look for people who play defense. And they have a sense for that intangible, which a number of them called "chemistry" - men who play well together and can get along, or at least settle their differences and move on. Because they know that sooner or later, in a game this competitive, things will get chippy.

"There is a kind of civility," says Tom Karr, 48, of the District, another old-timer. "You're playing with everyone day in, day out. You can't get too angry or belligerent. It wouldn't work."

"No one is out here to hurt anyone, but people definitely want to win," says Racine, 48, a D.C. resident and managing partner at Venable LLP. "A winning Sunday can make or break the whole week."

The chemistry extends off the floor. Some have become close friends. "I consider myself one of the luckiest people on Earth," says Marshall. The game "sets the bar high for my fitness level. It's not a hobby; it's a passion. The guy time is priceless."

In fact, confides Dermott Ryan, an ExxonMobil exec, the Sunday morning game really lacks for just one thing: a chance to play with the Baller in Chief, the one with 12 newly acquired stitches in his lip. How hard could that be?

Ryan makes his case: "This is close. This is safer. Most of these guys are government lawyers. They're Democrats," he says, though actually the players are from various parts of the political spectrum.

It may never happen. But next Sunday and the Sunday after that and the Sunday after that, these guys will be here, brought together by the game on cold winter mornings in a city of transients.

"Guys move on. Guys retire," says Cohen. "But the game keeps going on."

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