There is a short basketball court nestled among the tall trees that shelter the western offshoot of William Land Park. Many are of the pine variety, and the aroma they emit easily trumps that of a green-tree air freshener hanging from a rearview mirror.
The court, about 40-by-65 feet, with uneven asphalt as a surface, isn’t as busy as it used to be, back before video games became big business.
Archie Thompson dished out passes on the court in its golden era in the ’70s on breaks from the University of Nevada, where he played for the Wolf Pack. He later played professionally in France for seven years.
As he spoke, he emphasized his points with proximity and a pat on the upper arm.
“We’d play summertime afternoons. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays,” Thompson said. “I started at 18 (years old) back from Reno in ‘73, ‘74 and ’75. I was always a point guard.”
There were other courts to play on. Thompson said there were serious nighttime three-on-three games at Reichmuth Park, where R.J. Reynolds would play before he became a professional baseball player. Sacramento State’s courts were popular, as well.
But Land Park was special.
“Anyone who came into town, they knew where to play. You’d put your name on a list, and there were a lot of good players,” he said.
That list later included Ernest Lee, a young man out of Kennedy High School with prodigious talent. And of course there was former NBA star and Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson.
After doing some more name dropping, Thompson said, “People would just come and watch. Bill Cartwright would come there, but he’d never play.”
So what are the hot spots for Sacramento’s pickup basketball scene these days?
MCKINLEY PARK: THE FAMILY SPOT
Though many games at McKinley Park included slam dunks just a couple decades ago, today the court is a great place to come as you are and shoot a basketball. In the morning, park staff are known to take a break and work on their jump shots. On weekends, fathers tutor sons, 5-year-old girls work on their dribbling skills and soccer balls sometimes share the court with families visiting from the adjacent picnic area and rebuilt playground.
Towering trees provide oxygen from the eastern and southern sides of the full court.
Late afternoons during the week, weather and sunlight permitting, there are occasional games of three-on-three, or even five-on-five, though the pickup culture here is much more sporadic than it was in its competitive prime.
ROOSEVELT PARK: SERIOUS 5’S
The pinnacle of competitive outdoor Sacramento basketball is often found at Roosevelt Park at 9th and P streets. The two perfectly flat courts were revamped by the Sacramento Kings in partnership with the Capitol Area Development Authority back in 2015, and now sport clear backboards and a purple-and-grey paint job.
Five-on-five games are the norm here, often taking place on both courts at once. A giant speaker with a retractable handle sometimes provides the soundtrack, looking like a piece of luggage. Active players make song requests.
It is pure pickup basketball, with teams thrown together through recruiting on the sidelines. A representative of a new team calls the next game.
The majority of players are African American, though participants of all races fill the teams. A lack of referees makes clean play a valuable asset. Though arguments on calls naturally occur, it is usually with a jovial competitive spirit that is part of the fun.
Shots made behind the 3-point line are important; they are worth two points instead of a standard shot’s one, and games are often played to 12 to keep teams rotating in and out. A minor celebration resembling a touchdown dance sometimes takes place after a long-range bucket.
SOUTHSIDE PARK: THE WILD CARD
Also deserving mention, 10 blocks away at 6th and W streets, is a single full court spot bordering a couple of tennis courts. It was similarly spruced up by the Kings.
The games here are varied. When things are slow, friends play games of H-O-R-S-E.
When more folks are present, two-on-two games occur, and an occasional game of four-on-four takes the whole court or just half, depending on the fitness level of those taking part.
Characters vary from a 6-foot-5 millennial who can dunk or shoot 50 percent from beyond the arc to a shirtless 230-pound man with a low center of gravity who battles for rebounds beneath the basket, giving opponents an occasional karate chop.
You never know what’s going to happen at Southside Park.
The games at William Land Park were much more predictable in the ’70’s; three-on-three was the standard, and according to Thompson it was a testing ground for the best of the best.
To an extent, the culture lives on.
This article was updated at 9:29 a.m. on Nov. 9 to remove a misattributed quote.