Mask up hoops: Pickup in the age of COVID-19

Tufts students with masks on play pickup basketball on the basketball courts by Harleston Hall. Alex Sharp / The Tufts Daily

For many, the recent shift toward warmer temperatures means shorts weather, a chance to lie in the sun on President’s Lawn or a time to go on a nice walk around campus. But for a group of students here at Tufts, it has been the motivation for an outdoor exercise opportunity: pickup basketball. 

Winters are long, and they make getting proper exercise significantly harder, especially for busy college students. Now, with COVID-19 guidelines limiting access to the gym and options for other activities, it has been particularly difficult for students to find suitable outlets for exercise. 

However, with the rising temperatures that have accompanied March so far, this problem is starting to fade into the past. In particular, students have flocked to the South Courts, located behind Harleston Hall, to play tennis or basketball. The basketball courts have been especially active, featuring students from all classes getting shots up with their friends. On the courts, it is common to see (masked) high-intensity pickup games, whether half- or full-court, while there are also groups who are more casual, opting for fun shooting games like Horse and Knockout. 

For first-year Jehan Chan, the intensity is what brings him out on the nice days.

“People there care about the game, and it is more fun to play when people try than when they don’t,” Chan said. “You put in the effort for your teammates, because you know all of them want to win.” 

Such a tight-knit community fosters friendships that go beyond the court. First-year Jake Freedman described some of these players as his “closest friends” at Tufts, friends he might never have met without the activity on the South Courts. While Chan’s closest friendships didn’t get their beginnings there, he said that he frequently sees friendly faces around campus that he knows from playing pickup. 

Ultimately, it is the competition that inspires these friendships, as playing alongside others is a unique bonding experience. At the same time, it is easy to gain respect for your opponent. Senior Atef Fayed has experienced both sides of this, saying that he has made some of his best friends by “passing to them, scoring on them and occasionally fouling them.” 

On top of the social aspect, in a time when club sports are on hold, it is even more important for there to be an outlet like this through which both varsity and non-varsity athletes can get out and play. Fayed, who plays on the club basketball and soccer teams, missed out on his senior campaign due to pandemic-related restrictions. To help fill that void, Fayed and his friends have become regulars on the courts, playing pickup game after pickup game until the sun goes down. Instead of getting buckets in the National Club Basketball Association, he unwinds after a long day of research by playing ball with his friends on the South Courts. 

The competitive spirit is typically even higher when varsity athletes make up a chunk of the players on the court. Football players link up with members of the crew team and soccer players take on the hockey team, typically with non-varsity athletes included. It creates a fun mix of athletic skills that culminates in games that stay competitive until the last point. 

It is also not just the basketball players who make use of the courts. There are frequently benches, chairs and other obstacles set up for skateboarding, another valuable socially distant form of exercise. A shared understanding exists between the hoopers and the skateboarders, who each do their best to stay out of each other’s way. In fact, there is a mutual appreciation for each other’s abilities, as it is common to hear a shout of admiration after a particularly impressive trick or play. 

Outdoor spaces for bonding like this are very important for the students that use them, especially now. With the fitness center reopening just recently in mid-February and sports team practices on pause for the latter half of the fall semester, there has been limited access to athletic facilities. The South Courts have been one of the solutions to this problem. 

The time spent at the courts will continue to be an integral part of the COVID-19 college experience for many. The culture there runs strong, and if you want to get involved, grab your mask, head to the South Courts on the next sunny day and look for Chan, Fayed, Freedman or one of the countless other players there. Lace up your shoes, say “I got next” and get ready to play some good old-fashioned pickup basketball. 


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