Post-COVID, Is Indoor Pickup Basketball...Done?

Illustration for article titled Post-COVID, Is Indoor Pickup Basketball...Done?
Screenshot: Rico Hines (YouTube)

“The era of “drop-in” workouts may be over,” writes VICE’s Maggie Puniewska in a sobering piece about what gyms will likely look like in a post-COVID America. The brim and bustle of a peak-hour LA Fitness won’t be returning any time soon, as even those willing to chance visiting a gym once they reopen will be subject to the same sort of social distancing and capacity caps that supermarkets enforce now. Every day will be a Sunday. And while mask-wearing and ceaseless hand-washing don’t have much of an impact on your ability to buy produce, I can’t imagine needing to do those things while on an elliptical.


Also, according to Marilyn Roberts, professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Washington, the sort of drive-by sanitizing we’re mandated to do now might not be enough to kill the virus at a gym.

She’s also concerned that simply wiping things down with disinfectant will not be enough to zap germs. Wipes can’t penetrate a microscopic layer of organic material like sweat, saliva, and dirt that may be on top of virus particles—that can only be done with soap and water. A proper clean in Roberts’ mind would include soap and water first, then a disinfectant. “But who’s going to want to do that?” she asked.

This, plus the reality that decreased membership will force some gyms to shutter, paints a grim picture. Still, there does seem to be a path for a conscientious return eventually. There will be risks, of course. But there can and will be things done to limit them. Plus, you do not need a crowd to watch you powerlift, Brandon. You never did.

Still, I am very sad. Because as hard as I squint, I just don’t see a path where pickup basketball looks anything like it did pre-COVID. Before the pandemic, I hooped three to five times a week; sometimes at the LA Fitness in Bakery Square, and sometimes in private-ish open gyms. I haven’t played since early March, which is the longest stretch I’ve gone without playing since 1998, the summer I tore my ACL. And I’m so anxious to play again that, despite not owning a driveway, I just bought one of those portable basketball hoops...for driveways.

my level of desperation
my level of desperation

The rules inherent in indoor pickup ball read like a list of everything not to do now. You get 10 people in an enclosed space, with multiple people standing by and waiting for the next game. Close contact is necessary—as is frequent communication, which makes mask-wearing a non-starter. And the game moves so quickly that there’s no space for any sort of sanitization breaks.


But even before you get to the game, effective and fun (and worthy) pick-up ball requires a critical mass of people to decide, at roughly the same time, to go to the gym and devote a couple of hours to an unscheduled and relatively unstructured activity. But if people are wary of going to the gym, that dynamic shifts—and the intentionality that would replace it would effectively kill gym pick up culture.

I guess a way to mitigate risk is to play outdoors more. But concrete kills knees, and double-rimmed outdoor hoops kill confidence, so I guess I’m fucked.


Anyway, below is a clip I recorded last year of me shooting lazy and lonely threes in an empty gym. This, sadly, might be my pickup basketball future. Except with more tears.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)



Mandatory pre-game showers.  It’s the only way.