Column | All I need to know, I learned at Trees


Stephen Thompson | Contributing Editor

Students play basketball at Trees Hall.

By Stephen Thompson, Sports Editor

Throughout my four years as a Pitt student, I’ve probably played more pick-up basketball than the average undergraduate. There is a standing appointment for my friends and I to play every Friday afternoon — often at Trees Hall, but weather permitting, we’ll venture out to the South Side or Greenfield to play outdoors.

Whether my jump shot is falling or not — and it usually isn’t — playing pick-up is inevitably the highlight of my week. It is a sure signal that my work is over and time is my own. I chose to spend it at the court, throwing up shots and committing turnovers that are only allowed when the games don’t matter.

I watch a lot of college basketball, something that requires a stomach for ugly hoops. So it was easy to understand why I think a dozen hungover 20-somethings missing layups and hacking each other had any great value. On dirty courts against a rotating arrangement of familiar opponents and teammates, I found community and challenges.

And it’s because of the dwindling number of Fridays left that I’m forced to come to terms with the most painful product of graduation — the realization that I will never again live this close to my best friends. The carefree hours spent with each other will be fewer and further between. I’ve never had friends this good, and that’s what will make moving on so difficult.

I miss how accessible sports were in high school. They were built into my day, unavoidable even if I tried. I found comfort in the routine. Practice every afternoon let me use a different, less overworked part of my brain and broke up days that felt consumed by school.

Losing that routine after high school was a shock, and recovering during my sophomore year, when I finally found a group of friends that played regularly, was a blessing. It wasn’t the same, but close enough. Pick-up is leisure but it feels productive — a good balance.

Unorganized basketball also forces its players to internalize a set of rules and norms. The games are casual, but go smoother when everyone knows how they want to play and adheres to common etiquette.

Count points by ones and twos. Always play games to 12, straight — “win by two” makes them drag on forever. Winners stay on as long as they’d like and a free-throw shooting competition determines which five gets to play next. Whoever gets left off has the right to the next game. No one sits for long.

Effort is rewarded, so run the floor, make smart decisions and be strong with the ball. If you’re on the court, play hard, because there’s always someone on the sideline who would gladly sub in if you’re tired.

Talk to your teammates. Let them know when a screen is coming. Share the ball. Shoot when you’re open and encourage everyone else to do the same. Ask for help if you need it.

When you drive, be ready to take a hit. Don’t try to create contact where it’s not needed. Learn to be your own advocate, because you have to call your own fouls.

Don’t shy away from a challenge — it’s the only way you’ll get better.

It took me years to master these rules and, in the final weeks of my college career, I’m proud to say I know them by heart.

But recently, I’ve felt the same frustration that I got after graduating from high school. Because, after spending four years building a life around this place and these people, I have to leave. Now that I’ve finally made myself comfortable, they’re kicking me out.

It’s intimidating to think about having to start over in a new, postgraduate life that will render my intricate knowledge about being a student at Pitt useless. But I’m comforted by the fact that all I need to know — about being fair, working with others, sticking up for myself and being tough — I learned at Trees Hall and Four Mile Run.

I found the freshest air in Pittsburgh on sunny Fridays, riding to the courts in my friend’s car with the windows down. I frontloaded my class schedule and sacrificed weekdays to keep the end of my week clear, and the reward for a truncated week was a few hours of the cleanest fun one can have in college.

During my junior and senior years of high school, I spent so much time trying to figure out which college had the right combination of the elements I wanted — intimate but not small, big but not overwhelming, rigorous but not stuffy. A hundred different schools could have given me all that, but only one gave me the right friends and Friday afternoons of terrible, beautiful basketball.