Hoops was born with peach baskets at a YMCA. But the game has been reared on asphalt. Street courts test a player’s skills, patience–You’ve got next game? Wait your turn–and character. Call your own fouls, son. Gyms make things easy. Try making shots while fighting the sun, wind, cracked concrete, crooked rims and some wise guy hanging around, poking fun at your ugly-ass shorts.
Street basketball heats up in the summer. Famed tournaments like the Goodman League, played at a Washington, D.C., housing project, and Rucker Park in Harlem attract NBA talent and create playground legends. Dr. J earned his M.D. at the Rucker. Announcers bark commentary over PA systems and give everyone a nickname. No-look passes, often wholly unnecessary, throw the crowds into a frenzy. Such hip-hop-infused showmanship has trickled down to all levels of basketball. Coach may not approve. But what’s wrong with a little entertainment?
This being America, where the ball bounces, the money pounces. Companies like AND1 have sold the gospel of street ball to suburban strip malls through footwear and merchandise inspired by players nicknamed Headache and Skip 2 My Lou.
One stop on a street baller’s bucket list: the courts in Venice Beach, California, a short jumper from the neighborhood stoners, bodybuilders, palm trees and tattoo joints. It’s where Woody Harrelson hustled Wesley Snipes in White Men Can’t Jump. Where a young Kobe Bryant once broke his wrist and where Metta World Peace has shown up to toss an elbow or three. There’s barking and dunking and tussling. Respect comes hard. It’s tip-off on the street.
This appears in the July 11, 2016 issue of TIME.