I’ve been playing pickup basketball in various venues in various cities (most recently New York) for thirty years now, and I’ve found that some of the same broad categories of player exist everywhere.
(I use the masculine repeatedly throughout this piece, though I have played with a number of women over the years. But they rarely fit into these types, and indeed, the women I’ve played with have almost always been skilled ball players. Women with no basketball skill don’t naturally gravitate towards pickup games. The same cannot be said for men.)
The Punisher rarely has much in the way of basketball skill, but is usually physically robust with a lot of energy and started playing pickup basketball to stay in shape and because there’s not a local bare knuckles boxing league. The best Punishers learn to set picks (though rolling to the rim or to an open spot on the court is beyond them) and box out on rebounds (though the offensive rebound put-back is usually something of an adventure) and most people appreciate having a Punisher on their team, though they are often a danger to their own teammates. The closest I ever came to a catastrophic injury on the court was when a Punisher on my team decided to charge past me while I was bent forward with the ball, posting up, and kneed me just above my upper lip so hard, I saw stars. A half-inch higher and my nose would’ve been mush and my life no doubt would’ve taken an unfortunate turn for awhile. Punishers are often sweet of spirit, everywhere except the court anyway, but are naturally charged up and genuinely don’t see the problem with body-blocking into the wall some poor soul about to take a wide open layup or grabbing the man they’re defending by the shoulders and throwing him out of the way. The most unusual punisher I ever played with was a man who had both arms amputated at the elbows. He dribbled the ball by slapping at it with the backs of his triceps and shot it like he was tossing a bucket of water on a burning fire. He would careen around the court like a pinball, gleefully bouncing off one player after another, looking for someone to body block.
The Tumbler – Usually though not always a player with some basketball ability, the Tumbler is #2 on the most feared list, only a short step behind the Punisher. The problem with The Tumbler is he seems to think playing basketball means running around and diving on the floor, which maybe it does in the NBA finals but no one in a pickup game appreciates a 200 pound man lunging horizontally towards your knees. Tumblers tend to be intense sorts and are prone to yelling things like “Come on” and “Fucking get at it, bitch” ostensibly self-directed, though it can be difficult not to take personally. The most exaggerated Tumblers have something of The Scarecrow in them, all flailing arms and legs, hitting the ground and bouncing back up like they’re made of rubber. Tumblers are often Flayers as well and if you get one who is less than fastidious about cutting his finger-nails, he can become a skin-gouging machine, leaving little half-moon, bloody gouges wherever he goes.
The Unskilled Gunner — There are skilled and unskilled gunners and both present their own unique sets of problems. The Unskilled Gunner is often a three-point “specialist” who actually can’t shoot threes but it’s all they do because they really don’t know the game and have no idea where to be on the court or even how to pass the ball. So they stand outside the three-point line and if someone passes them the ball, they shoot with a Pavlovian single-mindedness. It’s automatic. The only way to stop the Unskilled Gunner is to make sure the ball never touches his hands.
The Skilled Gunner presents a more subtle set of challenges. It’s true the Skilled Gunner can win a game more or less by himself, but more often they come up short because even if they hit five threes in a game, the rest of the team becomes so lethargic and distracted (because they’ve realized no matter what they do, they’re not going to see the ball), they stop doing things like setting picks, rebounding or even bothering to run back on defense.
The Dribbler – A typical Dribbler move would be like this: you’re on a three on three fast break and you’ve leaked out to the wing and you’re wide open and all they have to do is hit you with a simple, clean bounce pass and you’ll have a layup or an easy 10 foot jumper and The Dribbler instead drives into all three of the defenders, dribbles around like he’s channeling Curly Neal, then finally hits you with a no look over the shoulder/between the legs/behind the back pass at precisely the point when your man has recovered and is guarding you and you don’t expect it or even want it and it careens off your hands out of bounds and the Dribbler takes this as tacit approval to never look in your direction again.
The Popper is one of those guys who occasionally and without warning hauls off and punches someone, often with very little provocation. He’s like one of those crazy cross-eyed dogs that wandered your neighborhood growing up, friendly enough on the surface but likely to bite you just because they can. I’ve played with a couple of Poppers and you have to be careful not to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, though the sight of two 40 year old stock brokers lurching about grabbing each other and awkwardly tossing punches holds its own appeal.
The Rager. Closely related to The Popper is The Rager, the chief difference being The Rager doesn’t get physical, but instead curses both out-loud and under his breath, is prone to throwing up his hands in exaggerated disgust, screams at those players least likely to scream back (there’s a lot of the bully in the Rager), and is known to drop-kick the ball or whip it at the backboard. One of the most satisfying things I’ve ever witnessed on the court was when this particular player, after spending the entire game raging at anyone who crossed his sight line, slammed the ball with both hands to the floor, the ball rebounding straight into his face, bloodying his nose and forcing him to leave the game. The Rager often acts like he’s the keeper of the flame of basketball purity, though he’s also the most likely of all archetypes to quit in the middle of a game because things aren’t going his way.
The Jailhouse Lawyer is someone whose skill with a basketball is kind of beside the point; he constantly picks at the rules, especially in times of high tension (close games with a lot of people waiting — you lose, you sit for a long time), calling piddly fouls, claiming non-existent traveling calls or loudly denying he touched the ball on its way out of bounds even when he clearly did. The Jailhouse Lawyer argues so relentlessly and vociferously that inevitably the opposing side gives in and allows someone to shoot a three (all jump balls situations in our games are adjudicated by a shot behind the three point line) to decide, just because no one wants to listen to him anymore.