Brought together by a shared passion for hoops, a group of devoted basketball enthusiasts are keeping a 20-year early-morning tradition alive and well.
The clock reads 6:45 on a cold January morning. The temperature outside hovers just above freezing, dawn has yet to break and the quiet Clemson streets are practically barren. While a game of pickup basketball would seemingly be the last thing on even the most enthusiastic athlete’s mind, the eclectic group of individuals gathered on the basketball courts at Fike Recreation Center have a tradition to uphold. After conducting some last-minute stretches made in an effort to shake off the numbing effects of the cold, the unlikely amalgamation of basketball devotees takes to the court.
“Ball in,” says one hooper to another as he bounce-passes the ball in his direction. And, with that, the biweekly tradition of early-morning basketball that has defied the odds in persisting for two decades is underway.
Sleeping in was not an option for the 10 folks taking part in the five-on-five duel on this particular winter morning. In fact, hoop dreams have outweighed the attractiveness of sweet dreams on Tuesday and Thursday mornings for Neil Burton and other longtime members of this faithful club for quite some time now. Burton, the executive director of Clemson University’s Center for Career and Professional Development is the de facto organizer of the pick-up league, as the unofficial commissioner is known as “Commish” by his fellow Fike compatriots.
“We’re a pretty eclectic group,” Burton said of the diverse assemblage of players who take part in the action. “We’ve got retirees, community members, Clemson students and Clemson faculty and staff. And everybody out here has some connection to Clemson.”
Burton has participated in a variety of pick-up games since becoming a part of the Clemson University family in the 1980s, with his participation in the morning shootaround at Fike beginning at its inception in 1999. Over time, Burton was informally handed the reins to guide the direction of the group, with his primary responsibility coming in the form of recruitment. One such recent recruit of his was Clemson University’s communications director for student affairs, Philip Sikes, who recognizes how special and symbolic the morning basketball group truly is.
“It’s unique for a group of individuals who might not necessarily come together under normal circumstances to gather for the common goal of trying to stay active,” Sikes said. “And the common interest is simply playing basketball.”
Word of mouth, email chains and friendly invitations to onlookers serve as methods of enlistment for the league that has always boasted an open-door policy. With ages spanning from 20 to 72 and occupations ranging from engineer to full-time undergraduate student, the broad-based assemblage of amateur ballers is composed of varying genders, races, generations and tax brackets. But, through it all, the shared passion for the sport of basketball is what unifies these members of the Clemson family and brings them together twice a week at 6:45 a.m. for yet another action-packed hoops session.
“I think that basketball mirrors what you see in a university setting in that people don’t accomplish great things without teamwork,” Sikes said. “It requires five people to be cohesive, each and every play, and that translates to the work and school environments.”
The number of participants typically fluctuates between eight and 13, but, on this particular January morning, 10 intrepid souls braved the frigid conditions en route to Fike to make for the perfect game of five-on-five. That included Bryan Narcisse, who suited up for the Clemson Tigers men’s basketball team from 2008 to 2012. After experiencing a collegiate playing career that was highlighted by an appearance in the NCAA Slam Dunk Contest and resulted in an invitation to tour with the Harlem Globetrotters, the 6-foot-6-inch former forward became a leader of the FCA chapter of Clemson University and the certified superstar of the morning hoops brigade.
“I’m just out here to have fun playing ball,” Narcisse said with a smile. “When you can get a group of people who are committed to showing up at 6:45 in the morning, that’s special.”
Admittedly, Narcisse could easily drive to the basket and score on just about every possession, as his size and abilities place his opponents at a major disadvantage in defending him. However, like everyone else who participates, Narcisse is there because of his passion for the beauty associated with the ultimate team game that is basketball. And, although he reminds everyone who is the best with an occasional breakaway dunk, the freak athlete known as “B-Nice” is a team player in every sense of the epithet.
“It’s not super serious,” Narcisse said when speaking on what he likes about the morning league. “We have fun, and we’re competitive and like to talk trash. But, at the end of the day, it’s all love.”
The aforementioned trash talk is, undoubtedly, nothing more than friendly banter that adds to the fun of the competition, with an air ball bringing forth the most comical of jeers and a perfectly executed backdoor cut inciting a healthy dosage of braggadocio. Overall, though, the team elements of the game reign supreme, with teammates supporting one another and spreading the ball around the way that basketball is supposed to be played.
Burton said of the style of play, “I like the way that we play because we screen, pass and roll to the open area. It’s very team-oriented, and nobody ever gets bent out of shape.”
For what it’s worth, the talent level is certainly nothing to scoff at, with what may appear to outsiders as a ragtag pickup league proving to be deceptively skilled on the hardwood. 72-year-old entrepreneur Richard Pederson consistently backs his defenders down before connecting on difficult layups, and biochemistry and genetics advisor Joey Thames regularly showcases his basketball DNA by sinking deep shot after deep shot. Most impressive of all is the shooting clinic put on full display by Clemson junior Kayla Charles, a former hoops star at Blythewood High School who heard about the early-morning crew through the grapevine last year.
“I’ve enjoyed my experience,” Charles said of her time spent partaking in the fun at Fike, “because we all joke around and have fun. It’s just kind-hearted basketball.”
Arguably the most electrifying shooter on the floor, Charles broke the proverbial glass ceiling when becoming initiated into the pickup league while simultaneously becoming the youngest member of the clique. However, those differences are insignificant, as she recognizes that the competitive nature and drive to compete and have fun are the only attributes worthy of being assessed for any prospective member of the troop.
“It reveals that we all have a similar dedication to the game, and we all have discipline,” Charles said of what the consistent participation in the morning contests represents. “We get up early and play because we love the game and care for one another.”
The games are played to 15, with a two-point margin of victory required for claiming a win. In typical pickup fashion, shots made from inside the arc are worth one point, while shots made from beyond the arc are worth two points. Furthermore, an honors system is in place, with the competitors calling their own fouls and turnovers and also avoiding forceful play altogether. As soon as one game ends, another one ensues, with the basketball fanatics aiming to play as much as possible before 8:15 rolls around and the real world beckons. Burton typically lives up to his role as the commissioner by serving as the instigator of delaying the inevitable, imploring his colleagues to postpone their departures for “just one more game.”
“People are just out here to have fun and play basketball the way that it’s intended to be played,” Burton said of the sport that keeps him young at heart. “And I plan to keep playing for as long as my body lets me.”
For many who don sweats before dawn in the hallowed halls of Fike Recreation Center, the full-court action is a form of biweekly exercise. For others, the morning pickup games present an excuse to relive former glory by showing out in their sport of choice. For all, the league provides an opportunity to befriend other members of the Clemson family and put that newfound camaraderie to good use by shooting some hoops.
“Playing with this group has been great,” Sikes said of his newfound extended family. “Getting out and getting the juices flowing early in the morning is a great form of exercise. More importantly, it’s given me an opportunity to meet new people, which is really cool.”
Even in the midst of the biting chill of the January daybreak, the warmth emanating from the good-natured game of basketball that sends sounds of squeaking sneakers and hearty laughter echoing through the Fike corridors is impossible to ignore. The potpourri of pickup mavens who come together each and every Tuesday and Thursday to assuage their basketball obsessions are comparable to strings of yarn. Together, these strings make up a common thread that is representative of the shared commitment, dedication and love revolving around the sport of basketball.
“Just one more game,” Burton pleads with the others, but they all know that there are still many more games to be played. By way of the unifying powers of basketball and the Clemson family, the early-morning ritual that has been carried out for 20 years will never end, and the call for just one more game will be but a mere formality. And, through it all, the fabric of the devoted group will continue to tighten, strengthening the common thread with every dribble, every pass, every shot and every new friendship made along the way.
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