There is nothing quite like showing up at a pickup game for the first time. You've never met anyone, but if you've played for any length of time you know who you are going to find. It's a little different if you're a woman, where missing your first jump shot can mean your own team plays keep away for the rest of the game.
I've played games from San Diego to West 4th St. in Manhattan -- where after I stole the ball I learned the charming phrase "Bitch Defense." I've probably played with a thousand or so people over the years, five or nine at a time. Some just once, others for so many years we became good friends. Here are some of the people I've met:
• He Hates You: This is the ninth most talented guy on the court. Maybe you took his spot in the next game because you arrived two minutes earlier. He will likely draw the assignment of covering you, which he may refuse to do until you hit a few jumpers. Do not let him detect weakness, in fact go on the offensive when he misses. Trash-talk is essential with this type.
• The Comedian: This is the guy, whenever you are on the same team, who volunteers to go skins. He will find it hilarious every single time you come to this game.
• The Elbow: This is the old guy, a former center or power forward, who can't move his legs and compensates by trying to horse-collar people driving to the hoop. He will get you in the boob at some point. You will both ignore it.
• The Other Woman: This is tough. You want to be all, "You go girl!" but you know you are guarding each other, usually to a draw. He Hates You tries to turn this into a game of 4-on-4. Tip: When you're choosing coverage, go with someone besides The Other Woman or be radical and suggest zone.
• Mr. Solicitous: This guy is generous with the ball, the problem is, he wants everyone on the court to see how egalitarian he is by passing to a woman. The guy guarding you can read it as easy as a tabloid headline. PICK!
• The Kid. This newly minted teenager is so happy the grownups are letting him play. Plenty of unbridled energy on offense, the string bean still hasn't learned what to do when the other team has the ball. This is good because The Kid could be guarding you. Tip: On offense, don't even try to keep up. He'll beat himself for another year.
• The Teammate. He treats you like you are just another player on the team. He passes to you. He has some reliable shots -- for example, the left side bank shot from 10 yards out -- that get your team to 11 more often than not. Depending on your situation, this guy could turn into The Boyfriend.
• The Self-Hater: You know this guy -- he still says, "My bad." A lot. He also speaks to himself in third person, after every miss, the way you might do if you were really angry at yourself but thought no one was around. And you were crazy. Can be hard to watch, but avoid attempts at pep talks.
• Mr. Uncertain: He does not know what to make of you. But one thing Mr. Uncertain is certain of -- he does not want to make contact with you for fear he will snap you in half. It's an advantage really, especially if you channel The Elbow. Bang him around a little bit and hopefully Mr. Uncertain loosens up.
• The Chupacabra: I have only seen this player once. I was at my regular community center game, and I was one of the first five -- but there was already another woman. The guys who came in with the next team thought we were an easy out -- two women on one team? But this was no Other Woman. She was 6-foot-2, could out rebound The Elbow all day and had a better jumper than Mr. Solicitous. She figured out my favorite spot and fed me the ball like a shooting coach. We held that court all night long. Later I found out she played for Boston College, but I never saw her at that game again.
If you are still out there, you have a standing invite to be on my team, Chupacabra.