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Pick-up basketball bounces back after Covid cancellation – photo essay

Jacinta Govind has had a lifelong love affair with the sport of basketball. She first picked up a ball at age eight, attended Sydney Kings games with her family and watched footage of the era-defining Chicago Bulls alongside her NBA-obsessed older brother. Govind’s ability saw her rise through high-school ranks to the heights of the WNBL, Australia’s professional league, spending a year with the Canberra Capitals. “I probably didn’t stop playing basketball from the time I was eight until I was 22,” she recalls.

basketball players
  • Playing basketball at Prince Alfred park in Sydney’s Surry Hills

After a hiatus while she trained as an occupational therapist, Govind was lured back to the courts of Terrigal on the NSW Central Coast by the sport’s purest form: pick-up basketball. “It was the first-time I could play just for fun,” she says.

Redfern basketball courts.

Prince Alfred Park courts.

Jarvie park basketball courts.

Pick-up is unstructured, free-flowing basketball, organised on an ad hoc basis at thousands of indoor and outdoor courts across Australia. There are no referees, no scoreboards and few rules. “Playing pick-up helped me find my passion for basketball again,” Govind says. “If I made a mistake, no one would care. If I missed all the shots, no one would care. If I played like Kobe, everyone would cheer. It’s just fun.”

Covid-19 changed all that. When community sport was restricted in March and then ultimately prohibited, these informal basketball games were among the casualties. Courts were locked, hoops were removed from outdoor facilities and police patrolled popular shoot-around locations. For hundreds of pick-up communities, the impact was immense.

“It was a real struggle,” says Fadzayi Chambati. Zai, as the 19-year-old Zimbabwe-born Chambati is known to his pick-up opponents, had dropped out of university to focus on training at the beginning of 2020. He had hoped to secure a basketball scholarship at an American college, with aspirations of a professional career. “Everyone went through a rough time,” he says. “But I also found it brought me closer to people. Some guys I knew through pick-up – one gave me a hoop, another gave me a ball, to enable me to keep training.”

Fadzayi Chambati at Breakers indoor sports stadium, Terrigal on the NSW Central Coast.

  • Fadzayi Chambati at Breakers indoor sports stadium, Terrigal, NSW Central Coast

Govind, who was midway through rehabilitation from an ankle injury, also found herself alone on one of the few outdoor courts that were still accessible. “Sometimes I would shoot by myself, but it just wasn’t the same,” she says. “I felt really lost.”

Basketball players at sunset in Sydney

For many pick-up enthusiasts, the loss of community was felt just as keenly as the absence of the actual basketball. Nick Jackson missed pick-up more acutely than most. From Perth originally, Jackson had lived in Europe for much of the past decade – playing basketball wherever he went. In February, he moved to Sydney and initially found himself immersed in the pick-up scene in Redfern. “It was a great way to get to know people,” says Jackson. “Then lockdown happened. They literally locked the courts.”

Nick Jackson shot at Redfern public basketball courts.

  • Nick Jackson at Redfern public basketball courts

In NSW, community sport was permitted to return in early July. Pick-up games were quickly back in full flow. “I didn’t realise how much I missed it until I went back again – seeing all those familiar faces,” says Govind. For Jackson, after a long stint alone, the social aspect was particularly important. “It has been good just to chat with people again – talk about basketball and what is going on in the NBA. Everyone missed it.”

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Throughout lockdown, Chambati was determined not to let Covid-19 derail his international basketball ambitions. “I was itching to get back on the court,” he tells Guardian Australia from the United States, having just arrived in Kentucky after finally securing a college sporting scholarship. “Basketball was the only thing on my mind.” Having trained alone during April, May and June, Chambati found his game had actually improved. “Covid-19 gave me an opportunity to practice,” he continues. “In the first game back, no one was expecting anyone to be good – but I was lighting it up! It was such a relief to be back.”

Photographer Nick Lawrence’s Pick Up People project explores stories from the basketball court. His Covid-19 pivot, One on None, captured the pandemic’s impact on community basketball.

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